By the time a group of eight North Koreans reached the northeastern Vietnamese border city of Mong Cai on October 22, they had traveled nearly 3,000 perilous miles through China with an 11-month-old infant in tow. Throughout the trek, they risked being arrested by Chinese authorities and sent back home to face imprisonment, torture, and possibly a death sentence. Reaching Southeast Asia is usually the moment of truth: If defectors can make it across the Chinese border, freedom — in the form of political asylum and a ticket to South Korea — is typically the outcome. This case was not typical.
For reasons that remain unclear, Vietnamese police searched a bus that was carrying the North Koreans and, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), detained all nine of them, including the infant. By October 24, Vietnamese authorities had the group shipped back across the border and into the custody of Chinese police in the southern city of Dongxing. Just over three weeks later, they repeated their 3,000-mile journey in reverse.
Relatives of the refugees in South Korea told HRW that the refugees were transported north, eventually ending up at a military garrison near the town of Tumen at the northwest tip of the North Korean border. What happened next remains a mystery — HRW says it hasn't received an update for the past several days, and officials at the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to several questions about the case from VICE News.
The case has triggered a diplomatic scramble to keep China from repatriating the nine defectors while highlighting the plight of North Korean refugees, who are perpetually at risk of being deported until they are able to claim asylum in Southeast Asia. China considers them to be "economic migrants" rather than refugees and sends them back to North Korea, where they are routinely placed in North Korea's brutal political prison camps, as detailed in a United Nations human rights report released last year.
Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps refugees seek asylum, said that repatriated defectors face torture simply "for having the audacity to hope for a fuller and freer life."
"This case is tangible proof of just how hard it is for North Korean refugees," he said. "These nine people have escaped from the most closed country in the world and have traveled undetected for thousands of miles through China into Vietnam, only to be caught there and sent back to China to face repatriation and punishment at the hands of the North Korean authorities for trying to escape."
'Vietnam failed its duty to protect refugees, they sent them back to China.'
Little is known about the nine refugees who were deported from Vietnam. HRW first called attention to the case on November 21, citing accounts from relatives of the group in South Korea. According to Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the organization's Asia division, the refugees are mainly women who have two family members in Seoul.
"We don't know whether it was a random check or something deliberate," Robertson said of the circumstances that led to the arrests in Mong Cai. "What is quite clear, however, is that Vietnam didn't check who these people were — Vietnam failed its duty to protect refugees, they sent them back to China."
HRW said that there was no indication that the group was given the opportunity to lodge asylum claims in Vietnam. South Korean officials have reportedly reached out to their Chinese counterparts and called for the nine North Koreans to be released.
"Our government is mobilizing all its diplomatic efforts to ensure that the North Koreans won't be forcibly repatriated to the North against their will, and that they can travel safely and swiftly to the country of their choice," the office of South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in a statement.
State Department spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala provided a statement to VICE News saying that the United States is "aware of the reports" about the North Koreans, but would not say whether the US government had contacted Chinese diplomats about the situation.
"The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers in cases where they are forcibly repatriated," Jhunjhunwala said. "We urge all countries in the region to protect North Korean refugees and asylum seekers within their territories."
Robertson suggested that pressure on Beijing from the State Department could be the decisive factor in determining their fate.
"At the end of the day," he said, "the US can basically say to China, 'Look, help me friend. Do me a friendly here, this is a group of people that cannot be sent into harm's way.' "
More than 28,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea, including 1,397 who arrived last year. South Korea offers citizenship to defectors and refugees, along with up to five years of financial support and a special government program to help them adjust to their new lives. As VICE News reported earlier this year, there are 186 North Korean refugees spread across the US.
This case isn't the first time a group of North Koreans has run into trouble in Southeast Asia. The 2013 case of the "Laos Nine" saw a group of young refugees deported back to North Korea via China. It's far more common, however, for North Koreans to be arrested in China, which supports the Kim Jong-un regime. Russia also recently agreed to repatriate North Korean defectors.
Robertson noted that China is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which means it is officially prohibited from returning refugees to countries where they would face persecution. Beijing has consistently ignored the international treaties when it comes to North Koreans.
"China is obligated not to send them back, it's as simple as that," Robertson said. "This is not rocket science. This is something China signed up for. They signed up willingly and they did this anyway. Now they need to abide by the commitments they made.… If China is prepared to respect and comply with international human rights standards, then this situation will end well. If China is prepared to flaunt international human rights laws and sidle up again to Kim Jong-un and his cabal of crimes against humanity abusers, then we will face another tragedy with these nine people going back."
If history is any indication, another tragedy is exactly what's going to happen.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton
Watch On the Line: Keegan Hamilton Discusses North Korea
[ooyalacontent_id="NubGRoeDqpFa10XsTY1EYKll4FycGYig"player_id="YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5" auto_play="1" skip_ads="0"]