Police in China are calling on North Korean women who entered the country illegally and then married Chinese husbands to apply for temporary ID cards that will allow them to stay in China, sources told RFA.
The ID cards would in theory shield these women from being forcibly repatriated to North Korea and keep their families together. But many of the women are afraid to give personal details about their families in North Korea to the Chinese government, sources said.
RFA reported last week that Beijing was in the process of repatriating more than 1,100 detained undocumented North Koreans. Only a fraction of this group were women with Chinese husbands, but their detention has drawn renewed focus to an issue that local authorities have long ignored.
The spouses and children of women have pleaded with authorities for their release, arguing that their families should not be broken up and that the wives and mothers face execution upon their return to North Korea.
A Chinese citizen of Korean descent told RFA’s Korean Service Nov. 18 that police in Hebei announced in August that North Korean women who have lived in China for more than five years and are married with children are eligible for the ID cards.
The news that women in the same marital situation could apply for temporary ID cards that would protect them from such a fate has spread among the ethnic and undocumented Korean communities in northeastern China.
But the government has not issued an official declaration on the matter, leading some people to think that the call from local police might be a trick to get the women to give up their personal information and acknowledge their undocumented status, sources said.
“These days in some areas of Hebei province, there are many women who escaped North Korea who are visiting their local public security bureau to submit their personal information to get temporary IDs,” the source said.
But in order to get the IDs, the women must visit the bureau to be photographed and submit detailed personal data, including their places of birth and home address in North Korea, the address of their workplaces and family relationships, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Because the government has not issued an official declaration on the matter, some undocumented North Koreans are fearful that the call from local police is a ruse to get the women to give up their personal information and acknowledge their undocumented status, sources said.
The Chinese citizen of Korean descent said there has been no written documentation backing up the police’s stated policy and no advertisements or coverage in the media.
“In many cases, the police call to deliver the information directly to Chinese men who are known to be living with undocumented North Korean women. In some areas the police even visit their families to deliver the information verbally,” the source said.
Police tend to know where all the married North Korean escapees live in their communities, according to the source. In general, they leave them alone as long as they keep quiet and do not cause problems in the community.
“Many of the escapees are saying that getting the ID cards is a dream come true, but they are still reluctant to submit such deeply personal information,” the source said.
“Some of the women are expressing extreme caution, saying that it might be more dangerous to give sensitive information to the police than to continue living in hiding,” the source said.
Despite these doubters, many North Korean escapees have gone in to apply. One woman, in the city of Shenyang in nearby Liaoning province, east of Hebei, told RFA that when she applied, she had to take mug shots, submit her fingerprints, and provide information on her families in both China and North Korea.
“When I first heard the surprising news that the police were issuing ID cards to North Korean refugees, I couldn’t believe it was true, because previously they thought of us as criminals,” she said, under condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“It was only after several North Korean women I know applied for the ID themselves that I finally began to hope that I could get one too,” the woman said.
Her anxious days are not over, however. While she knows many women who have applied for the IDs, none of them have yet received one, she said.
The United Nations recently published a letter it sent to the Chinese government in August expressing concern about the fate of the 1,170 North Koreans believed to be in Chinese custody in preparation for repatriation.
It said that forcible repatriation was a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning asylum seekers to their home countries to face persecution.
RFA reported in July that the 50 North Koreans were loaded onto buses in the Chinese border city of Dandong and taken across the Yalu River. Sources said many Chinese onlookers showed hostility to the police, warning that they were effectively sending the refugees to their deaths.
Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fled to China to escape a mid-1990s famine, with about 30,000 making their way to South Korea. As many as 60,000 North Koreans remain in China, despite having no legal status. Some have married Chinese nationals.
RFA reported in August that police had begun actively arresting North Korean spouses of Chinese nationals after a long period of time in which they were treated leniently.
Beijing claims it must return North Koreans found to be illegally within Chinese territory under two bilateral border and immigration pacts. Rights groups, however, say that forced repatriation is a violation of China’s responsibility to protect the escapees under the U.N. Refugee Convention.
There are as many as 30,000 unregistered children of North Korean women and Chinese men, according to the Department of State’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report. The report noted that the children are stateless and vulnerable to exploitation.
Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.