A leak from China Mobile, the nation’s largest telecommunications company, revealed that the Chinese government may have plans to build camps for North Korean refugees. The leak was quickly deleted from the Chinese Internet, but not before garnering international attention.
China Mobile was allegedly being consulted on installing Internet in the refugee camps. The leaked document stated, “Because the situation on the China-North Korea border has intensified lately, Changbai County government plans to set up five refugee sites in Changbai.”
Jilin province, where the refugee camps are meant to be built, is one of two Chinese provinces that borders North Korea. Jilin and North Korea are split by the Tumen River for much of their 124 mile long shared border. The river is a particular attraction for North Korean defectors, as they can wade across in the summer or walk across the frozen water in the winter. The northern provinces of DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) that share a border with China are where food insecurity and starvation are at their worst.
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Punggye-ri nuclear test site is just 59 kilometers away from Jilin. Last week, the local newspaper, Jilin Daily, issued an illustrated guide to surviving nuclear fallout, presumably in response to Pyongyang’s growing nuclear recklessness, although the newspaper denies this. Recently, the northeastern province suffered from a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, believed by international experts to have been caused by North Korea’s recent nuclear testing, drawing the attention of many Chinese citizens to the threat just across their border.
It’s hard to say how many refugees are crossing from North Korea into China. The two communists countries are hardly transparent with this kind of information, but NGOs have been trying to keep their own tallies.
In September, Human Rights Watch reported that starting in the summer, China began to intensify its North Korean deportation policy. Although there are no real numbers available for how many refugees enter China, Humans Rights Watch reports that 41 North Koreans were captured by Chinese authorities in July and August, while only 51 North Koreans total were apprehended last year, according to HRW’s count.
The Chinese government has historically enforced a policy of sending defectors back to the peninsula, much to the chagrin on the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of the 92 North Koreans detained in the past two years, HRW is aware that 46 have been sent back to the communist dictatorship, despite entreaties from the UN and other governments. The rest of the defectors, including infants, children, and the elderly, remain in Chinese custody.
Defectors sent back to North Korea often face punishment in prison camps that human rights activists compare to those of the Nazi regime. Renowned activist and Auschwitz survivor Thomas Buergenthal recently stated that the North Korean camps, where torture, starvation, medical experimentation, and sexual violence are rampant, are at least as bad as Auschwitz, if not worse, “I believe that the conditions in the [North] Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field.”
HRW interprets the increase in deportations as meaning the Chinese government is cracking down on refugees, but these numbers could also reflect the increasing instability in the country. Along with oppression, torture, and starvation, defectors also report mystery illnesses and birth defects, perhaps pointing to widespread radiation poisoning, especial in the area surrounding Mount Mantap, beneath which nuclear testing is known to occur.
Where Starvation is the Norm
This summer, North Korea suffered their worst drought in two decades, destroying crops in the already food insecure country. What provisions remain are diverted to the army to feed their one million soldiers, instead of being distributed to the North Korean people.
In a communist system, collective farms often means lower yields due to overwork and decreased incentives because farmers do not keep their own crops, while a bureaucratic distribution system creates waste and allows corrupt (or malnourished) officials to skim off the surface. Communist China and the Soviet Union both saw disastrous famines following collectivization efforts. In fact, one of the worst genocides in human history resulted from a man made famine in Ukraine after peasants rejected Soviet collectivization.
Defectors report that a black market dealing in food and goods smuggled into North Korea from China is essentially keeping the system afloat. The World Food Programme estimates that 70% of the North Korean population is food insecure, while one third of children under five are suffering from stunted growth due to malnutrition. South Korean scientists studying defectors claim that North Koreans are up to 3 inches shorter than South Koreans, presumably due to malnutrition. According to the UN, 41 percent of the population is undernourished, while 18 million people face food insecurity. One in five people do not have access to clean drinking water, although this number may increase as nuclear contamination proliferates water supplies.
As more resources are directed towards military pursuits, the government has decreased rations even more. Daily rations were recently cut to 300 grams, that’s about 2 cups of cereal and potatoes a day.
While the people starve, the communist leader, Kim Jong Un continues to focus finances and manpower on building North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Defectors claim that radiation has killed off important species of fish and mushrooms, further decreasing the food supply. Meanwhile, as Pyongyang increases its nuclear capabilities, UN sanctions follow, leading to more hunger and economic hardship for the people of the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea. Recent sanctions on seafood are expected to put many North Korean fishermen out of the job, adding to the growing numbers of starving people in the country.
At this moment it is unclear how the environmental consequences of the nuclear testing could harm food production in the future, but experts agree if testing continues beneath Mount Mantap, which provides water for thousands, the mountain could collapse.
What Does it Mean?
Analysts claim that the leaked document may reveal that Beijing is anticipating a war. While it’s impossible to say what the notoriously secretive government’s true motivations are, if the reports are true, the leaked document signals a shift in Chinese policy towards North Korean refugees. In the past, China has held that the North Koreans are not refugees, but economic migrants who enter their country illegally.
Because of their consistent policy of deporting North Korean refugees, the leaked document came as a shock to the international community. Building five camps to house thousands of refugees is a big leap forward from sending refugees home to tortuous living conditions. This radical change in policy comes hardly one month after President Trump’s visit to China.
Many hope that Beijing’s preparations indicate a coming regime change in the totalitarian state. Although the crumbling of a communist regime should be welcome in the international arena, it is difficult to calculate the humanitarian fallout of such a drastic change.