James Risen’s report in the New York Times on Blackwater’s death threat against State Department investigators in Iraq (and the US embassy’s craven decision to kick out the investigators for being “unsustainably disruptive to day-to-day operations” in response) also includes this interesting passage:
The company’s gung-ho attitude and willingness to take on risky tasks were seductive to government officials in Washington. The State Department, for example, secretly sent Blackwater guards to Shenyang, China, to provide security for North Korean asylum seekers who had gone to the U.S. Consulate there and refused to leave for fear the Chinese government would force them to go back to North Korea, according to company documents and interviews with former Blackwater personnel.
The backstory for the Shenyang job is presumably the flood of economic and political refugees from North Korea during the famine years of the early 2000s. Some refugees tried to get into various consulates in Shenyang as well as embassies in Beijing, and hope that they could obtain some kind of asylum/entry into a sympathetic foreign country instead of facing repatriation to North Korea.
Antoaneta Bezlova wrote the story for IPS in 2002 (via Asia Times Online):
The attempt by the family of five North Koreans to enter the Japanese consulate in Shenyang is the latest in a string of cases. On the weekend, two North Koreans entered the Canadian embassy in Beijing to seek sanctuary. The swelling flow of North Korean asylum seekers in China comes following the daring and successful asylum bid of 25 refugees who rushed into the Spanish embassy in Beijing in March. They were later allowed to leave the country and gained passage to South Korea through the Philippines. More attempts have followed. Last month, a North Korean sought asylum in Beijing’s German Embassy after scrambling over a two-meter wall into its compound, while two other North Koreans gained entry into the US mission. All three subsequently were sent on to South Korea.
The wave of asylum bids has been highly publicized in the foreign press as they offer a rare glimpse into the secretive society of poverty-wracked North Korea, which is plagued by a lack of food, heat and medicine. Between 250,000 and 300,000 refugees are believed to be in the hiding in the northern Chinese provinces bordering North Korea.
The PRC pushed back aggressively to control the influx of asylum seekers. The most troubling incident occurred at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang. Chinese police seized three family members as they tried to rush through a half-open gate at the consulate; two adults made it inside and police walked into the consulate and arrested them, without any apparent resistance from the consulate staff.
Per Bezlova, whether the Chinese had any tacit agreement from the Japanese government is a matter of dispute:
Japan and China agreed on Wednesday to release the five asylum seekers and send them to South Korea or the United States via the Philippines. The agreement was made during talks in Tokyo between China’s ambassador to Tokyo and Japan’s vice foreign minister. The incident in Shenyang was caught on videotape. At the time, China said that Japanese diplomats had given police permission to enter the compound to seize the asylum seekers. But on Monday, Japanese officials said that consent was not given and that Tokyo considered the incident a violation of its sovereign territory.
Maybe one of those “Officially, this is unacceptable, unofficially…meh” things.
The most interesting question is why this family, apparently both determined and with access to significant support from the escapee support network (which I imagine, must be highly selective in its choice of people to champion), was not discretely waved into some consulate for eventual emigration. Did the DPRK pass the message to the PRC and Japan that asylum/emigration for these particular people was intolerable? Or was the cooperation of family members already overseas deemed unsatisfactory, perhaps even evidence that they were double agents?
In any event, the family quickly became an unwelcome media and political headache with no upside.
In talking to the Japanese government immediately prior to the incident, Lee Young Hwa of RENK (Rescue the North Korean People Urgent Action Network) had warned of the hardball tactics the asylum seekers might theoretically employ to make it into the consulate:
From my experience of helping asylum seekers in the past, there is the strong possibility that refugees might be carrying suicide poison with them just in case. Also, with this worst case scenario in mind, they are also likely be accompanied by reporters.
It’s unclear if suicide poison was involved, but the media was certainly present:
South Korean activists who help North Koreans seek asylum showed once again their talent for public relations. The Yonhap News Agency, tipped off in advance, filmed the struggle on May 8 from a window across the street in Shenyang.
The Japanese government apparently cared enough about the family of five, or at least for Japan’s international reputation, to ensure that the group was allowed to journey onward to the ROK and/or the United States and not get repatriated to North Korea despite detention by Chinese police.
