03/15/2013 02:38 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Change China's Brutal Repatriation Policy

Hamburg, Germany -- China's policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean defectors has resulted in brutal punishments including summary execution on a mass scale. As the National Peoples Congress shows small signs of responding to human rights concerns, and as the government works together with the United States to impose sanctions on the DPRK for its nuclear bomb development, the time is right for China to bring its treatment of defectors into harmony with its international human rights obligations.

Over the past 15 years, over 100,000 North Koreans refugees -- 70-80 percent of whom have been women -- have been arrested by Chinese authorities and forcibly repatriated. China has defended these actions by claiming the North Koreans are simply illegal economic migrants. The argument is nonsensical and irrelevant. Regardless of their motives, under international law the defectors cannot be forced back to North Korea since they face "well-founded fears of persecution," which bar them from being repatriated according to the 1951 Refugee Convention signed and ratified by China.

Thanks to the work of independent monitors like the Data Base Center on North Korean Human Rights, hundreds of verified testimonies provide blood-curdling evidence of the persecution refugees face if returned--persecution they nonetheless risk in order to find freedom outside the DPRK.

Many of those who eventually make it to South Korea or other third countries have done so after being repatriated, punished, and crossing the Tumen River into China again. In Seoul, a North Korean former military officer told me that after her return to the DPRK, guards in a detention facility for political prisoners suffocated her newborn baby before her eyes; she later saw its body stored in a tool shed with other corpses, all of which were being consumed by rats. I spoke with another defector who had witnessed eight female defectors, who had become pregnant in China through rape or having been trafficked into relationships with Chinese men, being subjected to forced abortions.

Another witness was a North Korean nurse. Upon her forced repatriation, she was sent to a labor training camp, where she described conditions as bad as in the DPRK's notorious concentration camps. Inmates endured a hard labor routine beginning at 5 AM and lasting until 10PM each day. With no medical care or sanitation, prisoners suffered from infections and skin diseases as well as from starvation. She said these experiences convinced her that "the DPRK cares nothing for the welfare of its citizens."

A young man who eventually made it to South Korea was beaten so severely after his first defection that he was released from prison to die at home. When he unexpectedly survived, he was taken back into custody. At the first opportunity, still weak and injured, he immediately escaped again with a woman he eventually married. The couple is raising two children in Seoul.
China's treatment of North Korean refugees while they are in the country is also a national humiliation and a violation of human rights standards. Some defectors said conditions in China's border prisons, where defectors are detained following arrest, are as terrible as those in the DPRK. The Chinese government forbids the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to visit border areas and prisons.

Korean women are the primary victims of Chinese repatriation policies. All the female defectors with whom I spoke reported sexual abuse including rape in Chinese custody. Human traffickers, sometimes working in collusion with officials, deceive and sell desperate female defectors as wives for Chinese men; the One Child Policy and other factors have created an acute demand for females in poor rural areas. Female Korea defectors wind up as household slaves. When they bear half-Chinese babies, those children can't be legally registered and receive education and medical care unless it is proven that the mothers have been deported. Many thousands of half-Korean children are stateless, their only care coming from aid workers operating illegally. Human rights activists, missionaries and aid workers trying to help North Korean defectors and their children face jail terms if discovered and prosecuted.

Exposure of North Korea's human rights abuses, which likely qualify as crimes against humanity, will intensify with the appointment of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry. Such scrutiny will likewise expose China's inhumane and illegal treatment of refugees. With a UN examination of China's own human rights record approaching in October 2013, now would be a good time for China to address problems that shame it before the world community.

Aaron Rhodes is a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007, and also helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.