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Seoul strives to persuade Beijing to stop repatriating N.K. refugees

Seoul is still striving to persuade Beijing not to repatriate some 20 North Korean defectors arrested in China, a Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday, denying a news report that it has been notified of Beijing’s decision on their repatriation.

“We are still in negotiations with Chinese authorities and it will take some more time,” he told reporters, declining to be named.

“We continue to maintain that under the humanitarian principle, the free will of the refugees should be respected. But China repeats that the issue will be dealt with in accordance with the international and domestic laws and humanitarian perspectives.”

A senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of the Northeast Asian affairs was sent to Beijing last week to persuade Chinese authorities to respect defectors’ free will and deal with the issue with humanitarian considerations.

Chinese authorities arrested a total of 35 North Koreans in Shenyang, Weihai and Yanji from Sept. 26-30, the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees claimed. But Beijing has reportedly confirmed the arrest of only 20 defectors.

Criticism has persisted here that China has adhered to its repatriation policy although it is aware that they could face harsh punishments in the reclusive state, which activists claim include execution and tortures.

Human rights groups have argued that China’s decision to deport them would run afoul of the U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, calling for the Asian power to scrap its “inhumane” policy.

The convention upheld by the international community prohibits the repatriation of any refugees when there is a concern that their lives and freedom could be threatened if sent back to their home countries.

Observers said that China may continue to stick to its repatriation policy as it is burdensome to cope with the large number of North Korean refugees opting to cross the border to avoid persistent food shortages, and social and political suppression.

Nearly 22,000 North Koreans are known to have defected here since the Korean War, braving the life-or-death escape.

The annual number of the defectors steadily increased from 2005 until 2009. It was 1,383 in 2005, 2,018 in 2006, 2,544 in 2007, 2,809 in 2008 and 2,927 in 2009, according to the Unification Ministry.

It then slightly decreased to 2,423 last year when crackdowns around the border areas increased as the North stepped up efforts for its hereditary power succession scheme.

Since the two nations established diplomatic relations in 1992, how to deal with North Korean refugees has been considered one of the thorny issues to have negatively affected bilateral ties.

While civic groups denounced the Chinese policy, the Seoul government has also come under fire as activists berated the South Korean administration for failing to block the repatriation on a number of occasions.

One of the high-profile cases took place in 2000 when China repatriated seven North Korean refugees.

They smuggled themselves into Russia via China and were arrested by Russian authorities that year. Moscow handed them over to Beijing. Although China showed intention to handle the case with “humanitarian concerns,” it eventually sent them back to the North.

The case was immediately met with seething criticism here as the North Koreans had already been given refugee status from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Public anger also turned to the Seoul government for its “incompetent” handling of the issue.

Activists particularly alleged that over the past decade, China has continued to repatriate refugees when international attention toward them decreased in a number of cases so as to avoid international condemnation.

China has allowed North Korean refugees to be handed over to South Korea under the humanitarian principle when they are caught in areas of South Korean jurisdiction such as its embassy or other diplomatic missions in China.

But Beijing applied its domestic policies or the repatriation rule, and Pyongyang agreed to deal with the refugees caught in areas of Chinese control.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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