There are palpable changes in China’s relations with South and North Korea. In short, China is closer than ever with South Korea and on worse terms than ever with the North.
There is one thing, however, that has not changed in spite of the latest development in the dynamics of relations involving the three countries: China’s crackdown on North Koreans fleeing into its territory and sending back them to the North.
The Beijing government’s rigidity on the issue was confirmed in a recent case, in which Chinese officials rounded up 29 North Korean defectors and six people who were helping their escape to South Korea via a third country.
South Korean government officials and activists say that the North Koreans were arrested between July 15 and 17, 20 of them in Qingdao and nine in Kunming. Originally they were in the same group, but split up because it was dangerous to travel together.
The South said the North Koreans were taken to a detention center in the border town of Tumen, to await repatriation to North Korea. Waiting for the poor people are persecution, torture, imprisonment and even execution.
China is steadfast in deporting North Korean escapees under a treaty with Pyongyang, its longtime Communist ally. It also sticks to the policy out of concerns about social disorder and the negative impact on its economy in the event of a mass inflow of North Koreans into its northeastern regions, where there are many ethnic Koreans and other minorities.
But human dignity and rights should come ahead of any political and economic considerations. As a signatory to the U.N. Convention and Protocol to the Status of Refugees, China has an obligation to protect freedom and human rights of North Korean escapees, who are believed to number tens of thousands.
Chinese leaders are now more explicit in criticizing North Korea’s provocations such as nuclear development programs and missile launches. It may therefore want to refrain from doing more things that can further alienate Pyongyang.
This is why the Seoul government should try harder to call on the Chinese government, using their closer-than-ever ties as leverage, to save the hapless victims of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.