The DPRK Endures International Heat and a Cold November: Human Rights Issues in Sino-NK Dossier #3

By | May 17, 2012 | No Comments

In March 2012, Chinese media appeared to conclusively break the dam when it comes to open acknowledgement of the problem of North Korean refugees in China. While there should be no doubt that the PRC has ceded not an inch of its fiercely-protected sovereignty on the issue as a consequence, the move indicated that the Chinese leaders were willing to counter North Korean misbehavior with adjustments, if not a wholesale reevaluation, to the refugee discourse. Some direct repatriations to the ROK in November 2011, if rather small in number, reemphasized this fact. Of course, in true CCP style, the change has coincided with an uptick in security along the border and with equally, if not more, provocative moves toward dismantling South Korean refugee aid networks in Northeast China. Moreover, there has been no public discussion of the problem of refoulement, no mention of international human rights pacts to which the PRC is signatory, no consideration yet of North Koreans as political refugees, and certainly talk of the admission of UN observers or the setting up of transit camps to Mongolia or the ROK directly.

Nevertheless, in the big picture, it should be clear by now that China is arrogating greater flexibility to itself with the refugee problem as a lever in its dealings with Pyongyang, something that simply had not been the case in prior years (if one leaves aside rather the exceptional case of juche architect Hwang Jang Yop’s leap to freedom in the 1990s). In the tallying up of Sino-DPRK tensions that have led up to today’s wild hostage situation, the impact of the opening of the PRC’s media floodgates to discussion of the North Korean refugee issue should not be discounted as a step taken by the CCP that further indicates a downturn in the overall relationship.    

Brian Gleason, presently a master’s candidate in Global Studies at Yonsei University, previews and contextualizes tensions which emerged on the refugee issue last fall.  — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Candlelight vigils took place in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul earlier this year, bringing international attention to the deportation of refugees from China to North Korea | Photo: Steven Denney

The DPRK Endures International Heat and a Cold November: Human Rights Issues in Sino-NK Dossier 3

by Brian Gleason

In the months leading up to the death of Kim Jong-il, the intensifying international efforts to address North Korea’s human rights violations and refugee issues served to further marginalize the North Korean regime, forcing Pyongyang to take the defensive. These international efforts have been spearheaded by more than 40 human rights organizations from around the world, which campaigned for the establishment of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s crimes against humanity, among other endeavors. Although the North Korean media simply brushed aside the October 21 visit by Valerie Amos, UN under secretary general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief coordinator, with a three-sentence KCNA report simply entitled, “UN Officials Leave” — the international pressure and strain on PRC-DPRK relations has certainly caused concern in Beijing. Fleeing North Korean refugees raise sovereignty issues between the PRC-DPRK, as North Korean border guards have killed North Korean refugees on Chinese soil, and China has become increasingly alienated in the international community, especially when campaigns like the International Protest to Save the North Korean Refugees encourage protests at Chinese embassies and consulates around the world.

Accusations of Hypocrisy | Yet while the international community chastises North Korea, from the perspective of the North Korean regime, the US imperialist aggressor is really the ultimate violator of human rights. As several KCNA articles argue, the US accuses North Korea of human rights violations while committing brutal sexual assaults against South Korean women and hypocritically repressing its own people as they rose up to occupy Wall Street.

From the KCNA:

The U.S. would frequently advocate “defense” of human rights including freedom of assembly and demonstration. However, it is now arresting and detaining at random the popular masses who rose up in the struggle against exploitation and repression by capital.

This frantic racket of crackdown is a vivid expression of hypocrisy of the U.S.-style “freedom” and “human rights”, and it clearly shows the world that the U.S. is a grave yard of human rights.

Despite Pyongyang’s best efforts to win the ideological war and convince the North Korean people that its Songun policy protects them from imminent invasion, the number of North Korean refugees in the South continues to grow. In February, the two Koreas locked horns over the fate of 31 North Koreans who drifted into South Korea’s territorial waters, with some North Koreans ultimately remaining in the ROK. A similar situation unfolded in late October, leading twenty-one North Koreans to seek asylum in South Korea.

Strengthening DPRK-PRC Ties | Throughout October, a number of high-level meetings between PRC and DPRK officials appeared to strengthen the relationship between the two countries. On October 23, Li Keqiang, vice premier of the State Council of China, traveled to Pyongyang to pay an official goodwill visit to North Korea at the invitation of the WPK Central Committee and the North Korean government. Li’s three-day trip consolidated bilateral ties and addressed international and regional issues of mutual concern, culminating in an important meeting with Kim Jong-il. About a week later, top DPRK officials met with Liu Hongcai, Chinese ambassador to North Korea, with Jong-un in attendance. Liu noted that Kim Jong-il had performed “immortal feats in consolidating and developing the traditional Sino-DPRK friendship,” and thanked the Dear Leader for his previous reception of Li Keqiang earlier in the month. Interestingly, Li’s name would come up again in November, but for a completely different, and rather irksome reason in the eyes of the DPRK leadership.

Vice Premier Li Keqiang meets President Lee Myung-bak during a two-day official visit to South Korea in 2011 | Xinhua

A Cold November for the DPRK | On November 10, Yonhap reported that China would allow a group of 19 North Korean refugees to leave for South Korea, in a surprising reversal of its normal repatriation policy. An anonymous source cited within the article said that “last month’s visit to South Korea by Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang may have had an impact in the case of the 19.” However, the details of this purported divergence from repatriation protocol are uncertain, and the status of those 19 refugees remains unknown. Three days later, the Global Times reported that the Chinese authorities had not confirmed if the group of 19 North Korean defectors arrested in Northeast China would be sent to South Korea. A press official with the foreign ministry stated: “We have not been told to change our regular practice regarding this case.”

The status of those 19 North Koreans remains unclear, but even if China’s policy had not changed, North Korea still faced a host of other problems in November. Food prices were soaring, and according to a November 10 Bank of Korea report, the North Korean economy was apparently shrinking. “Major industries were hampered by bad weather, poor energy and raw material supply, and the international economic sanctions on the country,” the Bank of Korea said. To add insult to injury, on November 21 the human rights panel of the United Nations General Assembly approved a draft resolution that would have the Assembly urge the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to “immediately end all violations of human rights and give voice to victims.” The KCNA offered several vitriolic responses, but the damage had been done.

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