Refugee Policy and Foreign Policy: Examining Policy Linkage in Chinese Relations with North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam

By Jasmine Lam
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 2/6 |

III. The International Refugee Regime

To fully understand how foreign policy and refugee policy are related, one must first examine the definition of a “refugee,” as well as the development of the international refugee regime. The international refugee regime and the way states respond to refugee flows have been shaped and have evolved with changes in the international system. The refugee regime is inherently linked to the fundamentals of the nation-state, which is premised on the most basic function and responsibility of the state to offer protection to its citizens.18 When citizens of a state decide to flee a country, in essence this represents a failure on part of the nation-state, as the state is unable to offer its citizens political, economic, or societal protection. The consequences of refugee flows are transnational, and because of this, these movements carry the potential to threaten international stability. As a result, the international refugee regime was developed to maintain international stability by creating appropriate institutions to respond to refugee flows.

The contemporary refugee regime finds its roots during the inter-war period under the League of Nations. It was not until post-World War II that the regime became more developed under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The first piece of legislation that formed the basis of international refugee protection is the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.19 Under this Convention, a refugee is defined as:

“Any person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group of political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” -U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 1, Section A(2), 1951

When the Cold War began, political motivations became evident in approaches to refugees. First, the refugee regime, as was the UN, was Western-dominated and focused mainly on movement within Europe and towards North America. Western countries encouraged flight from Communist countries, and gave a “virtual guarantee of resettlement” to those who leave.20 It was not until 1967, when the Protocol on Refugees was codified, that protection was expanded to include groups from other nations. During this time, there was also a shift in the international refugee movement. In the 1970s, refugee flows from the Communist bloc slowed, as the totalitarian regimes there clamped down on escapees.21 Meanwhile, developing countries in Africa and Asia began to gain independence, and ensuing civil unrest prompted an outflow of refugees seeking asylum in industrialized countries. However, the treatment towards these groups was not the same. Western countries began to feel the strain in incorporating refugees into their societies, and refugee admission became increasingly restrictive.22

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the international refugee regime was in turn affected by a new configuration of the international system. Into the 21st century, the effects of 9/11 have strengthened states’ position on restricting asylum and refugee protection, as states pointed to the threat of transnational terrorism. New types of war, such as terrorism and proxy wars, gave justification for international intervention to prevent possible refugee flows.23 Meanwhile, the scope of UNHCR has expanded to include protection of internally displaced persons (IDPs).24 Today, as refugees are finding it more difficult to find asylum in developed countries, flows between developed countries are becoming increasingly characteristic of refugee movements globally. As a result, literature focusing on movements between developing countries deserves more attention.

IV. China: Bilateral Relations and Refugee Policies across North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam

This section examines bilateral relations and compares Chinese refugee policies across three different groups: North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam. The time period under scrutiny is from the establishment of the PRC in 1949 up until the first refugee episode with each of the three bordering states. China is a signatory to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, and is thus obliged to follow the stipulated laws. However, there is often a mismatch between the laws stated in the Convention and China’s domestic policies on refugees. While the UNHCR has recognized citizens fleeing from North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam as refugees during each incident, China does not recognize refugees from North Korea and Myanmar, but recognizes those from Vietnam. Moreover, there is variation in China’s treatment of each group in terms of the level of assistance China provides. Through this research, I found that these differences can be explained through nuances in China’s bilateral relations with each state. Therefore, this section provides an account of bilateral relations between China and each of the three states, followed by a description of Chinese reaction towards incoming refugees.

China & North Korea

China has followed a consistent policy of repatriation towards North Koreans crossing the border into China. North Korean refugees have been entering China steadily since 1983, with sharp increases during North Korea’s famine in the mid-1990s. Relations between the two countries have often been described as a special one, characterized by historic, cultural and ideological affinity. However, after the nuclear crises in the 2000s, relations between China and North Korea have been evolving to resemble a more pragmatic, state-to-state relationship. All in all, North Korean and Chinese relations fall at the far end of the spectrum, defined with a high level of cooperation, and a corresponding closed-door refugee policy with repatriation.

Historic Overview and Sino-North Korean Relations

China and North Korea have long held a “blood-cemented relationship.”25 Historically, China has exerted influence in the Korean peninsula, and defended the area against invasions.26 This is important because, first off, North Korea is geopolitically strategic for China. With the commencement of the Cold War, and the establishment of the PRC, a Chinese-friendly regime in Korea is paramount to serve as a buffer zone against Western powers and capitalism. During the Korean War, China immediately joined in support for North Korea in 1950. Their partnership in this war formed the aforementioned “blood-cemented relationship” between the two states. Through maintaining the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), China could expend fewer military resources to securitize its borders.27 Secondly, the North Korean and Chinese regimes hold ideological affinity, sharing cultural and revolutionary ties.28 The traditional school of thinkers in China, as described in Heungkyu Kim’s article, sees the Sino-North Korean relationship as a special, traditional one.29

Since then, North Korea and China have upheld friendly relations. When North Korea embarked on its development plans after the Korean War, China’s assistance has been crucial to their success. China contributed 1,200,000 Chinese People’s Volunteers to help with reconstruction.30 From 1954 to 1957, China provided North Korea with 8 billion yuan worth of loans. All in all, China was vital for North Korea for security, economic and development purposes. In 1961, their bilateral relationship was further cemented through the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendly Treaty, whereby China agreed to support North Korea in cases of external military attacks. This treaty has been prolonged twice since, and is valid until 2021.

