The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were notable for the absence of Western politicians and officials, the result of a diplomatic boycott to protest China’s reprehensible treatment of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group in its Xinjiang province. What the boycott ignores is that Beijing is complicit in North Korea’s horrific human rights abuses as well. Because the two countries’ abuses are inextricably linked, it is essential that U.S. North Korea policy focuses on China’s role in sustaining the crimes of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s family against the North Korean people.
For example, China is complicit in the fates of thousands of North Koreans who try to flee across the 882-mile border between the two countries each year. Escapees travel an arduous path and, in most instances, start their journey in China before eventually settling in a friendly country, such as South Korea or the United States. Yet Beijing is not a safe haven for defectors fleeing the brutal Kim regime. China does not grant North Koreans refugee status, treating them as economic migrants instead. If Chinese authorities discover them, they are forcibly deported back to North Korea.
China has also done little to crack down on the human traffickers who prey on North Koreans. These traffickers, as the U.S. State Department described last year, “lure, drug, detain, or kidnap some North Korean women upon their arrival” in China. Some are promised employment, but the State Department warned that women and girls are subjected “physical abuse and sexual exploitation by their traffickers, forced into commercial sex in brothels or through internet sex sites, or compelled to work as hostesses in nightclubs or karaoke bars.” North Korean women are also sold to Chinese men in forced marriages. If China repatriates the women to North Korea, they are subjected to harsh punishment, including separation from their children, forced abortions, or even death. Through satellite imagery and victim testimony, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) confirmed that around 800 women forcibly repatriated by China were being held at Kyohwaso No. 12 in Jongo-ri, a correctional or reeducation center in northeast North Korea. (One of us, Greg Scarlatoiu, is the executive director of the HRNK.) Last year, the U.S. State Department also noted that “as many as 30,000 children born in China to North Korean women and Chinese men have not been registered upon birth, rendering them stateless and vulnerable to possible exploitation.”
In addition to punishing the escapees, the Kim regime often punishes those caught assisting other North Koreans attempting to escape by sending them to a kwanliso, one of the regime’s notorious political forced labor camps. A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded that these camps “resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.” HRNK uses satellite imagery to monitor and assess the operations of the regime’s six such camps, which hold 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners. (American student Otto Warmbier was incarcerated at one of these camps and died shortly after his release.)
Yet another way China is complicit in the Kim regime’s crimes is the use of North Korean forced labor. The regime sells North Koreans to work abroad—mainly in China—and takes most of their compensation. In 2017, the U.N. Security Council noted that the Kim regime uses the money for its prohibited nuclear and missile programs; the council mandated the return of all workers back to North Korea no later than Dec. 22, 2019.
In December 2021, the Biden administration sanctioned three Chinese companies and one Chinese individual for evading U.S. North Korea sanctions by facilitating millions of dollars in wire transfers to a North Korean government-run animation studio using North Korean workers in both China and North Korea itself. The Chinese Embassy in Washington denounced these and other human rights-related sanctions as a “serious interference in China’s internal affairs” and “severe violation of basic norms governing international relations.” The State Department reported last year that there were 20,000 to 80,000 North Koreans still working in China—a direct violation of the U.N. order.
The Biden administration’s North Korea policy is focused on nuclear negotiations with the Kim regime without preconditions, but U.S. President Joe Biden must also direct his attention to the plight of the North Korean people. He can start by appointing a special envoy for human rights in North Korea, as required by the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act. That position has been vacant since the previous envoy departed more than five years ago. The envoy could be an advocate for the North Korean people and highlight Beijing’s role in covering up the Kim regime’s heinous crimes.
Congress unanimously reauthorized the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2018 and is expected to renew it by a similar bipartisan consensus this year. The law calls on the U.S. secretary of state to make it easier for North Koreans to receive protection as refugees. Since the law was first signed, only around 230 North Koreans have received asylum and resettled in the United States. The Biden administration must seek ways to better protect, aid, and resettle North Korean refugees. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee must conduct oversight of Biden’s North Korea policy and insist that addressing China’s role in North Korean human rights abuses play a central role.
In close collaboration with the European Union, the United States must retake the high ground it once held at the United Nations by resuscitating the coalition of like-minded member states, including South Korea and Japan. The coalition was responsible for key human rights initiatives related to North Korea—including resolutions by the U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Human Rights Council—as well as for placing it on the Security Council’s agenda. Although diplomatic engagement with unsavory regimes continues to be a fundamental element of national power, Washington should also push for accountability for crimes against humanity committed against North Koreans and citizens of other countries—for example, by organizing support for the establishment of special tribunals.
The United States and like-minded nations must also press China to abide by the obligations it assumed under the two pillars of international refugee protection: the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Washington and its partners should make clear that China needs to stop forcibly deporting North Korean refugees back to a place where they face a credible fear of persecution, including imprisonment under the harshest conditions, torture, and death.
At the Summit for Democracy last December, Biden proclaimed that “autocracies can never extinguish the ember of liberty that burns in the hearts of people around the world, in every portion of the world.” To fulfill that promise, he must redouble his efforts to free the North Korean people from the clutches of the Kim regime—and part of that road leads through China.
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Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration. Twitter: @NatSecAnthony
Greg Scarlatoiu is the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.