Nautilus Institute Special Report:

North Korea: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Human Rights

Ellsworth Culver, Mercy Corps International, May 22, 2003.


Date: January 7, 2003
To: Selig Harrison
From: Ells Culver and Court Robinson
Re: North Korea: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Human Rights

Since at least 1997, North Koreans have been crossing the border into China in search of temporary shelter and survival aid from the local Korean-Chinese population living in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Estimates of their numbers range from 10,000 (a figure suggested by the Chinese government) to 300,000 (a number commonly used by South Korean advocacy organizations). Mercy Corps has tended to use a range of 50,000 to 150,000 though, in truth, accurate numbers may never be known. Two points about this population, however, should not be in dispute:

  1. If they cross the border illegally (and most do) they are treated as illegal immigrants, subject to arrest, detention, and deportation. Upon return to North Korea, they are subject to penalties ranging from short-term detention in a "labor training center" to longer-term prison sentences.

  2. Given their physical condition, their demographic characteristics, the circumstances of their migration, their illegal status in China and the penalties they face upon return to North Korea, they are a highly vulnerable population in need of humanitarian aid and, in many cases, protection. Among the most vulnerable are unaccompanied minors, women, the elderly, medically needy, and asylum seekers.

While most North Koreans in China are searching primarily for temporary assistance, others (and they are an increasing proportion of the total) seek either longer-term sanctuary in China or permanent resettlement in another country. Since March 2002, nearly 200 North Koreans have forced their way into foreign embassies and consulates in China in an attempt to gain resettlement elsewhere, usually in South Korea. The number of North Koreans resettling in the Republic of Korea has grown steadily from 150 in 1999, to 312 in 2000, 583 in 2001, and more than 1,100 in 2002. Most of these journeys require lengthy travel through China to regional countries like Mongolia, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand in order to gain admission to South Korea.

Many of these asylum seekers tell "ordinary" stories of hardship that seems the lot of all but the most privileged cadre in North Korea-lack of food, lack of productive work, lack of fuel, lack of medicine. But some of the stories clearly are histories of persecution for "counter-revolutionary" beliefs and/or behavior, which may involve nothing more than worshipping at a house-church or possessing items made in South Korea. For others, the very act of seeking asylum-of even stating an intent to resettle elsewhere-can be considered disloyal or even traitorous to the North Korean government. The issues of North Korean migrants, asylum seekers and human rights, we believe, cannot be resolved through further isolation, a policy that does nothing to address the many vulnerabilities of the North Korean people. Rather, what is needed is a more comprehensive and energetic policy of engagement that seeks to strengthen the humanitarian presence on the China-North Korea border as well as inside the country. Feeding hungry people is the place to begin but we should not be content to leave it at that.


  1. China and North Korea should be encouraged to expand humanitarian access to monitor and assist migrants in China and returnees to North Korea with food, medical aid and other needed assistance.

  2. China should be urged to declare a moratorium on the forced return of North Korean migrants and asylum seekers, pending a more durable and humane solution.

  3. North Korea should be urged to repeal all laws that penalize citizens for leaving its territory or returning without authorization.

  4. North Korea should be urged to grant access to the UN human rights special rapporteurs and working groups on arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, religious freedom, violence against women, and freedom of expression to visit North Korea to assess compliance with its UN human rights treaty obligations.


(1) Adapted from Human Rights Watch, The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People's Republic of China, Vol 14, No 8 (C)- November 2002.