With dozens of North Korean defectors facing the risk of being returned to the North after being caught by Chinese police, the South Korean government has urged China to stop the forcible repatriation of the escapees. Rep. Park Sun-young of the conservative minor Liberty Forward Party said in a parliamentary human rights forum on February 14th that 24 North Korean defectors who had been arrested in China were on the brink of being repatriated to the North. Some of the defectors have their families in South Korea, and they have requested emergency relief from the National Human Rights Commission. But some of the defectors have reportedly been transferred to Changchun for repatriation. On February 19th, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in South Korea called for the Chinese government to comply with the international treaties governing the treatment of refugees and prevention of torture. Professor Lee Won-woong at Kwandong University explains more about the international conventions.
The Refugee Convention consists of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. As China became a signatory to the two agreements in 1975 and in 1982, respectively, the nation is obliged to conform to them. The convention strictly prohibits the repatriation of escapees until they are confirmed as refugees or not. When the defectors ask for protection, China is required to ask experts of a refugee organization directed by the U.N. to determine their status. China is being criticized for violating this. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment went into effect in 1984 and China ratified it in 1988. The U.N. Committee against Torture conveyed its concerns to China in 2008 over a possible repatriation of North Koran defectors, since there are serious worries about torture after they are sent back to the North by force. In accordance with the two U.N. conventions, the deportation of North Korean defectors should be blocked by all means.
The Foreign Ministry is reportedly examining ways to urge China to observe an international refugee law. During a foreign ministers’ meeting between the two countries, which is expected to take place early next month, the ministry will bring up this issue. It will also discuss the matter at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, starting next week in Geneva, Switzerland. This is considered a major shift from the government’s previous “quiet diplomacy” in which Seoul would appeal to China through bilateral discussions for humanitarian support in dealing with North Korean defectors.
As far as I know, the Chinese authorities have strengthened crackdowns on North Korean defectors since 2009. It is true that the South Korean government has made a lot of effort behind the scenes. But China has been leaning toward North Korea as of late, in a shift from its previous ambivalent attitude in which it used to take consideration of both international opinion and North Korea’s position. Now, the Seoul government seems to have determined to take a strong stance on this issue through international pressure. I think South Korea will focus more on multilateral channels and international treaties than on a bilateral diplomatic channel with China to address the issue.
Beijing faces growing international calls to stop the repatriation of North Korean defectors to their home country. Amnesty International has urged China to protect the defectors, and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees delivered Beijing its position that the defectors should not be sent back home until measures guaranteeing their safety are ensured. The prospects are not very bright, though. In September last year, China held 35 North Korean escapees in a detention camp in the border city of Tumen and returned them to North Korea after international criticism subsided.
The South Korean government is aggressively seeking to resolve the humanitarian problem and Amnesty International has issued a special statement recently. Also, the U.S. is moving fast. Therefore, China cannot ignore international opinion entirely. Deporting the defectors to North Korea by force is a clear violation of international treaties, so it is possible that the repatriation may be postponed or negotiations will be held. But the situation isn’t very good. It is said that Chinese police carried out a sting operation to catch the defectors. I don’t think the Chinese authorities will release them easily.
Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry stresses its existing principles of dealing with North Korean defectors. Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on February 20th that Beijing is handling the issue in line with “domestic and international laws and humanitarian principles.” When a reporter pointed out that repatriation goes against humanitarian principles and the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Hong said Beijing cannot accept such rhetoric. So, why is China intensifying crackdowns on North Korean escapees and seeking to send them back to the North despite international criticism?
Probably the biggest reason for that is North Korea’s strong request. As you know, North Korea has seen an abnormal hereditary power transfer to the 29-old Kim Jong-un. Under these circumstances, North Korea views defectors as the most important risk factor that could make the regime unstable. The new leadership in North Korea has reportedly threatened to kill three generations of any family if one member flees from the country. North Korea will likely handle the defectors sternly to set an example to other citizens. North Korea is trying to block any wind blowing in from the outside in order to maintain the regime. And China seems to be responding positively to Pyongyang’s tough stance toward those attempting to defect.
