An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans have sought asylum in China in recent years. But China says the North Koreans are economic migrants and refuses to grant them asylum. Those it catches, it forcibly repatriates. Advocates of North Korea's would-be refugees told the U.N. Human Rights Commission of their plight.
Since famine struck their homeland in the mid-1990s, thousands of North Koreans have escaped into northern China's forested mountains. The region is inhabited mainly by their ethnic-Korean kin.
Rights activists acknowledge that some North Koreans may be economic migrants. But they argue that a considerable portion are more likely bona fide refugees. The Chinese authorities have refused the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees access to North Koreans in the border areas since 1999.
Refugee agency spokesman Kris Janowski said his organization has the right under the U.N. Refugee Convention to go to the area to find out exactly who these people are.
"We do think that the Chinese authorities are actually obliged under the 1951 Convention, of which China is a signatory, to give these people some sort of a hearing and basically make sure that they are not refugees. And of course make sure that the North Koreans are not sent back to North Korea where they would face extreme danger," Mr. Janowski said.
Lawyer Tarik Radwan of the rights group, A Woman's Voice International, said torture and harsh detention await North Koreans who are returned to their country.
"A fate too horrible that many actually carry rat poison on their person, swearing that they will not go back alive or they will not go back to experience what they had experienced before," Mr. Radwan said.
Accounts by people who have actually survived the interrogation process describe beatings and near starvation as routine. They said refugees who are forced back home are questioned and detained for an average of three months. Former officials or returnees found with religious literature are assigned long prison terms with hard labor or in some cases face execution.
But Mr. Radwan said North Korean asylum seekers who manage to evade the border police and remain in China also face dangers. "Because they do not have any protection by the Chinese government or any hope of protection by the Chinese government, they basically have to stay totally underground. And what that means, by and large, is that about half of the women end up being sexually trafficked and victimized. In addition to that, they are victimized by extortion, by employers who have them work under extreme conditions and then simply refuse to pay. And if challenged, will say, 'We will just call the authorities on you.'"
The rights group Amnesty International has urged the Chinese government to protect North Korean asylum seekers and end forced repatriations. Amnesty says several dozen North Koreans have won their freedom by seeking asylum in foreign embassies in China, but that escape route runs its own risks.
According to Amnesty, the Chinese government issued a notice last year to embassies and consulates in Beijing asking them to hand over the North Koreans seeking shelter in their embassies.
Human rights activists have called for China to create refugee camps for the North Koreans, but analysts say this is highly unlikely. An Asian diplomat says such a step would embarrass North Korea and he doubts China would be willing to do that to a country it considers an ally.
A spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, Lubna Freih, said her group wants other U.N. agencies, not just the refugee agency, involved in the effort to protect North Korean asylum seekers. "What we have been calling for is obviously there should be access for the High Commissioner for Refugees. But we also believe that there should be access inside North Korea for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to actually have access to those refugees who are being forcibly returned to North Korea and to be able to ensure that their rights are respected," Mr. Freih said.
Last week, the European Union introduced a resolution accusing North Korea of torture and political killings. The resolution, which is expected to be voted on Wednesday, censures North Korea for treating repatriated asylum seekers as people who have committed treason.
Once convicted of treason, they are liable to punishments ranging from internment to the death penalty.
U.S. Ambassador to the Commission, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, said the United States will co-sponsor the resolution.
Despite the criticism it is facing, North Korea is bidding for one of six seats assigned to the U.N. Human Rights Commission's Asian Group. Mrs. Kirkpatrick says such a move threatens the validity of the top U.N. rights forum.
"It would be in the tradition of the worst human rights offenders seeking to protect themselves by getting elected to the Human Rights Commission. It is a very dismal tradition. I say tradition. It has happened repeatedly in the last four, five years and threatens to undermine the seriousness of the Human Rights Commission," Mrs. Kirkpatrick said.
In recent years, Libya, Zimbabwe, and China have managed to get enough votes to be elected to the Commission.
But human rights activists are vowing to block North Korea's bid. They argue that one of the most repressive and closed regimes in the world should not have any place on the Commission.