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[Editorial] China and N.K. refugees

Large numbers of North Koreans cross the Amnok (Yalu) and Duman (Tumen) Rivers into China to escape from hunger and repression. Only the privileged few get official travel permission for business or visits with their relatives but most risk their lives as they swim across narrow and shallow points of the rivers or bribe border guards to make it into the northeastern provinces of China.

For most of the tens of thousands of North Koreans who are staying in the Jilin, Heilongjiang and Liaoning Provinces and those who advanced to Beijing and other cities, the final destination is South Korea where its Constitution recognizes them as bona fide citizens. Yet, for some refugees, the immediate concern is eating, and it does not really matter whether it is in China or in South Korea.

In their pragmatic approach, the Chinese have regarded North Korean stowaways primarily as those in search of food and recognized only a limited number as political refugees. They made the classification at their own discretion and deported the former group back to the North; the rest were allowed to leave for third countries for eventual entry into South Korea.

China normalized diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1992, nearly 40 years after they fought against each other in the Korean War. Beijing has maintained a firm treaty alliance with Pyongyang since the war and remains virtually the only supporter of North Korea in the world community. If the Chinese have to consider the traditional ties with the North, they cannot ignore the present interests they have in the South, the region’s economic powerhouse and one of the major global players.

Pyongyang demanded China’s return of all illegal entrants from the North while Seoul asked for the recognition of the refugee status for all who want to come to the South. In this stalemate, however, the annual number of North Korean “defectors” who managed to arrive in the South steadily increased over the past several years. There were 1,383 arrivals in 2005, 2,018 in 2006, 2,544 in 2007, 2,809 in 2008 and 2,927 in 2009. The number slightly decreased to 2,423 last year when the North’s border control intensified.

Chinese authorities’ arbitrary handling of the North Korean refugees with on-and-off crackdowns gave rise to the business of Chinese and South Korean “brokers” who arranged their travel to their final destination via Southeast Asia or Mongolia. Religious and human rights activists also played a significant part in bringing escapees to South Korea, braving close surveillance of the Chinese police.

Many South Koreans appreciate the role of China as a transit route for the defection of the thousands of North Koreans who have come here in the two decades since the complete postwar ban ended. Yet, we believe that time has come to review the situation where the fates of North Korean refugees are totally at the mercy of the Chinese authorities.

China is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on Refugees and observes the international human rights law as a leading world power. The first thing the Chinese authorities should consider is how the North Korean refugees’ lives and freedoms would be jeopardized if and when they are deported to the North. In handling the illegal entrants from the North, Beijing should provide South Korean consular officials with opportunities to confirm their free will.

Late last month, Chinese police arrested 35 North Koreans in Shenyang, Weihai and Yanji and are reported to be preparing for their deportation to the North. The world knows that the repressive regime in Pyongyang invariably puts unsuccessful escapees into concentration camps where hard labor and starvation await them.

As for the Seoul government, it is necessary to clarify its principles on seeking China’s delivery of North Korean refugees. Claiming its jurisdiction over all refugees from North Korea may be constitutionally correct but it will not convince the Chinese authorities. It will be necessary for the Seoul authorities to establish a reasonable definition of a North Korean refugee that conforms with South Korea’s legitimate call for repatriation into the South in accordance with the U.N. convention.
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