China's Crackdown on North Korean Refugees: North Korean Provocations Intensify Border Control
Kim, Sea Young
What domestic and external conditions explain why the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at times intensifies its crackdown on North Korean border crossers? With the 1986 bilateral repatriation agreement between the PRC and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as the basis, China continues to deny North Korean asylum seekers refugee status and has instead labeled them as illegal economic migrants. Although data on North Korean refugees are limited, international organizations and media have observed specific periods such as March 2002-January 2003, February-April 2012, and July 2017-April 2018 when China intensified its Sino-North Korean border control efforts. Existing analyses focus on the refugees’ living conditions and legal status without providing an explanation of the underlying geo-political variables. This paper argues against the common misconception that China heightens border control efforts when Sino-North Korean relations are amicable. In contrary, intensified crackdowns occur when Beijing’s regional stability is threatened by Pyongyang’s pivotal provocations. Provocations raise the possibility of a potential regime collapse in North Korea and mass cross-border migrations of North Koreans into China. The three periods of intensified crackdowns as identified by international institutions and the media coincide with such cases—North Korea’s withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 2003, the rise of Kim Jong-un from 2011-2012, and the escalation of nuclear and missile tests in 2017. Such events, when accompanied by limited Sino-North Korean cooperation and heightened international scrutiny against North Korea, pose difficulties in China’s abilities to shield North Korea from a potential regime collapse.
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