Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - North Korea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - North Korea , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 21 January 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.

At least 100,000 North Korean refugees were in China at the end of 2002. As many as 100,000 North Koreans were displaced inside North Korea. An unknown number who might be refugees were in Russia and elsewhere, while more than 1,100 fled to South Korea during the year.

The famine that began in the mid-1990s – a result of both natural conditions and government policies – continued during 2002, although its severity lessened during the past few years. Up to 3.5 million North Koreans, or nearly 18 percent of the population, have died from hunger or famine-related disease since 1994.

Several major international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have suspended operations in North Korea, 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 July, North Korea abandoned its decades-old state rationing system in favor of private markets to supply staple food to its population. By year's end, the new policy had made no noticeable impact on hunger or refugee flows. The World Food Program warned that the famine could worsen as governments reduced aid in the wake of October revelations that North Korea maintained a nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.

The issue of North Korean refugees gained international attention during the year, particularly after more than 150 North Koreans sought protection at foreign missions in China.

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 2002, even as China continued to forcibly return North Koreans to harsh punishment or death.

The number of North Koreans living in China remained unknown. Estimates have ranged as high as 300,000.

North Korea subjects citizens who are caught and forcibly repatriated to torture, placement in work camps, and even execution. The North Korean criminal code punishes defection or attempted defection with a minimum of seven years imprisonment. The death penalty applies where the defector, 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 severity of the likely punishment should they return and its evident political motivation. USCR estimates that at least 100,000 North Koreans were refugees in China at the end of 2002.

The number of forcible repatriations by Chinese border guards has increased since 1999, although no comprehensive figures are available. During 2002, China once again intensified its crackdown on North Korean asylum seekers, particularly after several incidents beginning in March when groups of North Koreans sought protection at foreign missions in the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shenyang. China eventually permitted most of the asylum seekers – 160 in all – to travel to South Korea, but it also took steps to avoid future embassy incidents and increased patrols along the border.

China forcibly returned an unknown number – possibly tens of thousands – of North Koreans during the year. On December 5, Chinese and North Korean security forces launched a "100-day campaign" to locate and return North Korean refugees. According to NGOs, China returned as many as 1,000 North Koreans each day between the campaign's initiation and the end of the year.

Despite the dangers, foreign NGOs have formed an "underground railroad" of guides and safe houses to help move North Koreans from China to South Korea through countries such as Mongolia, Burma, Vietnam, and Thailand. Some North Koreans also agree to work as laborers in Russia's harsh logging camps, in the hope of escaping to South Korea.

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 200,000 North Koreans were political prisoners in maximum-security camps in remote areas in 2002.

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