However, during the latter 1960s, broader Sino-Soviet-North Korean relations briefly affected Sino-North Korean relations negatively. Differences between China and the Soviet Union grew increasingly stark, and relations between the two deteriorated rapidly. While North Korea relied on China for support, North Korea also played on the Sino-Soviet relations to gain assistance from the Soviet Union.31 When North Korea warmed up to the Soviet Union, China retaliated diplomatically for North Korea’s lack of support. In Chinese public media, there were hardly any mentions of North Korea between 1967 and 1969.32 At the Sino-North Korean border, disputes arose over the contested Paekustan, and the region saw several military skirmishes.33 Despite the period of diplomatic isolation between China and North Korea during this period, which saw a distinct absence of high-level visits and new cultural and economic agreements, rapprochement between the two states was evident by the end of the 1960s.34 In 1970, a new communiqué was signed between the first Premier of China, Zhou Enlai, and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, pronouncing that the two countries will “unite against the common enemy.”35

Bilateral relations remained close until the 1990s, when Sino-North Korean relations were rocked by larger changes in the international system. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that China had find ways to maintain its interests in a unipolar, United States-dominated international system. As such, China began to normalize relations with South Korea, leading to full diplomatic normalization in 1992. In reaction to this, North Korea denounced China publicly.36 Meanwhile, however, North Korea faced its greatest famine in the mid-1990s. China utilized this opportunity to maintain Chinese influence in North Korea through provision of food and economic assistance.37 This was especially important for North Korea as it had recently lost a source of support with the fall of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, China became North Korea’s main patron, supplying nearly ¾ of North Korea’s food imports and 90% of gross imports of energy.38 This helped guard friendly bilateral relations between the two states, and justify China’s normalization with South Korea.

The North Korean nuclear crises in 2000s tested Sino-North Korean relations, as North Korea’s successful nuclear tests demonstrated a limitation to Chinese influence. While China avoided participation in the 1994 nuclear talks between United States and North Korea, China began to engage in an active role in the 2000s.39 China adopted a definitive stance to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula and to maintain stability in northeast Asia.40 It was thought that China could exercise its leverage to dissuade North Korea from pursuing nuclear development, because of China’s role as the major supplier for North Korea’s food and fuel imports. Resultantly, multi-party talks that were set up gave China the role of host and mediator. However, despite China’s involvement, North Korea carried out two successful nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, revealing the limitation of Chinese influence on the North Korean regime.41 Following these incidences, current literature describes an evolution of Sino-North Korean relations from the traditional “blood-cemented” one, to a more state-to-state relationship.42 In this sense, Chinese policy on North Korean refugees may alter according to this shift.

Refugee Treatment

China has followed a consistent policy towards North Korean refugees, whereby China refuses to recognize incomers as “refugees.” The policy has been consistent, because the momentary lows in bilateral relations in mid-1960s and in early 1990s have been insufficient to cause a change in China’s refugee policies. In the 1960s, North Korean refugees entering China has not become a significant issue yet, as China has stated that North Korean refugees have not been entering China until 1983. When relations became strained again in the 1990s, China was still attempting to maintain cooperative relations with North Korea, as exemplified with China’s assistance to the North Korean famine. This helped redress their differences and upheld good relations.

Throughout time, China claims that North Korean border crossers are “economic migrants” and uses this to justify repatriation, as surveys conducted at borders show that 95% of incomers left for economic reasons.43 However, as economic circumstances are intrinsically tied to political characteristics of the regime, 44 North Koreans fleeing their home country fall under the definition of refugees sur place. There is a distinct caste system in North Korea, in which social classes are determined at birth, and mobility between social categories is next to impossible.45 Furthermore, there are definite political consequences to repatriation. Refugees who are returned to North Korea after being caught are sent to labour camps, and branded as “traitors” to the regime.46 Punishment and exile extend to family members of the refugee.47 This renders North Koreans who fled North Korea as refugees sur place, persons who become entitled to protection as refugees due to the risk of political persecution lest they return.48 Therefore, such well-founded fears of political persecution designate North Koreans who cross the Sino-North Korean border as refugees under the UN Convention.

North Koreans have been entering China through the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Heilongjiang, and Liaoning provinces, and the two countries have taken measures to tighten border security. In the early 1960s, China and North Korea signed a secret agreement to govern security in the border area.49 However, since 1983, there have been steady increases of inflows.50 In 1986, border security was further consolidated in another agreement in which North Korea called for return of its citizens, and laid out specific security protocols.51 In 2006, construction of a 20-km long fence was completed along the border at Yalu River.52

During the worst years of famine in North Korea in the mid-1990s, there was an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 refugees who entered PRC.53 Some sources even claim that numbers ranged as high as 300,000.54 Accurate figures are often difficult to obtain because no refugee organizations are officially permitted to operate at the border area, and North Korean refugees are often dispersed and under cover to avoid repatriation.55 During this time, some sources claim that China has privately permitted South Korean humanitarian and missionary groups to operate in the border area and provide assistance.56

From July 1998 onwards, China has actively enforced its policy of repatriation. China held major roundup operations in northeastern provinces, and arrested around 100 North Korean refugees weekly.57 These searches were often launched after incidences relating to North Korean refugees were reported in major news media. 58 While this deters other North Koreans from entering China, it demonstrates as well China’s concern in maintaining cooperative relations with North Korea publicly. A Human Rights Watch report has also stated that since 1999, China tightened its surveillance of South Korean humanitarian and missionary groups operating at border areas.59 In the Yanbian Korean Self-Governing District of Jilin Province, six detention camps have been set up for refugee deportation in recent years, as refugees in the area has exceeded 93,000.60 A document from the Border Patrol Bureau stated that as of the end of 2004, 133,009 North Koreans have been deported back to North Korea.61 To date, China has upheld its policy of repatriation.62

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