According to Lee, who was apparently the go-to guy at the time both for asylum seekers and foreign governments trying to get a grip on the asylum-seeking process, the response at the US consulate in Shenyang was somewhat more muscular:
In the case of the United States, however, the United States took refugees who rushed into the U. S. Embassy in Beijing and its Consulate General in Shenyang into protective custody without making a fuss, not allowing armed Chinese police to enter into either of its diplomatic compounds.
This looks like the suitable context for the Blackwater revelation.
Given the still inexplicable willingness of the Japanese consulate to waive its sovereign immunity and allow Chinese police to arrest people on its grounds, maybe the State Department decided it was necessary to bring in Blackwater and demonstrate that, no matter what was going on with Japan, and no matter how high the value of the asylum seekers sheltering in the US consulate (and despite, I would think, the ability of US embassy and consulate guards to refuse entry to Chinese police), whatever happened at the Japanese consulate should not in any way be misconstrued as a precedent for the US.
The alternate possibility is that Blackwater was there to make sure that the consulate wasn’t stormed by desperate asylum seekers. This is, however, unlikely. Asylum seekers would have to run a gauntlet of Chinese police to get to near the consulate. In any case, as Lee’s account of the Japanese consulate fiasco indicates, asylum seekers were not crowds of starving Korean peasants bum-rushing consulates and embassies; those unfortunates were, by and large, still bottled up on the DPRK/PRC border.
Asylum seekers, on the other hand, were part of an “elite” subgroup of refugees who could reasonably expect a friendly reception, for instance escapees who were Japanese residents (“returnees” i.e. ethnic Korean residents of Japan who had emigrated from Japan to North Korea and subsequently fled, and possibly had Japanese family members), ROK prisoners of war, people with relatives already overseas, or, it appears, attractive intelligence assets.
Their asylum gambits were choreographed and pre-arranged by a NGOs acting as concierges on behalf of particular individuals and families.
Other members of the family that tried to rush the Japanese consulate had already made a successful bid for asylum in Beijing, according to the New York Times:
The five people who were detained by the Chinese police while trying to enter the Japanese Consulate are all members of a family that has angered North Korean authorities with previous efforts to escape to Seoul, a human rights group said. Last June, other family members walked into the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing demanding asylum and were subsequently resettled in Seoul.
The increased traffic in asylum seekers was definitely not welcome to the PRC—which installed barriers, heightened security to prevent approaches to embassies and consulates, and issued a notification laying out its disapproval.
The foreign states were not terribly averse to the Chinese message.
Overall, it appears that the bottom line was that the “underground railroad” had the potential to deliver “elite” refugees in quantities that the foreign states as well as the PRC deemed unacceptably disruptive, and the message was passed to the NGOs that qualified escapees should not be put in the pipeline on the presumption that they would be welcome when it came time to negotiate the final passage into a consulate or embassy.
In 2007, Adrian Hong of Liberty in North Korea described a failed approach:
“Last December, our field workers had moved to help 6 North Korean refugees from our underground shelters in China seek asylum. These refugees were judged to be high-risk; two orphan teenagers, a young 22 year old woman, and three older women. Many of the refugees have chronic injuries and illnesses. One of the refugees is mother of a North Korean refugee now resettled in the United States. During our underground railroad operation, our refugees and their escorts made the dangerous trek to the United States Consulate in Shenyang without incident, although not without several very close calls.
Upon arrival in Shenyang, I notified the authorities at the Consulate of our identities and intentions, to seek asylum and protection for these NK refugees. I took extensive measures, as always, to remain discrete, speaking over safe phone lines and using words and phrases that would signal our situation to educated Consular staff, but not to an eavesdropper. As the group waited a few hundred feet from the main gate of the US Consulate, in view of the United States flag and gates, I was told that someone would call me back.
A while later I received a call from a gentleman who identified himself as a member of the US Consulate. He referred to me by name, and said that they could not accept us, and that they suggested for us to “take the North Korean refugees and go to the UNHCR in Beijing. It goes without mention that US posts are subject to intense electronic surveillance, and sure enough, a short while later large numbers of Chinese authorities and police began to show up in the vicinity of our location.
I moved the refugees to a more discreet but still very close location, and called into the US Embassy in Beijing. I was told in very strong, scolding terms, that I had jeopardized the lives of the refugees, and that China’s Public Security Bureau had informed the US and other nations with posts in the area that North Korean refugees were seeking entrance to their compounds. I responded that the refugees took the calculated risk to seek asylum with the United States because their situation was already very dangerous, and that the Chinese authorities had likely been alerted by the irresponsible and indifferent actions of the US post in Shenyang. I spent quite a bit of time on the phone pleading with the officer in question.
