Despite Kim Jong-un's new face, life hasn't changed for North Koreans inside the dictatorship, forcing many to flee through dark underworlds in search of safety.
Following his father’s death in 2011, Kim Jong-Un has commanded the attention of media outlets, security agencies and heads of state across the globe. Whether it’s his unorthodox friendship with colorful basketball personality Dennis Rodman, his constant threats to launch a nuclear strike on the USA, or the assassination of his brother in Malaysia in 2017, the North Korean leader has made a steady habit of raising both anxieties and eyebrows worldwide.
Amazingly enough, since the beginning of 2018, Marshal Kim’s approach has seen a marked change in his dealings with foreign states and the broader international community. Conspicuously absent are the threats and name-calling, instead replaced by statements of openness and a (surprising) willingness to engage. The past few months have even seen two meetings held between Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s leader Moon Jae-In. On top of this, there have also been several high-level meetings between North Korean government officials and US government representatives, as well as the Singaporean leaders’ summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, and the resumption of cross-border family reunification meetings.
However, does this sudden change in attitude by the Kim regime really represent a sincere desire and willingness to bring North Korea into the 21th Century? Does it really represent the start of North Korea’s departure away from decades of entrenched abusive human rights practices to instead becoming a respected member of the international community? Or is this simply one more red herring designed to ease sanctions, allowing the country to generate some much-needed foreign income?
The answer is nowhere near a simple one.
As someone who has visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea several times over the past ten years, it’s important to highlight upfront that not everything covered in the western media about North Korea is true.
Without jumping on the crowded #fakenews bandwagon, it must be stressed that much of what the media reports about North Korea is exaggerated, over-hyped and downright unhelpful. Articles that make it seem like the country is nearly impossible to visit, dangerous for tourists, full of starving masses, with an entire population of clueless automatons could not be further from the truth.
Like any other country in the world, North Koreans have jobs, they enjoy time with their families, they like to joke and laugh, and have ambitions to live happy and fulfilling lives. However, what does make North Korea fundamentally different from most countries is that it’s ruled under the unyielding grip of an oppressive and despotic regime that routinely inflicts significant human rights abuses upon its own citizens.
It must be acknowledged that the North Korean government has taken a series of positive steps towards opening up to the rest of the world. However, this sudden shift by the Kim Kong Un regime cannot and must not excuse the ongoing human rights abuses that are undoubtedly still happening inside North Korea.
The fact remains that Kim Jong Un rules over North Korea with an iron fist and is leader of one of the most repressive regimes in the world. For the majority of citizens, with the exception of a very small group of elites that live in Pyongyang, life in North Korea is almost completely devoid of access to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement or freedom of political opinion.
To escape these severely restrictive conditions, even to this day, hundreds of North Koreans continue to flee the country each year in search of safety and a better life. Generally, most North Koreans escape across the Yalu or Tumen rivers into China with the aim of making their way to Thailand i.e. the end of the 3000 kilometer long ‘underground railway’ and the first country whereby they have relatively straightforward access to the South Korean Embassy.
However, for many, as soon as they step into China, they enter another restrictive and abusive human rights situation, one nearly as bad as the one they’ve just fled.
Throughout their time in China, North Koreans are treated as ‘illegal immigrants’. If arrested, they face the same fate as anyone else caught without a visa i.e. they are returned to their home country. Therefore, until they reach Thailand, their lives remain in severe danger with the constant threat of arrest and deportation hanging over their heads. If returned, many of these individuals will serve lengthy prison terms or be required to undergo significant periods of ‘reeducation’.
While it may sound relatively innocuous, reeducation of course does not mean education in the true sense of the word. Instead it refers to incarceration in gulag type conditions whereby the teachings of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Juche ideology reign supreme.
It is estimated that there are somewhere between 50,000-200,000 North Koreans currently in hiding in China. For these individuals, they are doomed to a life in the shadows, forever unsure of when they may be caught and returned to the North. For women, the situation is even worse, with many being sold as wives or forced to work as prostitutes in the sex industry. These women are not allowed freedom of movement, have their communication strictly monitored, and are often subject to severe physical abuse.
The question remains, shouldn’t China be obliged to protect North Koreans that are inside their territory?
In short, absolutely yes.
China is in fact party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, both key international legal documents that outline the obligations of states and the rights of refugees. However, despite their international commitments, their implementation of this convention, especially when it relates to North Koreans, falls woefully short. Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to the economic and political clout of the Chinese government in the global arena, most governments around the world have largely ignored this fact.
In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Enquiry report provided further evidence of human rights failings of the Chinese government, including a focus on their continuing practice of returning refugees back to North Korea.
Irrespective of this report however, the Chinese government has successfully managed to rebuff all international pressure and has instead maintained their black and white policy of forced repatriation.
With China unlikely to cease their support for North Korea anytime in the near future, it looks increasingly certain that North Koreans in China will continue to be forced to survive in desperate situations. The obligation therefore falls upon the international community, including civil society and non-state actors, to pressure China into abiding by their international obligations. Only then can North Korean refugees have any hope of finding the safety and freedoms they deserve.
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