The South Korean government has urged China to follow relevant international treaties, but some point out that the request has limitations in reality. While the principle of prohibiting the repatriation of refugees has been recognized internationally, China claims that the principle is not applied to North Korean defectors as they are not refugees. Some are also concerned that if South Korea raises the defector issue more aggressively, China, which is in special relations with North Korea, could get even tougher with the defectors. Professor Lee suggests some potential solutions to prevent this issue from escalating into diplomatic friction between South Korea and China.
South Korea needs to strengthen diplomacy toward China consistently. Economic relations between the two countries are very important, aren’t they? Seoul needs to convince China how important the defector issue is. North Korean defectors should be recognized as refugees internationally. On top of that, they are South Korean nationals under the Constitution. From the moment they express hope to come to South Korea, South Korea is responsible for taking care of them. Seoul should convince Beijing of this through various diplomatic channels, although it won’t be easy. Also, I hope the government will provide more support for civic groups dedicated to helping North Korean defectors come to South Korea. It is hoped that the government will show greater consideration so they won’t give up or experience difficulties.
The eyes of the international community are on the Korean Peninsula in regards to the repatriation of North Korean defectors who were arrested by Chinese police. The South Korean government should be more committed to seeking wisdom in cooperation with the international community, while China must approach this issue on humanitarian grounds.
[Interview] Youth Group Dedicated to Volunteer Service for NK Newcomers
In this season of cold winter, some people need more attention and hope to feel the warmth of those around them. They are North Korean expatriates who left their families behind in their home country. High school students in Goyang city, Gyeonggi Province, visited those lonely, homesick people who miss their loved ones all the time in their new South Korean environment. These students are the members of the “Ae Full Youth Group in Goyang,” which was launched in February last year. “Ae” stands for “love” in Chinese characters, and the phrase “Ae Full” means “full of love.” Twenty-six students in Goyang city get together from time to time to practice love for their country in their daily lives. For example, they sing every verse of the national anthem and learn how to draw the national flag of Taegeukgi. They plant the Rose of Sharon, Korea’s national flower, and visit people of national merit. Their activities also include volunteer services for North Korean newcomers. Group leader Kim Young-suk explains the significance of the members’ volunteer service for defectors from North Korea.
I place great emphasis on preparing students for the future unification of Korea because unification will come about in their generation. To this end, the students visit North Korean defectors to find out what distresses them the most and to listen to their problems. In doing so, we hope we can help them lead a unified Korea in a more effective way. The ultimate goal is to prepare teenagers for unification.
Having formed one-on-one relationships with senior North Korean expatriates living alone, the group members visit them twice a month to prepare side dishes for them, share their stories or go on a picnic together. The senior citizens find great comfort in the heartfelt service of the young students who are willing to take time out of their busy schedule to visit the lonely neighbors.
I really want to thank the students for visiting me. I might have died before experiencing such a good world, but I was fortunate enough to come all the way to South Korea and live a happy life. I feel as though the students were my own grandchildren. I hope they will grow up well and become great people.
Two members of the group traveled to the North Korean border town of Gaeseong in January to participate in an event marking the delivery of 180 tons of flour to child facilities there. A civic group in Goyang offered to provide the flour aid. One member talks about her experience in North Korea.
To deliver flour, we drove on a dust-blowing, unpaved road to enter the village. The roofs of the houses appeared likely to collapse at any minute. Children’s faces were all red with cold and their noses were running. It was freezing that day. I saw some people washing clothes by the brook in cold weather. The situation was a lot worse than I had expected. I saw with my own eyes that they were living in such a poor environment. We felt sorry and even embarrassed that we were living in a good environment.
What caught the eyes of the two students when they visited North Korea were girl students of their age, who were working laboriously at a factory instead of studying in school. It is said their monthly pay is a mere 100-thousand South Korean won, which is less than 100 US dollars. Watching them working hard in a dire environment, the group members acutely felt the need for unification. But the future of a unified Korea seems bright, thanks to these students. We are pinning high hopes on their activities and service that will surely contribute to Korea’s unification.