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Park leads campaign to help N.K. defectors

Lawmaker says China should be more responsible for safeguarding universal human rights

Amid growing public criticism of China for forcibly repatriating North Korean defectors, Rep. Park Sun-young of the conservative Liberty Forward Party has shouted a short yet impassioned slogan ― “Save our friends!”

The resolute voice that belied her small frame and mild demeanor reverberated around the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, where the former law professor has staged a hunger strike since Tuesday to protest Beijing’s “inhumane” repatriation of defectors.

“I am a constitutional law scholar myself, a job that teaches the international concept of human rights as well as the Constitution itself. Based on my scholarly conscience, I cannot just stay silent and let this happen,” Park, 55, told The Korea Herald.

“Also as a representative of our citizens, I believe North Koreans, who are defined by the Constitution as our citizens, should be protected by South Korea and under the international human rights law, at least after their defection.”
Rep. Park Sun-young of the Liberty Forward Party speaks in her office in the National Assembly. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Rep. Park Sun-young of the Liberty Forward Party speaks in her office in the National Assembly. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Before entering the National Assembly as a proportional representation legislator in 2008, Park taught the constitutional law at Dongguk University and the Catholic University of Korea.

Her years-long campaign to enhance human rights of the people in the repressive state has recently garnered keen public attention as more people have joined her in pressuring Beijing to deal with the defectors in a humanitarian manner.

The Seoul government, criticized for being passive and low-key over the issue, has decided to appeal to the international community by raising it at a U.N. panel on human rights next week.

Reports here said that the number of the defectors at risk of repatriation has topped 80. Their arrests in China came as North Korea has reportedly warned of the “extermination of three generations” of any family with a member caught defecting.

“When caught and sent back to the North, chances are high that (the lives of) the defectors will be jeopardized. Even if they are left alive there, they could suffer appalling torture or be incarcerated for good as political prisoners,” she said.

“Their families here even make tearful pleas, saying that it would be better to kill them, rather than letting them feel the excruciating pain from execution or unbearable torture there, and better to bring their bodies here to keep them in their arms.”

Despite repeated entreaties from outside, China has stuck to its repatriation pact with North Korea. It says that the defectors do not fall into the category of refugees protected by international conventions as they illegally crossed the border for “economic reasons.”

Regarding this, Park said that China still remains in the 19th century when human rights were not accepted as universal values of the international community.

“Humanitarian intervention has been entrenched as a universal value in the international human rights law since the 20th century. But China is still in the 19th century,” she said.

Pointing out that China has violated a set of international conventions on human rights, Park stressed that Seoul should pluck up the courage to be more outspoken in its criticism and even file a suit against the North’s main patron.

“We should say that all conventions on refugees and human rights China agreed to have become useless scraps of paper now. China, as a member of the U.N. and permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it has contravened these pacts,” she said in an emphatic tone.

“Why can we not file a suit against China for all this?”

Experts here have pointed out 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.

Upbraiding the current government for paying little attention to the issue of defectors, Park underscored the need for Seoul to seek international cooperation to address the humanitarian issue.

“The Foreign Ministry should be reborn with regards to this issue. It has not responded actively to calls to address this issue. On top of that, it has not thought seriously about how to solve it,” she said. “International cooperation is crucial to address this. We should take a straightforward method to deal with China over this issue.”

After her parliamentary term ends in May, she plans to go back to academia where she said she would continue to fight for the sake of defectors.

“I will continue on addressing this issue. Even after my life as a politician ends in May, I will carry on my fight for the human rights of the defectors based on my scholarly conscience,” she said.

More than 23,200 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 rebounded to 2,737.

By Song Sang-ho (
Korea Herald daum