The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] How to stop the forced repatriation

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 2, 2023 - 05:31

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Recently, shocking news broke that China has forcibly sent hundreds of North Korean defectors to North Korea. Although the claim has not yet been verified, the Ministry of Unification commented that a large number of North Koreans were sent, though did not use the word "defector." The ministry’s response hinted that a sizable number of North Korean defectors could have been included.

Forced repatriation of North Korean defectors poses a severe risk of a humanitarian catastrophe because they could be executed or die from torture. The forced repatriation is against humanitarian principles and should be stopped. Primarily, the responsibility to speak up is on the Republic of Korea, as the country's Constitution defines the northern part of the Korean Peninsula as part of its territory.

However, consular protection for them is practically impossible if China does not cooperate. As China and North Korea are blood allies, it is difficult for China to regard the defectors as South Korean citizens. Therefore, China treats them as illegal aliens who illegally cross the border for economic reasons. Thus, in the past, the South Korean presidents asked China for quiet cooperation in dealing with this issue. China showed an attitude of cooperating secretly and indirectly.

The recent appearance of the large-scale repatriation is serious in that it shows that the previous system of cooperation between South Korea and China has collapsed. This is because Korea's foreign policy on China is severely incompetent. Therefore, the Republic of Korea's diplomatic task should seek drastic changes to prevent this from happening again.

The background of this incident is directly related to the foreign policy of Yoon Suk Yeol government. Since taking power in May last year, the government has openly stressed that there must be mutual respect between South Korean and China. Protesting the claim, China has been moving to stop sensitive policies that had previously meant to be considerate of Korea. The repatriation can be seen as one of those moves.

China is likely to have been quite dissatisfied with the Yoon government's adoption of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Korea's adoption of the strategy is not a result of independent calculations on national interests but rather a result of imitating the US and Japan. The problem is that the US and Japan initiated the strategy to check China.

The collapse of inter-Korean relations may also be related to China's decision. From the perspective of China, North Korean defectors are North Korean nationals. Therefore, if North Korea strongly urges China to send its citizens back to the North, it will be difficult for China to reject it. However, in some cases, North Korea showed a passive attitude toward the issue, probably to manage inter-Korean relations or North Korea-China relations positively. However, now that the relationship between the South and the North is at its worst, North Korea does not need to be cautious about the issue.

If the causes and backgrounds have been identified, setting new policy goals and using effective diplomatic techniques will be the following challenges. First, South Korea should restore cooperative relations with China. Since the Republic of Korea is a divided country, China's help is indispensable to manage the North Korean issue, because China is practically a sponsor nation for the North.

Second, it is also necessary to adopt a new national strategy that replaces the Indo-Pacific strategy. South Korea needs to make clear that it is not participating in checking China. There is the possibility that the United States will be dissatisfied wit hthis. However, South Korea and the United States are strong allies, and it is possible to persuade the United States and dispel misunderstandings.

Third, improving inter-Korean relations are also an essential task. The Yoon Suk Yeol government needs to propose attractive proposals for North Korea to come to dialogue. In particular, President Yoon needs to refrain from provoking North Korea unnecessarily.

Since the gap between South Korea and North Korea's national capabilities is already close to 100 to 1, harsh rhetoric against North Korea will only lower the dignity of the South Korean president. Excessive criticism and irresponsible expression of hostility do not induce dialogue and negotiations with North Korea, and we cannot expect a positive solution to the defector issue.

Fourth, communication and dialogue between South Korea and China regarding the issue of North Korean defectors should maintain a closed-door consultation style. Public pressure on China is more likely to backfire than to help.

Since China has to be conscious of North Korea, it is more likely to reflect North Korea's demands in public discussions. South Korea is indeed at a disadvantage compared to North Korea in the dispute over consular protection rights for North Korean defectors in China.

Some politicians in Korea argue that we have to urge China to stop forced repatriation. This approach is a correct argument in principle, but it needs to take into account the high risk to the safety of North Korean defectors.

Fifth, the issue should be dealt with in the context of bilateral relations with China. Discussing the issue at multilateral meetings or diplomatic events with other countries is a poor approach, as the negotiation power of South Korea is not that strong in such contexts. It is also essential to understand that China is not a hegemon or advanced country. China is still a developing country focusing on its own national development rather than humanitarian principles, even though the total volume of the nation is tremendously huge.

If the Yoon government restores relations with China, changes the national strategy, improves relations with the North, and communicates with China privately and bilaterally, the issue of forced repatriation might be resolved in a short period of time.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He isa former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.