Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2018, 14:34 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - North Korea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2001
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - North Korea , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 20 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

An estimated 50,000 North Korean refugees were living in China at the end of 2000. As many as 100,000 North Koreans were displaced inside North Korea. An unknown number of North Koreans who might be refugees were in Russia or elsewhere, while about 300 North Korean refugees fled to South Korea during the year.

The famine that began in the mid-1990s continued during 2000. Sources estimate that more than two million North Koreans, or ten percent of the population, have died from hunger or famine-related disease since 1995. Other estimates run to three million or higher, while the North Korean government puts the figure at 220,000.

Food production declined in 2000 because of a severe drought, typhoons, and acute energy shortages. As North Korea entered its coldest winter in fifty years at the end of 2000, the World Food Program predicted that the public food-distribution system would cease operating early in 2001.

Though observers said food availability improved somewhat during the year for people in areas with access to international food aid, several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in North Korea believed that conditions for the most vulnerable people – including children, internally displaced persons, and prisoners – deteriorated in 2000.

The exodus of international NGOs from North Korea continued during the year. In 1998, Médicins Sans Frontières withdrew its workers from the country. In 1999, Oxfam did the same. In 2000, citing the government's failure to provide a transparent food distribution system and to grant access to the country's most vulnerable people, Action Against Hunger became at least the fifth major international NGO to suspend operations in North Korea.

North Korean Refugees

The food crisis – compounded by political turmoil, repression, and mismanagement – led an unknown number of North Koreans to make the dangerous trek across the border with China in 2000, with hundreds to thousands entering monthly.

Estimates of the number of North Koreans who successfully crossed the Chinese border and were living in China at the end of the year ranged from under 10,000 (according to the Chinese government) to more than 300,000 (according to an NGO in South Korea).

The Center for Refugee and Disaster Studies at the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins School of Public Health estimates that there were at least 50,000 North Koreans in China in 2000.

North Korea subjects its citizens who are caught and forcibly repatriated to brutal treatment, including torture, placement in work camps, and even execution. The North Korean Penal Code lists defection or attempted defection as a capital crime. Article 47 of the 1987 North Korean Criminal Code states that a defector who is returned to North Korea "shall be committed to a reform institution for not less than seven years. In cases where the person commits an extremely grave concern, he or she shall be given the death penalty."

Although estimates of the number of North Koreans in China vary widely and little is known about persecution that they may have suffered prior to fleeing, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) believes that North Koreans who fled their country without permission from their government have prime facie claims to refugee status based on the likelihood of being persecuted for having exercised the right to leave their country.

The number of forcible repatriations by Chinese border guards reportedly increased in 1999 and again in 2000, although no comprehensive figures were available. Amnesty International cited reports that China forcibly repatriated about 5,000 North Koreans across the Tuen Bridge in China's Jilin Province in June 2000 alone. Based on nongovernmental and media sources, USCR estimates that at least 6,000 North Koreans were forcibly repatriated during the year.

Internal Displacement

The number of internally displaced North Koreans was unknown, although one reliable NGO estimated 100,000. One NGO estimated that 30 percent of North Korea's workforce, excluding military and government officials, had become internally displaced during the year. However, many – if not most – were displaced for famine-related reasons.

Because of the difficulty in gaining information from inside North Korea, most information on internal displacement came from interviews with North Koreans in China. They reported that the displaced were generally mobile, moving from one place to another despite the government's policy of strictly controlling internal migration. Persons caught traveling without permission are sent to temporary labor camps or subjected to other penalties.

The North Korean government also forcibly relocates people "for political reasons," according to the U.S. State Department. The State Department reported that an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans were political prisoners in maximum-security camps in remote areas in 2000.

A large number of North Korean children had no parent or guardian because of the displacement. As family members left to seek food or protection, the family structure disintegrated. Because it did not officially recognize the internally displaced population, the North Korean government provided them no assistance.

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