While geopolitical tensions threaten to erupt over the Korean peninsula, a silent and self-contained humanitarian crisis is in full swing just north of the border. In China, a hidden generation of children are growing up stateless, on the fringe of society, with no legal status, education or access to healthcare.
These children are the forgotten victims of North Korea’s totalitarian regime. Born to North Korean women who have largely been trafficked into China and sold into illegal marriages or prostitution in China, they find themselves unrecognised as citizens or even refugees.
Sung Min, 18, grew up stateless in North Eastern China. His mother, Yeon Mi, 49, was trafficked across the border in 1998 and sold as a wife to a poor Chinese farmer, becoming one of the 100,000 North Koreans estimated to be living in China today.
Sung Min was not issued a birth certificate, was never taken to a doctor when he was sick or even sent to school. Instead, his mother taught him to live under the radar to avoid detection and suspicion from the Chinese authorities.
Although Chinese law considers any child born to at least one Chinese parent eligible for citizenship, the reality is very different for those born to North Korean mothers, as China labels defectors ‘illegal economic migrants’. Bound by a 1986 agreement, the Mutual Cooperation Protocol for Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order and the Border Areas, China is obliged to help prevent illegal crossings, which means that if North Koreans are found to be living in China, they are at risk of deportation.
This makes registering babies under China’s compulsory household registration system, known as the hukou, which entitles citizens to state welfare benefits, such as schooling and healthcare, a Catch-22 for the forgotten children. Unless the mother is somehow able to obtain incredibly perfectly forged false papers, registration is virtually impossible without revealing the woman’s identity, thus putting her and her child at risk of arrest and repatriation.
“Children are innocent and the Chinese government needs to give those children a chance to live their lives. Not being able to go to school, make new friends and gain new knowledge is not what children deserve,” Sung Min says. “A parent’s nationality should be a factor when it comes to giving children citizenship. If a child is born in China to a Chinese parent then they should have the right to citizenship.”
Sung Min’s story is not unique as there are estimated to be up to 30,000 children living in limbo in China and their predicament demonstrates how statelessness is a multi-faceted issue. It is not only a children’s rights issue, but a women’s right issue, a human trafficking issue, and above all, a human rights issue.
China is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol but it continues to systematically arrest and repatriate North Koreans, even children, the most vulnerable, despite the fact that they are internationally recognised as refugees sur place, or people who become refugees due to valid fears and risks of being persecuted upon return to their home country.
North Korea considers all defectors to be enemies of the state having committed an act of treason by fleeing, meaning repatriated North Koreans face harsh penalties such as torture, detention and even death by firing squad. Pregnant women are even subjected to forced abortions.
When Sung Min was five, his mother was reported to the authorities and deported back to North Korea. She was offered the choice of either taking Sung Min with her or leaving him in China. She chose to leave him behind fearing he would be killed if he were sent to North Korea and she believed his father would care for him. When she escaped a second time in 2004, Yeon Mi recalls, “When I finally managed to find him I was shocked. His father had abandoned him and he looked like an orphaned child.”
This is not an uncommon tale. Many children are left to fend for themselves if their fathers do not take care of them or get taken in by orphanages or church foster groups, which provide a basic level of support. It is unknown how many children are sent back to North Korea with their mothers, but it is not unheard of.
According to Yeon Mi, the reason why these children are ignored is because “nobody knows about stateless children living in China.” She says that the international community are ignoring the issue by not doing enough to help and that they are not even trying to raise awareness.
Michael Glendinning, director of the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, knows the international community is not doing enough, but asks, “What can they do? It isn’t as simple as pressuring China as they could focus their efforts on clamping down on the border which would cause a humanitarian crisis inside North Korea.”
Despite this, Sung Min is one of the lucky ones. Four years after being reunited with his mother, they made it to the UK where they were granted indefinite leave to remain. For the first time in his life at the age of ten, Sung Min was given official papers and started to go to school. Today, he is studying at university in London.
“I want to be an example of what education can do to help stateless children. It is thanks to the education system that I’m able to have a dream and work toward that dream. In the future, I want to reach out to children who are stateless and do not have the opportunity of an education.”
But while Sung Min’s story has a happy ending, it started like so many others. It is important to not turn a blind eye to the fact that some of the most vulnerable children in the world are being exploited and are ignored by the international community.