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N.K. defectors in China face repatriation

South Korean lawmaker, activists say China arrested 24 people last week

At least two dozen North Korean defectors allegedly face repatriation after being arrested by Chinese authorities last week, prompting calls for Beijing to handle the case in a humanitarian manner.

The latest case also triggered criticism of Seoul’s so-called “low-key” diplomacy regarding North Koreans picked up in China, with activists here calling on the government to pressure China to stop their “inhumane” repatriations.

The arrests in China came as the new leadership in the North has reportedly warned of the “extermination of three generations” of any family with a member caught defecting.

Some experts and activists say that China, rising as part of the G-2, should present a positive image as a global leader and promote universal values such as human rights.

But Beijing is seemingly more concerned with state sovereignty than individual human rights, as witnessed on Feb. 4 when it, along with Russia, vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the leader of Syria to step down over the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

According to Rep. Park Sun-young of the minority Liberty Forward Party and activists, at least 24 North Korean defectors, many of whom have family in the South, were captured last week by the Chinese security authorities.

Two groups of 10 and nine people crossed the border separately and were caught in China last Wednesday. Four days later, another group of five people was arrested in China.

Ten of the defectors have requested through an activist group that Seoul’s state human rights watchdog help save them. Beijing has so far stuck to a repatriation treaty with the North despite its reported brutal punishment, including execution, for repatriates.

Officials from Beijing and the North reportedly met last Sunday and this Monday to discuss the issue. Observers believe the chances are high that the defectors will soon be handed over to Pyongyang.

“Around 70 percent of those arrested in China have family members in the South. The arrest occurred as those in the South tried to bring their loved ones from the North to the South,” Rep. Park told media.

“As the Seoul government has been passive in dealing with the issue, many have been repatriated and executed or tortured. We should employ a straightforward measure such as appealing to the international community or handling it in accordance with international law.”

The Foreign Ministry said that it would do its best to prevent the repatriation through all possible diplomatic channels.

“What we can do now is to seek cooperation from the Beijing government. We also clearly told the Chinese security authorities that they should not repatriate the defectors against their will,” Byun Chul-hwan, director of the ministry’s Northeast Asia Division 2, told The Korea Herald.

“We have not been passive in dealing with the issue. We will use all possible channels in Seoul and Beijing to address this issue.”

Experts say that should China continue to send the defectors back to the North without humanitarian consideration, it could have an adverse impact on its growing leadership in the international community.

“They appear to be seriously thinking about which way they will take ― whether to lean towards becoming a responsible regional stakeholder or focus on national interests, though it would run counter to the pursuit of human rights,” said Nam Chang-hee, political science professor at Inha University.

“I think China cares more about its immediate national strategic interests, for now, and holds rather a defensive position as they also have sensitive issues such as those involving Tibet and Xinjiang Uighur.”

China has maintained long-standing ties with North Korea, which experts say serves as a buffer to block the advance of U.S. influence.

Human rights groups have argued that China’s deportation policy runs afoul of the U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

The convention upheld by the international community prohibits the repatriation of refugees when there is 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 feels burdened by an influx of North Korean refugees.

Nearly 22,000 North Koreans are known to have defected here since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The number of defectors steadily increased annually from 2005 until 2009 ― 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 dropped to 2,379 in 2010 when Pyongyang tightened its border control while preparing for its hereditary power succession. Last year, the figure rose to 2,737.

By Song Sang-ho (
Korea Herald daum