Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, said Beijing has been intensifying its crackdown on North Korean escapees, detaining and deporting many of them. The practice is not only fueling the risks of punishment after repatriation, but also generating a “second cycle of separation of families,” he said.
“There is, in fact, the tendency to tighten control in the border areas, there is the tendency to crack down on those who finally cross the border and transfer them for detention and there’s the tendency to increase repatriations,” he said in an interview marking the end of his five-day trip here on Friday.
His remarks coincide with a Radio Free Asia report Saturday that a group of five family members of a local Workers’ Party official had committed suicide after being apprehended in the southwestern city of Kunming by Chinese authorities, who were transporting them back to North Korea.
“There’s a serious issue of the separation of families because sometimes people leave in groups from the North and the groups are split in China; some are fortunate enough to finally reach South Korea but others are detained and repatriated,” he said. “It’s like a second cycle of separation of families.”
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul on Friday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
At a news conference Friday, Quintana also said he has spotted “inconsistencies” in the case of 12 North Korean restaurant workers in China who came to Seoul last year. Pyongyang argues they were kidnapped by agents from Seoul’s National Intelligence Service, demanding their return as a precondition for a new round of family reunions.
While the 12 are “safe and living in principle under free conditions,” the envoy said he will continue to work to establish the facts so as to help eliminate hurdles for family reunions, which he called an urgent human rights matter.
“My main message is that you need to be careful with your procedures,” the Argentine human rights lawyer said.
“Second, which is important, I wanted to be sound to the North Korean claim because they responded to the South Korean proposal invoking the case, and also responded to me in my communication invoking the case again,” he noted, referring to his recent public appeal for a restart of family reunions.
During his stay, he met with a defector who aspires to go back to the North after having struggled for years to adapt to the competitive South Korean society and to shake off authorities’ suspicions he may be a spy.
The man is not alone in missing his communist homeland. Pyongyang also urges the return of Kim Ryon-hui, a defector who has been asking to return to the North since 2015, saying she is “being detained by force.” Last week, a young female defector known for her role on a South Korean reality TV show stirred furor after appearing in a North Korean propaganda video in which she said life in the South was “like living in hell.”
Seoul has dismissed the defectors’ return requests in light of legal and administrative barriers and political and security risks.
Quintana stressed the significance in taking greater heed of individual voices to better cater to the defectors’ needs, noting that just like the man, many of the escapees have left their families in the North and China. Without proper care, more people may emerge hoping to return, which would hardly improve their own human rights while egging on social cohesion here.
“I really believe that we need to focus on individuals and their rights. This is a person who is supposed to be free here in the South, and you should respect his situation,” the rapporteur said.
“In principle, I agree that he should be able to return, but then all other questions would arise including what the situation is like in the North, because he might even face reprisals if he goes back and he might be used by the media, so there are different implications.”
North Koreans work on farm fields along the Pyongyang-Wonsan highway on Thursday in Sangwon County, North Hwanghae Province. (AP-Yonhap)
Quintana has a task he is eager and determined to tackle: visit North Korea and build a communication channel with authorities there. He has been working on it ever since who took up the job in March 2016 but Pyongyang remains unchanged in its opposition.
“I believe that having dialogue is a starting point in trying to build trust and trying to seek the areas of common understanding,” he said.
“In the end, I’d really like to help the people in North Korea and offer my services. ... So my objective is to try to have a relationship with the North Korean government and ultimately have a chance to visit the country, and at the same time I will continue to raise my voice on the human rights and the plight of North Koreans.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com)
A video clip from a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War is shown on a TV screen at the Red Cross headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)
Following are excerpts from the interview. –Ed.
The Korea Herald: We’ve learned that China has recently been stepping up its crackdowns on North Koreans seeking to come to South Korea, currently detaining dozens of them. Are you aware of the tendency, and what do you make of it?
Quintana: There is in fact the tendency to tighten control in the border areas, there is the tendency to crack down on those who finally cross the border and transfer them for detention and there’s the tendency to increase repatriations. So the situation has become really serious. It deserves more attention from the international community. I’ve raised these specific concerns with the diplomatic corps that I met here in South Korea because they also have a role to play.
What I cannot tell is what other reasons are behind the increase. I’ve heard different speculations regarding the domestic dynamics in China and others. But it is important to address the other reasons, because if you understand the reasons, you might have different answers to address the problem. For the time being, I’m raising my voice and expressing my concern, and I’ve also had communication with the Chinese government already. These are things that I’m doing.
During the conference, I commented about not only the plight of those trying to cross the border and being repatriated, but also that we need to understand that there’s a serious issue of the separation of families because sometimes people leave in groups from the North and the groups are split in China; some are fortunate enough to finally reach South Korea, but others are detained and repatriated. They all face the serious issue of separation of families, I’ve met them, and this is becoming a very serious problem, and we need to make it more visible -- it’s like a second cycle of separation of families.
