Within the past few days, news has emerged that China has forcibly repatriated at least 41 North Korean refugees - to a desperate fate in the country they fled.
The North Korean regime takes a very dim view of its citizens who leave the country illegally, and since he took over Kim Jong Un has tightened the screws even more. In 2010, North Korea made the crime of defection a "crime of treachery against the nation". In an apparent attempt to show he is a tough guy, to consolidate his power and confound those who say he is too young, inexperienced and weak, the 29-year-old son of the deceased leader Kim Jong Il reportedly ordered border guards to shoot those escaping across the frontier to China.
It is well known that those who are sent back to North Korea from China face certain arrest, beating and torture, probable imprisonment for many years and possible execution. If they are suspected to have had contact with South Korean missionaries, converted to Christianity or possess a Bible, they are almost certainly killed.
Even if they are not actually executed, life in North Korea's gulags is virtually a death sentence. Over 200,000 people are incarcerated in labour camps reminiscent of those set up by Stalin, where every day is a struggle for survival. Horrific torture, dire living conditions, long hours of slave labour, extremely poor food and no medical care are the principle features of North Korea's kwan-li-so camps.
Daily NK, a news website, reported that an official in China's Ministry of Public Security had confirmed that 41 North Koreans had been forced back, and another 10 are currently detained. So the question for China's leadership, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, is why?
China is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which includes the principle of non-refoulement - not sending refugees back to a country where their lives could be at risk. By forcibly repatriating these North Koreans, China is flagrantly violating international law.
The sticking point for China is that it argues that these people are not refugees, but 'economic migrants'. For many of the North Koreans who flee their country, that may technically be true. They may not be escaping direct political or religious persecution per se, and instead leave because of the desperate economic conditions in the country. They go to China in search of food and work. They are sometimes trafficked, and sold into sexual slavery or as 'wives' to Chinese men.
However as Roberta Cohen, Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, argued in testimony to the US Congress last week, the awful humanitarian crisis in North Korea is the result of the regime's economic policies, and the suffering inflicted on ordinary people is tantamount to political persecution. Those who suffer poverty and hunger do so primarily because they are not regarded as part of the loyal elite.
Moreover, some of the thousands of North Koreans who have fled the country into China are genuine refugees, running away from political or religious persecution. They may have got into trouble with the authorities because they watched a South Korean DVD, listened to a foreign radio broadcast or accidentally crumpled a newspaper that had a photo of one of the Kim dynasty. A few are actually survivors of the gulags, who have lived to tell their tale and chosen to seek freedom.
And for those who are economic migrants when they enter China, they are de facto political refugees when threatened with repatriation. North Korea's crime of "treachery" does not differentiate between those who fled for freedom and those who fled for food. The United Nations has a concept known as refugees sur place, referring to people who might not have qualified as refugees when they left their country, but would have a valid fear of persecution upon their return. That certainly applies to all North Koreans threatened with repatriation.
China's co-operation agreement with North Korea, made in 1986, means it is obliged to prevent illegal border crossings. Yet which is more important: its agreement with a crumbling, rotten and cruel regime or its responsibilities under international law? Not only is China a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is also bound by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which China ratified in 1988. The Convention prohibits the forcible return of people to states where they face a substantial risk of being tortured.
It is understandable that China does not want to encourage a massive exodus from North Korea into its territory. Despite its economic success, China has a vast population of its own to feed, clothe, employ and house. But no one is asking China to accept these refugees permanently. On the contrary, most of them want to go to South Korea, or the West, and are simply travelling through China en route. All China needs to do is guarantee them safe passage and allow them to continue to South Korea, where they will be accepted and granted asylum.
China took a lot of heat over this issue in the past few weeks. South Korea, the United States and other countries raised the issue with Beijing, and pleaded with China not to send the refugees back. On 4 March, 31 South Korean celebrities staged a concert in Seoul in solidarity with the refugees. The next day in Washington, DC a hearing was held in the United States Congress. Protests, letters and petitions were organised around the world. In the end, it did not help.
There have been reports that Kim Jong Un's regime issued an amnesty for some of the 200,000 or more people jailed in prison camps. If this is implemented, it would be one of the most positive messages the new regime in Pyongyang could send to the world. If refugees who are forced back to North Korea from China are treated well, and not jailed or tortured, that too would be a positive sign. Given the regime's past record, it is not what we expect, but it will be against such decisions that Kim Jong Un will be judged.
Yet whatever happens, China does have some hard questions to ask itself. As a growing economic and political superpower and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is this the reputation China wants? With power comes responsibility, and respect must be earned. If China wants to be respected, it must stop sending North Korean refugees to their deaths, and work with the UN and the international community to ensure these people can reach a place of refuge and freedom. If China continues its current barbaric policy, the world must ask its leaders, Hu and Wen, why?
Follow Benedict Rogers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/benedictrogers