At that point we were literally less than 100 feet away from the main entrance to the Shenyang post- it would have been a simple matter for any consulate official to step out and wave our refugees in, past the Chinese authorities, as is done for many visitors to the Consulate.
The officer continued to refuse and redirect us to the UNHCR in Beijing, despite my pleas, and we had no choice but to head towards Beijing. En route, our 6 refugees and their 2 American escorts were apprehended, and I was detained in Beijing. The group was imprisoned in Shenyang. Our LiNK workers were released and deported to the United States after 10 days; our refugees are still in Chinese custody today [they were released after several months’ detention and allowed to emigrate to South Korea—ed]
… Refugees are being turned away from the gates of US posts and sent to the UNHCR in Beijing – a dangerous journey that very few manage to make without capture. Funding for NGOs and underground workers has not been released; and less than a paltry three dozen North Korean refugees are now resettled in the United States. Our own refugees that I personally escorted to US custody last October arrived just last week- nearly four months after they had been accepted! It is my understanding that delays on their arrival here were not from the Chinese, but from our own State Department.
The passivity of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Beijing is apparently a sore point for North Korea activists. Any escapee who is able to run the gauntlet from the DPRK to the capital and “touches base” there is entitled to a review of the conditions of flight; if it is determined he or she is a political or religious refugee who would be expected to suffer persecution if returned to North Korea, the relevant principle is “non-refoulement” i.e. the individual is entitled to refuge and cannot be returned forcibly to the home country.
The US strongly supports the “touch base” privileges of Tibetan refugees who reach the UNHCR office in Nepal, characterizing the people who make the arduous and expensive trek over the Himalayas from the Tibet AR as political/religious refugees (though the Chinese government would beg to differ; over half of the “refugees” processed by the UNHCR and allowed to go on to Dharmsala are actually political/religious tourists who quickly return to Tibet, to the aggravation of Nepal and the suspicion of the PRC).
The UNHCR Beijing Office apparently has a lower profile out of deference to the PRC government, and, like the foreign embassies and consulates, appears a party to the limited processing of small numbers of “elite” refugees, as a group of NGOs complained in 2011:
However, we reluctantly must conclude that the UNHCR’s presence in Beijing is now unwittingly supporting the PRC government in its repatriation policy. It is our understanding that the UNHCR does not overtly pressure the PRC government in order to quietly help individuals and small groups of refugees reach safety. To the best of our knowledge even this kind of activity is severely limited at present.
The UNHCR made some amends in February 2014 by releasing a blistering report on human rights in North Korea, which addressed the plight of the tens of thousands of “non-elite” refugees in Northeast China and also took aim at PRC refoulement policies.
Although unable to conduct direct, on-the-ground inquiries either in North Korea or on the PRC side of the border, the UNHCR collected enough atrocity stories from émigrés and NGOs to compile a bulky dossier on the DPRK/PRC system for dealing with people fleeing North Korea for China.
The report concluded that Kim Jung Un’s regime had tightened border controls compared to the Kim Jung Il era, when a combination of corruption and famine-related realpolitik had caused border guards to turn a blind eye toward people fleeing across the Tumen River.
Border operations have now been placed under the aegis of the SSD—the State Security Department—instead of the army, and a protocol set up by which escapees either recaptured or forcibly repatriated are processed through a series of interrogations (abetted by food deprivation, beatings, and other tortures) to determine whether the flight motive was to seek economic opportunity in China (bad), Christian conviction (very bad), the desire to make it to the ROK (very, very bad), or in collusion with ROK intelligence (fatal).
Depending on the nature of the allegations against them and their background, the fate of repatriated persons is determined by the SSD. Persons found to have made contact with ROK nationals and/or Christian missionaries are sent for further interrogation at the provincial SSD headquarters. From there, they are sent either directly to a political prison camp (kwanliso) without any trial or imprisoned in an ordinary prison camp (kyohwaso) after an unfair trial. In cases considered to be particularly grave, such as having contact with ROK intelligence officials, the victim faces execution.
