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[Editorial] U.N. focus on defectors

More than 30 North Korean defectors caught in Shenyang by Chinese security police are facing repatriation to the North. The problems of North Korean defectors in China are hardly new, but this time, the situation is much more serious than before. The new North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, openly threatened in January to “exterminate three generations of the family” of anyone who defects during the 100-day mourning period for his deceased father, Kim Jong-il.

As the arrested defectors could face public execution in the North, Korean and international human rights organizations are mounting an emergency campaign to prevent Beijing from returning them home.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International have both urged China not to forcibly repatriate the North Korean asylum seekers.

Human rights advocates are also protesting near the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, calling on Beijing to stop “pushing North Korean defectors toward the guillotine.”

The serious nature of the problem has led the Seoul government to raise its voice toward China. Thus far, Seoul has sought to resolve the problem with Beijing through closed-door bilateral talks.

This time, the government is pursuing a two-track approach. On the one hand, it will continue to use the usual bilateral diplomatic channel. The Foreign Ministry has arranged a meeting between senior officials from the two countries later this month to discuss pending issues, including North Korean defectors, illegal fishing by Chinese boats in South Korean waters and preparations for talks on a free trade deal.

At the same time, the government is seeking to mobilize international pressure on China to change its policy on North Korean defectors. On Tuesday, the ministry’s spokesman said Seoul would raise the defector issue for the first time at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which opens in Geneva at the end of this month.

This policy shift is a step in the right direction. The Seoul government should have adopted this two-track approach earlier, given that bilateral consultations with China have not been working properly in recent years. A strong ally of North Korea, Beijing has increasingly turned a deaf ear to Seoul’s demand that it stop sending back defectors, on humanitarian grounds.

Seoul needs to highlight China’s callous disregard for the human rights of North Korean defectors and its failure to abide by international laws despite its stature as a key player in the global community.

Beijing is well aware that the repatriated defectors would face harsh punishment or even death in North Korean prison camps. But it does not care about their plight at all.

China sends back North Korean defectors under a treaty with North Korea. But international laws, including the U.N. conventions on refugees and torture to which China is a signatory, ban a state from repatriating refugees likely to face persecution and torture. China refuses to apply these conventions to North Korean defectors since it views them not as refugees but simply as illegal economic migrants.

As a sovereign state, China does have the right to decide whether it treats defectors as refugees or not. But it needs to remember that numerous international human rights organizations, including the UNHCR, have identified North Korean defectors as refugees entitled to protection under the U.N. conventions.

Hence Beijing cannot avoid criticism for its unlawful and inhumane treatment of people who have entered its territory to escape the brutal tyranny of the regime in North Korea.

Now the Seoul government has rightly decided to take the high road in handling the defector issue. While bilateral negotiations are still important in tackling thorny issues with China, the right path for Seoul in dealing with the defector problem is to make it an international issue and seek support from the international community.

But it has a long way to go. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson has reminded us of this with her comment on Seoul’s move to take the defector problem to the U.N. Human Rights Council. “It is not an issue to be discussed within the U.N. system,” she was quoted as saying on Tuesday. Seoul needs to prove she was wrong.