In 2013, Laos and China forcibly repatriated nine North Korean children. Now, the fate of these children is in question. Recent reports from North Korea suggest that at least two of the children may have been executed, and the remaining seven children are allegedly imprisoned in Camp 14, a brutal forced labor camp. North Korea has responded to accusations that the children were executed or imprisoned by posting an apparently recent video of the children in good health.
Regardless of whether the children were executed or imprisoned, the fact remains that Laos and China’s decision to repatriate the children destined them to a life of oppression (and possibly even death) under the brutal North Korean regime.
At a recent press conference, hosted by House Foreign Affairs chairman Ed Royce (R–CA), Representative Eliot Engel (D–NY), and the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), Chairman of NKFC Suzanne Scholte noted that the decision to repatriate the nine North Korean children is a permanent blight on the reputation of Laos and China. Repatriation of the nine North Korean children from Laos was the first known instance where the Laotian government kowtowed to requests for defectors from Pyongyang, but it is far from the first time that China repatriated North Korean defectors. In fact, these children are among hundreds of North Koreans repatriated by China.
China has come under increased scrutiny since the release of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The report identified China’s repatriation of defectors as a violation of its commitments under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention Against Torture. The report also accused China of collusion with the North Korean government and facilitating human trafficking, forced abortion, and forced marriage, among other things. In repatriating the children to North Korea, Laos violated its own sovereign commitment to honor the Convention Against Torture. (It is not a signatory of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.)
The international community can do more to hold North Korea and China accountable. Under current conditions, the U.S. has more sanctions against Iran than it does against North Korea— despite the fact that North Korea poses a more significant nuclear threat and brutally oppresses its people. New legislation that recently passed the House suggests that North Korea should be sanctioned, not just for its nuclear program, but for its human rights violations. It has yet to be taken up by the Senate.
Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation stated:
Washington should no longer hold some sanctions in abeyance, to be rolled out after the next North Korean violation or provocation. There will be little change until North Korea feels pain and China feels concern over the consequences of Pyongyang’s actions and its own obstructionism.
The U.S. and the international community have acknowledged the undeniable human rights crisis in North Korea, but recognizing the problem is not enough. For the sake of these children, and innumerable other defectors forcibly repatriated to North Korea, it’s time for the U.S. and the international community to hold North Korea and China to account for their abuses.