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What The United States Can Do To Address North Korea’s Human Rights Crisis


Mother, wife, and North Korean refugee Jeong-Ah Kim is separated from three of her four children. Due to North Korea’s brutality and China’s continued forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees, Jeong-Ah Kim may never see her children again.

“I am a mom of four,” Kim recalled, “but at this point, I can only hug one of my children.”

Kim’s in-laws took her first daughter away after she divorced her first North Korean husband. While pregnant with her second child, Kim endured beatings from her husband. That child died at age 10 months from abuse suffered in the womb and malnutrition.

Kim was unknowingly pregnant with her third child, a daughter, when she fled to China. Soon thereafter, she was married to a Chinese husband and repeatedly threatened with being repatriated back to North Korea.

Kim knew the consequences of repatriation: brutal hard labor, persecution, and possible sentencing to time in the North Korean gulag. Fearing for her life and that of her daughter’s, Kim eventually decided to register her daughter under her Chinese husband’s hukuo (the birth registry system in China) so the child could attend school, receive medical care, and live as a Chinese citizen rather than as the stateless child of a North Korean refugee. Daily fear of repatriation then led Kim to make the difficult decision to flee China to freedom in South Korea, but she was forced to leave her daughter behind.

“The bond between mother and daughter is not something that can be forcibly broken,” Kim said tearfully during a recent event at The Heritage Foundation, “and that’s why I founded Tongil Mom.”

Kim now lives in South Korea with her South Korean husband and fourth child, a son. Tongil Mom, the advocacy group she started there, works to help North Korean refugee mothers separated from children left behind in North Korea and China.

Last month, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning North Korea’s gross human rights violations and calling for greater measures of accountability. The resolution represents a positive step toward justice for North Korean refugees, but the United States can do more to assist North Koreans like Jeong-Ah Kim through humane foreign policy.

The Human Rights Crisis in North Korea

In February 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea found North Korea guilty of crimes against humanity. It also noted that China may be guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity because of its forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees.

In reaching its determination, the COI evaluated historical and ongoing North Korean violations of human rights. It reported that an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people currently languish in prison camps; almost all North Koreans witness a public execution at some point in their lives, and men, women, and children continue to be sexually exploited and are forced to labor in the prison camp system.  Human trafficking is particularly prevalent in the Hermit Kingdom. Women in prison camps, for example, are exploited, raped, and sexually abused. If they become pregnant, they are forced to abort their children.

Even people outside of the prison camps are forced to labor on behalf of the Kim regime. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies estimates there are 50,000 North Korean laborers abroad, many of whom yield their earnings to the government. North Korean labor abroad is estimated to generate hundreds of millions in revenue for the regime annually.

For North Koreans who manage to escape this horrific regime, it is a common fate to be trafficked once again. An estimated 70 to 90 percent of North Korean refugee women are exploited after fleeing. Most become ensnared in sex trafficking, but many are trafficked as brides for Chinese men. China’s old one-child (now two-child) policy has created a shortage of Chinese women, so many women from surrounding Southeast Asia and North Korea become surrogate brides for Chinese men.

The path to freedom for most North Koreans is not as simple as escaping the Hermit Kingdom. Upon arrival in China, many refugees like Jeong-Ah Kim live in perpetual fear of forced repatriation back to North Korea.

The COI conducted interviews with more than 300 defectors and found that, upon repatriation, North Koreans were subjected to unbelievable torture, especially those who had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries. Justice Michael Kirby, the lead UN investigator for the COI, said the persecution of religious minorities, particularly Christians, is one of the least discussed findings of the report. According to Open Doors USA, North Korea is the world’s worst persecutor of Christians.

Despite the findings of the COI report, little has been done to address North Koreans’ plight. UN resolutions issued each subsequent year since the COI’s release acknowledge the severity of the human rights problems. But they are not sufficient to make matters better.

Next Steps for Addressing Human Rights in North Korea

At the end of the Obama administration, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test and numerous missile tests. In just the first two months of the Trump administration, North Korea has tested two more missiles and at least three rocket engines, and is said to be preparing for yet another nuclear test. The security threat North Korea poses is undeniable, but what is less recognized is the link between human rights abuse and the Kim regime’s survival.

The United States can help loosen the Kim regime’s grip on power by targeting North Korean officials complicit in human rights abuse. The Obama administration issued the first sanctions targeting North Korea specifically on human rights grounds, naming Kim Jong-Un and a handful of other North Korean officials as rights abusers. Further rounds of perpetrators should be named and sanctioned under the Trump administration.

The United States should also pressure China to stop forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees. The Chinese policy violates its international obligations under the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. As a signatory, China is obligated to uphold the principle of non-refoulement. The United States should hold China’s feet the fire and strongly encourage Beijing to discontinue forcibly repatriating refugees.

Additionally, the United States should work with Seoul to develop comprehensive strategies to help assimilate North Korean refugees into South Korean society. Should the Kim regime collapse, the South will need to absorb at least 3.65 million people.

The current defector population living in South Korea—estimated at around 30,000—serves as a prime population to evaluate the success of current assimilation policies. Rigorous study of their experiences and outcomes can help determine the best policies to implement in preparation for the likely eventual collapse of North Korea.

Jeong-Ah Kim wants nothing more than to hug her children. If you’re a parent, I urge you to hug your child a bit longer today, and to consider advocating for the many North Korean mothers who may never be able to do the same to their own children.