Joint Letter to Speaker Pelosi: China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees in violation of international human right law

August 2, 2022

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
ATTN: Dan Bernal, District Chief of Staff

Re: China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees in violation of international human right law

Dear Madam Speaker,

We welcome the visit of a Congressional delegation under your leadership to South Korea (ROK) to advance our shared interests and values, including peace and security, economic growth and trade, the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, human rights and democratic governance in the Indo-Pacific.

In this regard, we would like to raise our concern with respect to the human rights plight of at least 1,170 North Korean (DPRK) refugees currently detained in China whose forced repatriation by the Chinese authorities has been put on hold by the COVID-19 border lockdown since January 2020.

On August 23, 2021, the UN human rights experts addressed a letter to the Chinese government concerning these detainees in China facing the imminent risk of repatriation as well as the reported repatriation of 50 North Korean refugees on July 14, 2021 by the Chinese authorities. In its reply of September 27, 2021, the Chinese government insisted that the individuals in question were illegal immigrants, not refugees, whom it has been properly handling in accordance with international law, domestic law and humanitarian principles while ensuring the legitimate rights and interests of women, their minor children and unaccompanied minors to the maximum extent.

According to a UN commission of inquiry (COI)’s report in 2014, the gravity, scale and nature of human rights violations in North Korea reveal “a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The COI also noted, as quoted approvingly by Congress in the North Korean Human Rights Act, that China is aiding and abetting in crimes against humanity by forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees back to North Korea, where they are sent to prison camps, tortured, or even executed. Congress also found in the North Korean Human Rights Act that North Korean women and girls who have fled into China are at risk of being kidnapped, trafficked, and sexually exploited inside China, where many are sold as brides or concubines, or forced to work as prostitutes.

China continues its policy of forced repatriation of North Korean refugees in violation of the principle of non-refoulement under the UN Refugee Convention and Torture Convention—the principle that no one should be returned to a country where they face persecution or torture—even though third states including South Korea and the United States have resettled and are willing to resettle them. This belies China’s false claim of adherence to the rule of law and humanitarian principles as well as any regard for the human rights of women and children.

Therefore, we ask you to publicly reiterate the sense of Congress in the North Korean Human Rights Act that because North Koreans fleeing into China face a well-founded fear of persecution upon their forcible repatriation, the United States should urge China to:

(A)  immediately halt the forcible repatriation of North Koreans;

(B)  allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees unimpeded access to North Koreans inside China to determine whether such North Koreans require protection as refugees;

(C)  fulfill its obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the Agreement on the Upgrading of the UNHCR Mission in the People’s Republic of China to UNHCR Branch Office in the People’s Republic of China (signed December 1, 1995);

(D)  address the concerns of the United Nations Committee against Torture by incorporating the principle of non-refoulement into Chinese domestic legislation; and

(E)  recognize the legal status of North Korean women who marry or have children with Chinese citizens, and ensure that all such children are granted resident status and access to education and other public services in accordance with Chinese law and international standards;

We share the vision for a free and flourishing Indo-Pacific, but to make the region safe for democracy and human rights, it is imperative for China to stop being an accomplice to the worst crimes against humanity perpetrated by a totalitarian regime without any parallel in our time, in addition to ending its own outrages including the campaign of genocide in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Hong Kong national security law.


Association of North Korean Defectors (NKD)
Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR)
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG)