In Box

Borderline Case in China

In March 2004, South Korean photojournalist Seok Jae-Hyun was released from a Chinese prison after serving 14 months for what authorities in China called "trafficking in persons." His crime? Reporting on North Korean refugees attempting to move through China to South Korea and Japan. Seok was documenting the continuing exodus of North Koreans to their ...

In March 2004, South Korean photojournalist Seok Jae-Hyun was released from a Chinese prison after serving 14 months for what authorities in China called "trafficking in persons." His crime? Reporting on North Korean refugees attempting to move through China to South Korea and Japan. Seok was documenting the continuing exodus of North Koreans to their far more prosperous neighbor — an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 in recent years.

China appears determined to stem the flow of destitute North Koreans and has denied the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and international aid agencies access to the border region.

Joel Charny, vice president of advocacy organization Refugees International, accuses Beijing of shirking its international legal obligation to determine whether North Koreans qualify for refugee status. China defends its policy, though, arguing that the North Koreans are economic migrants, not refugees. "All countries in the world take strong measures against illegal immigration," says Sun Weide, press counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. He maintains that those who enter the country illegally are treated in a "humanitarian spirit."

Refugee experts contend that sending refugees back to North Korea is far from humane. A UNHCR spokesperson worries that North Korean authorities will punish returned refugees. Seok’s reporting verifies this claim: The North Korean government jailed several of the refugees he met. Within six months of their forced return, however, they had again crossed the Chinese border and eventually arrived in South Korea. Seok told FP that the North Korean jail released the refugees because it simply did not have enough food for them.

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