Conversely, those found to have solely gone to China looking for food and/or work are handed over to the MPS [Ministry of Public Security], where the interrogation process is usually recommenced. If the MPS confirms that the person is only an “ordinary” border crosser, it commits him or her to detention in a holding centre (jipkyulso). There, the person remains detained, sometimes for months, until MPS agents from the person’s home county collect him or her and place the victim, usually without a trial, for several months to a year in a labour training camp. [pg. 114]
The PRC cooperated with the DPRK by aggressively tightening up on border enforcement and capture, and has declared that all North Korean escapees are economic migrants who can be repatriated without any asylum review.
However, since the initial screening for all returnees is torture—i.e. cruel and inhumane treatment for the purposes of extracting a confession—followed by cruel and inhumane treatment –i.e. much of the same inflicted by the prison guards and administration out of sadism against people they consider less than human, especially women who have become pregnant by Chinese men and suffer the horrors of forced abortions–there’s a pretty strong argument that every North Korean, economic migrants included, who is detained in the PRC should be entitled to non-refoulement status until his or her qualifications for asylum are reviewed.
As the report put it:
The Commission therefore finds that many DPRK nationals, deemed by China as mere economic illegal migrants, are arguably either refugees fleeing persecution or become refugees sur place, and are thereby entitled to international protection. [pg. 130]
Furthermore, the UNHCR report alleged that the PRC pre-screens returnees and provides information to the DPRK upon refoulement, undercutting its “economic migrants” defense:
A former official, who worked on border security, stated that when the Chinese authorities repatriate DPRK nationals, they also provide the DPRK authorities with documentation regarding the living circumstances of the repatriated persons in China. The documentation indicated whether the DPRK nationals had simply lived with their “spouses” or have had contact with Christians or ROK nationals including with ROK intelligence agents. Such information was used by the DPRK authorities in determining the fate of those repatriated persons. Those believed to be working with ROK intelligence were executed in the DPRK, whilst those involved with Christian missionaries would be sent to DPRK prison camps without trial. The same witness also indicated that Chinese officials used differently coloured stamps on the documentation handed over to the DPRK authorities based on whether the repatriated persons planned to reach the ROK or not. Another witness also indicated that the Chinese authorities provided their DPRK counterparts with a document concerning her case upon handing her over. [pg. 131]
The report concludes with a rather quixotic call to refer the DPRK to the International Criminal Court—something that would have to be done through the UN Security Council i.e. with the support of the PRC. In addition to tying up its neighbor and quasi-ally in the ICC process, which the PRC detests on principle, such a proceeding would presumably expose PRC officials to the accusation, if not legal liability, for complicity in crimes against humanity.
The contradictions inherent in the UNHCR approach were highlighted, perhaps inadvertently, in the Guardian’s coverage:
The UN report “is a very strong indictment of North Korea, but China is clearly right there in the mix, and that’s the reason why they were reluctant to co-operate,” said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And so the main purpose of the report, beyond making the case for a continued international response to North Korea through the international criminal court, is to move China.”
Unsurprisingly, China was unmoved. The PRC brushed aside the report as “politicized” and once again declared that all DPRK escapees were “economic migrants”.
Estimates for DPRK citizens clandestinely residing in the PRC near the Korean border range from 25,000 to 100,000, down from perhaps a quarter of a million during the famine years (and before the aggressive refoulement campaign). That is a manageable number but one that would surely grow if the PRC respected the principle of non-refoulement, started reviewing asylum dossiers…and began suggesting that the ROK and US live up to their human rights rhetoric and step up to take in thousands of brutalized and poorly educated DPRK refugees.
That’s an outcome that neither the PRC, ROK, the US, the other nations, or the UN are presumably eager to see right now.
So it looks like everybody’s quietly on board with the current system (with the noble exception of the NGOs that support refugees and the persecuted North Koreans themselves)—and Blackwater (now renamed once again as “Academi”) won’t be needed in Shenyang again for a while.
But that doesn’t mean the Blackwater crew is done with China.
Blackwater ex-jefe Erik Prince announced he was fed up with the political and legal heat associated with servicing the US government (and, perhaps, massacring clusters of Iraqis at roundabouts and threatening US State Department personnel with murder). He told the Wall Street Journal about his new job, new boss, and new market:
[Prince is] chairman of Frontier Services Group, an Africa-focused security and logistics company with intimate ties to China’s largest state-owned conglomerate, Citic Group. Beijing has titanic ambitions to tap Africa’s resources—including $1 trillion in planned spending on roads, railways and airports by 2025—and Mr. Prince wants in.
Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the Chinese military in the current issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.