Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2017, 12:58 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2004 - North Korea

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 25 May 2004
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2004 - North Korea , 25 May 2004, available at: [accessed 12 December 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 100,000 North Korean asylum seekers live in hiding in China. Nearly 100,000 others are internally displaced. At least 7,800 North Koreans were forcibly returned from China and served a minimum of one to two month sentences in forced labor camps upon return as punishment for leaving North Korea. South Korea received 1,500 North Koreans (who it regards as South Korean citizens) during the year. In July, two North Koreans reached South Korea by boat, and one crossed over by land – a rare occurrence because of the heavily patrolled inter-Korean border. An unknown number of North Korean refugees were in Russia, Mongolia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and elsewhere. There is no definitive calculation of how many fled North Korea in 2003 because North Korea does not allow UNHCR, international, or local NGOs access to the population.

Repression and a famine that began in the mid 1990s partially a result of government policies continued to push asylum seekers out of North Korea despite the high risk of refoulement, punishment if caught, and heavy security of the borders. North Korea subjects repatriated citizens to forced labor, torture, and even execution. The North Korean criminal code punishes defection or attempted defection with a minimum of seven years imprisonment. However, due to the high volume of refoulement, the sentence is a minimum of one to two months in forced labor camps. The death penalty applies when the defector has had contact with South Koreans, Christians, or foreigners while in China. In forced labor camps prisoners are given inadequate food and medical care, some are tortured, and pregnant women are subjected to forced abortion.

Despite the dangers, foreign NGOs continued to provide clandestine guides and safe houses to help move North Koreans from China to South Korea via countries such as Mongolia, Myanmar, 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.

International Developments

In 2003, for the first time, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution condemning abuses in North Korea and called for access by UN and private human rights monitors. In addition, in June and August the United States introduced legislation to recognize North Korean asylum seekers as refugees and the government said it may allow North Koreans who fled to China admission as refugees in the United States, despite their recognition by South Korea as South Korean citizens.

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