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Congressional Research Service, “North Korean Refugees in China and Human Rights Issues: International Response and U.S. Policy Options, “ September 26, 2007

Report prepared for Congress by Rhoda Margesson, Emma Chanlett-Avery, and Andora Bruno.
September 26, 2007

For other articles on North Korea, click here.


North Koreans have been crossing the border into China, many in search of refuge, since the height of North Korea’s famine in the 1990s. The State Department estimates that 30,000-50,000 North Korean refugees currently live in China (some non-governmental organizations estimate the number is closer to 300,000) and believes those who are repatriated may face punishment ranging from a few months of “labor correction” to execution. A number of reports also document the difficult conditions faced by North Koreans who remain in China. The plight of the North Koreans focuses attention not only on those seeking refuge and their refugee status, but also points to the factors driving their decision to leave, primarily food shortages, deteriorating humanitarian conditions, and human rights violations. North Korea is generally characterized as one of the world’s worst violators of human rights and religious freedom, an issue that some Members of Congress and interest groups say should assume greater importance in the formation of U.S. priorities towards North Korea. Congressional concern about human rights in North Korea and conditions faced by North Korean refugees led to the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA) in 2004.

This report examines both the situation of North Korean refugees in China and human rights issues because they are frequently raised simultaneously, particularly in a congressional context. Although the issues surrounding those North Koreans seeking to leave their country and the situation for those who remain inside its borders pose different questions and may call for separate responses, both also focus on the nature of the regime in Pyongyang. Critics of the North Korean government have raised both issues together to put pressure on the regime, particularly when nuclear weapons program negotiations stalled. Some advocates decry the practice of linking refugee and human rights issues, claiming that the former calls for a quieter, cooperative approach, while the latter requires a more outspoken response to the North Korean government’s practices. Although some policy experts insist that the United States has a moral imperative to stand up for the oppressed, others say that this creates obstacles in the nuclear disarmament negotiations. In 2007, the Bush Administration entered into bilateral talks with North Korea and linked the prospect of diplomatic relations and Pyongyang’s re-entry into the international community with only the nuclear issue, leaving out human rights and refugee concerns.

Nevertheless, North Korean human rights and refugee issues remain significant concerns and also have broader regional importance. China and South Korea want to avoid a massive outflow of refugees, which they believe could trigger the instability or collapse of North Korea. North Korean refugees seeking resettlement often transit through other Asian countries, raising diplomatic, refugee, and security concerns for those governments. South Korea, as the final destination of the vast majority of North Koreans, struggles to accommodate new arrivals and does not want to damage its relations with North Korea. This report will be updated as events warrant.

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Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.

Other articles on North Korea:

North Korean Refugees in China and Human Rights Issues | Negotiations over North Korea's Nuclear Program | Meeting with CCID Director Wang Jiarui on Iran, North Korea | ROK's Foreign Policy toward the Neighbors: North Korea, Japan, China and Russia | Nuclear Non-proliferation and the Korean Peninsula | U.S. Policy on China and North Korea | CDA and MFA Asian Affairs on DPRK | Beijing-Based G-5 Chiefs of Mission on DPRK, GTMO, Uighurs, Sino-Japan Relations, Dalai Lama | Flight of Proliferation Concern between DPRK and Iran