The North Korean nuclear threat should be tackled as soon as possible. However, the security issue should not distract South Korea and the international community from addressing refugee and human rights problems in the North.
Incidents involving defectors have raised concerns that the South Korean government is not paying enough attention to the plight of North Koreans trying to escape tyranny and poverty in their country.
A worrisome case occurred in Vietnam early this month. Three North Korean defectors who attempted to enter the Southeast Asian country on their way to South Korea were caught on the border with China.
Activists who assisted the North Koreans said they were eventually deported to China while the Seoul government was sitting on its hands. They claimed to have asked the South Korean Foreign Ministry to help with the escapees when they were caught by Vietnamese border troops.
The activist group said it even gave the Foreign Ministry the mobile phone number of the commander of the Vietnamese border unit. But the ministry did not take any action for 36 hours while the three North Koreans were being held at the border, according to the group.
Now the fate of the three North Koreans is unknown, but in most such cases, the Chinese government allows the repatriation of North Korean defectors, who could face the death penalty.
This was not an isolated case. Chun Ki-won, a well-known activist for defectors, said four other North Koreans were caught by Russian border guards last month while attempting to enter Mongolia.
Chun, who heads the Seoul-based Durihana Mission, said the four were laborers sent to work in Blagoveshchensk in Siberia. They wanted to come to South Korea via Mongolia.
He said the four had been seeking assistance from the South Korean government for two years, but to no avail. They then decided to make the journey to the South by themselves, which resulted in their arrest at the Russia-Mongolia border.
Chun said he had appealed to the South Korean Foreign Ministry to help them when they were caught by Russian border guards but did not receive any response.
However, the Foreign Ministry denied this claim. A spokesman said it had contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regarding the case in Russia and also took necessary measures for the three North Koreans caught in Vietnam.
Another cause for concern is that the reconciliatory policy of the government of President Moon Jae-in seems to be behind the lack of proper and prompt assistance to North Korean defectors in need.
Chun noted that it has become very difficult for North Korean defectors to get to South Korea since the Moon administration took office.
Such a view is echoed in the US as well. American groups have publicly criticized the Seoul government for ignoring problems related to human rights in the North amid efforts to improve inter-Korean relations.
A recent US government report highlighted what it sees as an abnormal situation in South Korea. The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018 specifically noted that the Moon government is restricting activities of organizations that assist North Korean refugees.
It said the government was cutting subsidies to groups assisting North Korean defectors and blocking activists’ efforts to send leaflets and USBs across the border via balloons. The report sums up how the South Korean government’s efforts to appease the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang are perceived abroad.
The Moon administration’s efforts to improve relations with the North could facilitate a resolution of the nuclear crisis and establishment of peace and stability on the peninsula. But not to be forgotten are the hardships of North Koreans on the run and those oppressed by the totalitarian regime’s harsh rule day by day. They should not be left out in the cold.