Going Forward: Continuing the Fight for North Korean Refugees

By | March 20, 2012 | No Comments

Going Forward: Continuing the Fight for North Korean Refugees

by Mary Soo Anderson

This commentary was originally intended to address the possibility of repatriation for the 31 North Korean refugees reportedly detained in China. Despite China’s well known history of forcibly sending back North Korean defectors caught within its borders, following interviews I conducted with North Korean human rights activists involved in the protests, I found myself reservedly optimistic that China would bow to the demands of the international community and act according to the 1951 UN refugee convention and the 1967 protocol.

Of course, this was not the case. On March 9, reports were released claiming that China had already repatriated the 31 refugees.

The fact that China has been sending North Koreans back for a number of years suggests we should not be surprised by China’s actions. China has ignored their obligations to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol in favor of a 1986 bilateral agreement with North Korea, which calls for them to return North Korean defectors without question. Dozens of reports and testimonies describe the fate that awaits those who are sent back – an intense, violent interrogation followed by a several months sentence in one of North Korea’s notorious labor camps. North Koreans who come into contact with a South Korean or Christian while in China are likely to receive a harsher sentence in a political prison camp, or possibly death.

Asides from this current case of North Korean refugees, China has chosen to ignore the pleas of the international community on several human rights issues, including the imprisonment of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and its treatment of Tibetans, especially Tibetan monks, an issue that has also exacerbated recently due to the new regulations that would allow the monasteries to be ruled directly by the Chinese government.

Yet, China is not entirely immune to international pressure. In 2002, the world witnessed the arrest of a North Korean family, which included a two-year-old girl, as they attempted to enter the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang, China. Video footage of the event and photographs featuring the two-year-old Han-mi, crying and in pigtails, were broadcast globally. The intense international attention encouraged China to release the family, which allowed them to safely enter South Korea. More recent examples include the 2011 release of Chinese human rights activists Teng Biao and Hu Jia, both also the result of an international outcry.

A protestor rests his placard during a protest held in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. The placard features young Han-mi in the background as her mother struggles with Chinese guards in front of the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang.

For the dozens of protestors who have camped out and chanted in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul since February 14, China’s past compliances to strong international pressure were likely in mind. Just a few days before leaving for the Geneva Summit, Peter Jung, Secretary-General for The Association of North Korea Human Rights Organization and founder of activist group Justice for North Korea, expressed his hope that China would be encouraged to change their policy towards North Korean refugees following the summit. Jung, who organized the protests from their inception with South Korean parliament member Park Sun Young, commented also on the importance of using protests and garnering attention on this issue to push China to change, remarking that this is “the first step.”

Eunyoung Kim, program officer for Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a non-profit organization, shared similar thoughts just two days after China’s repatriations of the refugees were reported. “China will not be able to avoid severe international criticism,” she stated. “If there is more and continuous pressure from all over, I believe China will eventually change their stance. They have to.”

The UN Human Rights Council, which began holding its 19 session at the end of February, has provided further opportunity to keep up momentum on the North Korean refugees situation in China. Both Jung and Kim were present in Geneva last week with representative from their respective organizations. Jung organized an exhibition featuring photographs and testimonies of North Korean refugees caught in China and repatriated back to North Korea. Citizens’ Alliance held an NGO parallel meeting on North Korean human rights in cooperation with Human Rights Watch and Conectas. The meeting featured a testimony by Ms. Kim Hye Sook, who was imprisoned for 28 years in North Korea’s No.18 Political Prison Camp. Members of the hosting organizations briefed the current situation on North Korean refugees in China as well as the human rights situation in North Korea, asking for continuous support for the UN resolution on North Korean human rights to the permanent missions to the UN and international NGOs.

Unprecedented interest in the issue was shown in Geneva last week. Including South Korea, the EU, the U.S, the U.K., Switzerland and France have all raised concerns over the human rights of North Korean refugees. Despite this, however, China reiterated that it views the undocumented North Koreans within their borders as “economic migrants”.

Last week Kang Chol Hwan, a North Korea defector who currently works as an investigative reporter in South Korea, published an article in the Chosun Ilbo that strongly criticized the South Korean government and its people for not providing this level of interest for North Korean defectors earlier. He highlights how during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, South Korean diplomats did little to protect or assist North Korea defectors seeking refuge in China. “If the South Korean government and the public had paid more attention to the plight of North Korean defectors and supported human rights groups, the forced repatriation of so many defectors by the Chinese government could have been prevented. It is easy to denounce the Chinese government now, but we must not forget the indifference we have shown.”

Kang raises a valid concern for the past apathy of the South Korean government on matters related to North Korean human rights. In late September of 2011, a very similar case involving 20 North Korean refugees in China did not raise nearly the level of government or public support seen in this current case, and those refugees too were sent back. And for the past 3 years, a bill on North Korean human rights has remained in limbo in the National Assembly of South Korea. Second Vice Foreign Minister Kim Sung-han made a comment on the bill’s pending status, stating “It is irony, or rather a shame, for South Korea to have the bill pending at the National Assembly for more than three years, while it seeks reunification eventually.”

Indeed, China’s obligation to protect these refugees remains resonant, but if change is to happen, members of the South Korean government must continue to remain vocal and demonstrate proactive support on this matter. While the battle may have been lost with the 31 refugees, the war on this issue is certainly not over. Hundreds of North Koreans are currently held in prisons in China awaiting their own fate. If South Korea’s interest on this issue continues to hold strong and outcries to China do not wane, the likelihood of a change in China’s policy towards North Korean refugees will persist.

A South Korean activist at a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on March 9, 2012.


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  1. “If South Korea’s interest on this issue continues to hold strong and outcries to China do not wane, the likelihood of a change in China’s policy towards North Korean refugees will persist.”

    Ms. Anderson had it completely wrong. It is really just wishful thinking on her part that China will kowtow to pressure, criticism and shrewd demands from South Korea and the US. The more the South Koreans and the Americans choose to be tough with China the less likely the Chinese will budge.

    All along the South Koreans should have worked with China discreetly to have the matter resolved under the table. It worked before, why not this time? Instead the South Koreans chose to up the ante and it totally backfired on them.

    Mr. Kang is absolutely correct. South Korea needs to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

  2. Sudden rise of this issue in this particular time is for congress elections of S.Korea 11th April. Beware not to be used by politicians. They can even eat defectors for election.

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