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China under pressure to stop repatriating North Koreans

North Koreans seen floating on the Yalu river, which borders China's northeast Liaoning province

North Koreans seen floating on the Yalu river, which borders China's northeast Liaoning province

Pressure is growing on the Chinese government to halt the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees back to their homeland, where human rights organizations warn they face harsh punishment at the hands of a regime that considers defecting to be an act of treason.

While Beijing holds fast to its position that repatriation is the correct course of action for people it regards as "economic migrants," analysts say the refugees have become pawns in a deepening regional geopolitical conflict.

South Korea's National Assembly passed a resolution on November 30 calling on Beijing to halt the repatriation of North Koreans and to instead recognize them as refugees and permit them to travel on to South Korea or elsewhere.

The resolution also called for greater efforts to encourage other governments and aid organizations to similarly increase the pressure on Beijing to halt the repatriations.

Is China violating the principle of non-refoulment?

Earlier in November, a United Nations General Assembly committee on humanitarian issues released a draft resolution expressing deep concerns about the "grave human rights situation in North Korea" and the punishments meted out to those who are sent back over the border from China.

It pointed out that UN member nations are expected to follow the principle of non-refoulement, which guarantees that nobody is returned to a country where they are at risk of torture, cruel treatment, punishment or other serious harm.

The issue was back on the UN's agenda after human rights groups reported that China forcibly sent back as many as 600 North Korean refugees in October, shortly after North Korea finally reopened borders that have been closed since the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

There are believed to be around 2,000 North Koreans detained in China and rights groups fear that the remainder will also be sent back.

Beijing typically considers North Koreans who cross the border to be economic migrants rather than refugees and responded to the UN by saying that reports it had forcibly repatriated refugees were "utterly groundless." It justified the decision to return the North Koreans by claiming there is no evidence of torture or human rights violations in the country.

That claim is undermined by reports by human rights organizations — citing defectors who subsequently managed to reach safety in a third country — that those who are sent back are indeed subject to torture and spells in labor camps as punishment.

Despite the widespread criticism of Beijing's repatriation policy, Hyobin Lee, an adjunct professor of Korean politics at Chungnam National University, said geopolitical rivalries are of greater concern to China, meaning that it is unlikely to be swayed to alter course.

"The repatriation of North Korean defectors by China is significantly influenced by the alliance between Beijing and Pyongyang," she said.

Taking sides

"North Korea is particularly sensitive towards the issue of defectors," Lee told DW. "China, considering North Korea's sensitivity towards the defection issue, cannot afford to take the side of South Korea and the United States by allowing defectors to go to these countries."

She added, however, that there appears to have been something of an easing of previously aggressive efforts across China to track down and incarcerate North Koreans and return them as they have proved to be an important source of cheap labor for the Chinese economy.

Kim Sang-woo, a former politician with the left-leaning South Korean Congress for New Politics and now a member of the board of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation, believes the recent repatriation of North Koreans can be seen as an implicit warning to South Korea, which has virtually no leverage over Beijing to halt the returns.

"This is not simply an issue of sending refugees back," he said. "It is happening because of the bad relations between China and South Korea, but particularly with the Yoon Suk Yeol administration because it has been working hard to enhance the trilateral military and political relationship with Japan and the US.

"China is concerned about those ties getting closer and sending people back to the North is just one of the many ways that Beijing can use to demonstrate its dissatisfaction."

Beijing has also been alarmed at the recent development of bilateral relations between North Korea and Russia, which threatens to squeeze Beijing out of its longstanding role of Pyongyang's most important ally.

Moscow has been accused by the US and South Korea of purchasing artillery rounds and small arms from North Korea, in return for fuel, food and, most importantly, the technology that Kim Jong Un's regime requires for its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

China wants to be in the front seat

"After being in the front seat for so long, China does not want to be in the back seat and the new friendship between Russia and the North is making Beijing a little uncomfortable," Kim said.

There is no effective pressure that South Korea can bring to bear on the economic and military giant that is China to convince it to halt the repatriation of refugees to the North, Kim pointed out, leaving it with few options as it attempts to protect their lives.

"Yoon should focus on making the repatriation a humanitarian issue that is the target of international criticism, especially from Europe, the US and other countries," he said.

"South Korea cannot save these people on its own," he added. "Help is needed from everyone who is concerned about what will happen to these people when they get back to North Korea."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru