China’s forcible return of North Korean refugees is critical to sustaining the North Korean regime, according a high-level North Korean defector.
If China allowed North Korean refugees safe passage to South Korea, a mass exodus of North Koreans would quickly bring the regime to its knees, according to Thae Yong-ho, a former deputy chief at the North Korean embassy in London.
“If Chinese government helped North Korean defectors go freely to South Korea, I think that there could happen the massive exodus of North population,” Thae told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, DC. on Nov 1.
Thae pointed to the role Hungary played in the fall of the Berlin Wall. The East German regime began to falter when Hungary opened a hole in the Iron Curtain on its border with Austria, a route that East German’s took to eventually make their way to West Germany.
“German reunification could not have been achieved if the Hungarian government did not open its border with Austria to provide an exit route for the East German people,” said Thae.
“If China opened its routes for defectors to South Korea, I think the North Korean system would collapse in a very short span of time.”
There are estimates of 30,000 to 50,000 North Koreans living in China, virtually all them living without any form of legal protection.
“North Korean defectors are living without papers, under the shadows, and are being physically or sexually exploited,” said Thae.
Many are sent to political prison camps where starvation is the norm and routine sexual assault and torture by guards runs rampant.
“Death rates in these camps are reportedly extremely high,” writes HRW.
According to Thae, the State Department, and human rights groups, China is well aware of this situation and that by repatriating North Koreans, the Chinese regime is in open violation of the U.N. refugee convention.
Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) said the Chinese regime violates the convention with impunity, and profits by doing so.
“They benefited by trafficking those people who come in—particularly the women—into sex trafficking, labor trafficking, so they are making money out of it,” he said.
While the faction of the Chinese regime closely allied with North Korea is now being purged by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Xi has yet to end those practices.
In September, HRW warned that China was even intensifying its policing of the border.
“Security has been constantly increasing over the past five years in areas on both sides of the border between North Korea and China, with increased numbers of border guards and more barbed wire fencing. China has also expanded CCTV surveillance on the border and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border,” wrote HRW.
China is also going after the networks that help North Koreans escape, said HRW. One Christian missionary told HRW that his network was cut by 80 percent after China began to detain network members.
Those efforts coincide with a grimmer situation in North Korea as officials try to make up for a shortfall in cash with increased fees, taxes, and demands for bribes. Thae said conditions also worsened under Kim Jong Un.
China has said it fears a refugee crisis should it lessen its efforts to reinforce its border with North Korea, but Thae said that fear is unfounded and misleading.
“That is not really true because North Korean defectors and North Korean population, they have a place to go.”
South Korea would accommodate North Korean refugees, said Thae, calling on the United States to pressure China to open up an exit route and to set up temporary camps as North Koreans make their journey to the South.