Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2017, 11:48 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - North Korea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - North Korea , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 20 October 2017]
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 in China at the end of 2001. 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 and elsewhere, while 583 North Korean refugees fled to South Korea during the year.

The North Korean famine that began in the mid-1990s continued during 2001. In November, the World Food Program (WFP) reported that North Korea desperately needed more international food aid, despite the best harvest in 10 years. WFP officials urged immediate food shipments to help North Koreans survive the winter. Up to 2 million North Koreans, or nearly 10 percent of the population, have died from hunger or famine-related disease since 1994. Some mortality estimates range as high as 3.5 million.

Several major international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have suspended operations in North Korea in recent years, citing the government's failure to provide a transparent food distribution system and to grant access to the country's most vulnerable people. Aid groups say the government categorizes its population based on perceived loyalty and usefulness to the regime, and channels food aid accordingly. The government has also reportedly blocked aid to parts of the country – such as the northeastern coastal provinces – that have seen anti-government rebellions and protests in recent years.

In June, North Korea and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agreed in an exchange of letters that UNHCR would provide a small amount of material assistance to hospitals and other health facilities in South Pyongan Province, to aid victims of typhoons and floods.

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 to China in 2001, with hundreds to thousands entering monthly.

The number of North Koreans living in China at the end of the year remained unknown. Estimates range from 10,000 to 500,000, though most NGOs give 300,000 as the upper estimate. Médecins Sans Frontières believes the figure is about 200,000.

North Korea subjects citizens who are caught and forcibly repatriated to brutal treatment, including torture, placement in work camps, and even execution. The North Korean criminal code lists defection or attempted defection as a capital crime, stating 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." According to press reports, North Korean authorities are particularly concerned with defectors who, while in China, had contact with South Koreans, Christians, or foreigners.

Although little is known about persecution that North Korean "defectors" may suffer prior to fleeing, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) believes that North Koreans who flee their country without government permission have prime facie claims to refugee status, based on the likelihood of being persecuted for having exercised the right to leave their country. Based on the conservative estimate of an NGO with knowledge of the region, USCR estimates that at least 50,000 North Koreans were refugees in China at the end of 2001.

The number of forcible repatriations by Chinese border guards has reportedly increased since 1999, although no comprehensive figures are available. In the spring of 2001, China once again intensified its crackdown on North Korean asylum seekers. According to NGOs working in the border area, China arrested some 6,000 North Koreans in June and July alone. China forcibly returned an unknown number – possibly thousands – of North Koreans during 2001.

According to London's Daily Telegraph, foreign NGOs have formed an "underground railroad" of guides and safe houses to help move North Koreans from China to South Korea via countries such as Mongolia, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand. Some North Koreans also agree to work as laborers in Russia's harsh logging camps (a system by which North Korea repays its loans to Russia), in the hope of escaping to South Korea.

In June, in an incident that received international attention, seven members of a North Korean family entered the UNHCR office in the Chinese capital of Beijing and demanded sanctuary. After three days of tense negotiations and international pressure, the Chinese government permitted the family to fly to South Korea.

The following month, in a response to a questionnaire from the UN Human Rights Committee, North Korea revealed the names and locations of six of seven North Koreans apprehended by Russian border guards in late 1999. Although the UNHCR office in Russia granted the North Koreans refugee status, Russia returned them to China, and China returned them to North Korea in early 2000. North Korean authorities told the UN committee that two of the returnees were serving nine- and five-year terms at a rehabilitation center, while the other four had returned to their normal lives. Although North Korea did not discuss the whereabouts of the seventh "defector" (insisting that only six had been returned, despite verification of the seven by China and UNHCR), the seventh had reportedly fled again and had arrived in South Korea. He claimed that he had been severely tortured following his forced return from China.

Internal Displacement

The number of internally displaced North Koreans was unknown, although one NGO estimated 100,000.

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.

The North Korean government also forcibly relocates people for political reasons. The U.S. State Department reported that an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans were political prisoners in maximum-security camps in remote areas in 2001.

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