KH: You met a defector who wants to go back to North Korea. Do you think he should be repatriated from the perspective of human rights, despite legal and political constraints that make it difficult?
Q: I met one man who came to the office to offer me his testimony about his situation. I explored the reasons why he wants to go back, and there’s a combination of factors. First, it has to do with the difficulties to integrate into South Korean society.
Second, there’s an issue of being accused of spying activities by South Korean authorities while living here. He went through the whole process of verification when he arrived here at different government facilities where they checked if in fact he had any connection with DPRK (North Korea) authorities and if he might have an intention of spying. Nothing came up, and he was released, and started to integrate. Then this accusation appeared again, and it was a wrong accusation and there was no evidence.
So the bottom line is that if you put all the factors together, he wants to go back. And his son and wife remained in the North. Because of legal constraints and mechanisms, he’s facing obstacles, but he was very clear with regard to his willingness to return.
At the same time, the majority of escapees leave their families in the North, and some of them leave their children in China. There’s an issue of family rights and it’s starting to be more visible with respect to the lives in South Korea. And it’s very complicated to address. But at least we need to start making it visible.
KH: What can be done by South Korean authorities to address this problem?
Q: This might not sound like something very substantive, but it is important to let their voices be heard. Because when you start to understand their problems, and once you understand the problems, you can think about solutions. With all the legislation against the possibility for these people to return, and with regard to the situation in North Korea, it’s difficult to bring solutions to these people. One of my intentions coming here on my second mission and among other elements I addressed is to try to talk to someone in that position; as the UN envoy to deliver messages to make the situation visible, though I don’t have specific solutions so far.
I really believe that we need to focus on individuals and their rights. This is a person who is supposed to be free here in the South, and you should respect his situation. In principle, I agree that he should be able to return, but then all other questions would arise including what the situation is like in the North because he might even face reprisals if he goes back to the North, and he might be used by the media so there are different implications. There’s another complex issue coming from the division of Korea and it has to do with the Korean people.
KH: From your statement on inconsistencies in the case of the 12 restaurant workers, I sense that there could be a source of controversy in terms of South Korean authorities’ operation in bringing high-profile defectors here. Do you have any advice with regard to this?
Q: You’re getting my message. I wanted to make a clear point that I’ve found inconsistencies. I know that it isn’t quite specific, but I was trying to make that point. I’m not talking about the current situation, that’s another issue. They are safe and living in principle under free conditions.
What I’m saying is that there are consistencies in the circumstances that they left. This is a group of 12 people. We shouldn’t be just talking about them as one decision, but 12 different tasks at the restaurant and different positions. So there are inconsistencies regarding the situations of each of them. I’m willing to continue addressing the issue with concerned authorities.
My main message is that you need to be careful with your procedures, and that’s first. Second, which is important, I wanted to be sound to the North Korean claim because they responded to the South Korean proposal invoking the case, and responded to me in my communication invoking the case again. I came here to have and seek information so that I can say something, not just ignore (the claims). I wanted to have communication with the South Korean government, therefore I had to look into the issue and how I respond.
KH: Do you know if any of the 12 regret their decision and want to go back?
Q: If I knew, maybe I would decide to disclose the information. But to be honest, I don’t know. I have some information about what happened at the moment, but what is their feeling and what they want to do -- it’s a delicate situation. These are people who belong to families living in Pyongyang generally in good positions. There might be implications on my responsibilities to avoid any other negative implications.
KH: The UN Commission of Inquiry was a milestone in raising international attention on North Korean human rights. What would be the next breakthrough that the UN and international community may be able to achieve? Do you possibly see a future where the Security Council discusses how to apply the notion of the responsibility to protect to the situation of North Korea and takes intervention measures?
Q: Currently the dynamics in New York, among the three UN agencies -- which are the office of the secretary-general, the General Assembly and the Security Council -- are very political ones. The current dynamics are very complicated, with China, Russia and the new government in the US. So in such a time when there’s no flexibilities coming from different institutions and governments, it’s difficult to advocate for the use of the principle of responsibility to protect, and any kind of intervention. This is not a discussion the Security Council has been holding with regard to North Korea. The Security Council has been using and increasing the sanctions regime against North Korea, and there is a committee following up on the implementation by member states on the sanctions, so the sanctions regime is there.
KH: What’s your goal as the special rapporteur?
Q: What I’d really like is to visit North Korea, because I believe that having dialogue is a starting point in trying to build trust and trying to seek the areas of common understanding. These are very strong and useful elements to gradually improve human rights in a specific region or country. I’m talking from my experience as the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar for six years. That’s something that I’d really like to achieve during my tenure. In the end, I’d really like to help the people in North Korea and offer my services. And it has to do with authorities at some point. So my objective is to try to have a relationship with the North Korean government and ultimately have a chance to visit the country, and at the same time I will continue to raise my voice on the human rights and the plight of North Koreans.