British parliamentarians from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea are among those calling for the international community to pressure China to grant escapees safe passage to asylum in the South.
The defectors heading to New York hope to urge UN human rights officials to name and shame China for refusing to allow North Koreans safe transit or to adhere to the agency’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which outlines the rights of refugees and international obligations to protect them.
At the heart of the Convention is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
Among those travelling next week is Byeongrim Lee, whose 17-year-old son was caught in Kunming, southern China, while he was trying to join her in Seoul.
Her son had simply wanted to “live in a better world” where he could enjoy electricity and three meals a day, she said during Thursday’s press conference.
“He is not a criminal, but he is treated as a criminal and he was deported to a prison camp in North Korea. At the moment, his family does not know where he is or if he is alive or dead,” she said.
“Imagining my son under corporal punishment and starvation it feels like I have thousands of rocks in my heart. I hope that such things would never happen again to North Korean refugees,” said Ms Lee.
“I really hope I can say for one last time to my son in person that I love him and to hug him before I die.”
For decades, North Koreans fleeing extreme poverty, starvation and political oppression have attempted to transit China en route to Southeast Asia and sanctuary in South Korea.
Before the pandemic, more than 1,000 were welcomed every year in Seoul, but during Covid-19 border closures and lockdowns, the journey became all but impossible. Since 2020, just 458 North Koreans have made it to the South.
Crackdowns by the Chinese authorities, aided by sophisticated surveillance technology, has also made such journeys increasingly perilous, forcing many defectors to rely on unscrupulous and abusive traffickers.
The terrible dangers they face if caught have been well-documented by rights groups like the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB).
The Seoul-based NKDB has recorded 8,125 cases of forced repatriation of North Koreans and 32,198 cases of human rights violations inflicted on them.
Myeonghui Ji, a defector who now lives in Seoul, said she had been so badly tortured during an interrogation in 2016 that she still suffered mental and physical pain. “I want the international community to know the brutality that I faced,” she said.
Yeonghak Heo, a father of two who will also travel to New York next week, said his wife had been forcibly returned to North Korea by China in 2020. “She was innocent and had never broken any laws,” he said. “It was only natural that she wanted to join her two daughters.”
The Chinese government routinely labels fleeing North Koreans as “illegal economic migrants”.