A thin, weak woman has sparked international attention to the human rights of North Korean defectors. As news was made public that Chinese authorities will forcibly repatriate 31 North Korean defectors arrested by Chinese police in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, Rep. Park Sun-young of the conservative opposition Liberty Forward Party began a hunger protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul in protest.
Meanwhile, some members of the ruling Saenuri Party staged a relay hunger strike in support of her protest. Disappointingly, not a single member of the opposition parties participated in the protest. However, it is at least fortunate that progressive political commentators are gradually showing their stance against China’s policy of forcibly returning North Korean defectors. These commentators include Ahn Cheol-soo (dean of Seoul National University's Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology), Cho Kuk (law professor at Seoul National University), and Jin Joong-kwon (professor at Dongyang University).
However, some politicians of the liberal opposition Democratic United Party, who spoke out only against the KORUS FTA ratification and construction of a naval base on Jeju Island, are beginning to raise their voices against China. Rep. Jung Jang-sun of the main opposition Democratic Party raised a question, saying, “We should not ignore the issue of North Korean defectors any more. We should make bipartisan efforts to deal with this issue.” Rep. Kim Boo-kyum of the Democratic United Party requested his party “establish a special committee for forced repatriation.”
Rep. Park Sun-young, who put the human rights issue of North Korean defectors in the spotlight ‘ and who gained world attention by holding a hunger strike, fainted due to dehydration on March 2. She is now recovering. Four North Korean defectors, including Dr. Lee Ae-ran, are now taking up the baton and going on a hunger protest. In addition, a candle light demonstration calling on the Chinese government to stop sending back North Korean defectors to their communist homeland is still under way. The demonstration is held twice a day at 2 pm and 7 pm.
Rep. Park Sun-young is still continuing to make her noble move. She plans to speak out against China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. Rep. Park flew to Geneva on March 10 with former National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-o and Rep. Ahn Hyung-hwan of the ruling Saenuri Party to appeal to the international community to resolve the defector issue.
The meeting in Geneva will also be attended by representatives from North Korea and China. Considering that China rejected a visa application from Rep. Park, it will be a challenge to have an open-minded conversation with China. It is also difficult to predict how much attention representatives from other countries around the world will give to the appeal being made by a small Korean woman.
Rep. Park showed confidence, saying, “March 12 is the day when government representatives will discuss the issue of North Korean human rights. March 12 is very important because they will report on North Korea’s human rights situation and discuss the issue. A resolution on North Korean human rights, which will be based on the March 12 discussion, will then be announced.”
China Ignores Demands from International Community
The Chinese government has reportedly sent back some 30 North Korean defectors recently arrested in China to the North, despite requests and pressure from the international community to not to do so. The Chinese government forcibly sent back the defectors to their homeland less than one month after such forced deportations emerged as a diplomatic issue. Such forced repatriation is attracting international attention, with demonstrations being staged around the globe. However, China unprecedentedly quickly pushed ahead with the drastic measure of sending back North Korean escapees to the North. In the past, when China’s treatment of North Korean refugees received international attention, China would wait several months for international outrage to abate before sending the refugees back.
As of now, an estimated 300 North Korean defectors arrested by Chinese authorities are at risk of being sent back to the North. Given that China has begun forcibly deporting North Korean defectors back to the communist nation, it is only a matter of time before these people are repatriated to the North. It seems that the Chinese government has decided to push forward with the deportation, despite international pressure, because it believes the issue of North Korean defectors might threaten the North Korean regime. The Chinese government has judged that North Korea’s new Kim Jong-un regime may be undermined if China yielded to demands and diplomatic pressure from the international community.
Amid this backdrop, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations’ New York Headquarters on March 9 and requested the UN’s support regarding the defector issue. Mr. Ban reportedly said that he shares the deep concerns of the South Korean government in regards to the North Korean defectors.
After a closed-door lunch meeting with Foreign Minister Kim that same day, Mr. Ban said in a press release that he shares the deep concerns of the Korean government in regards to the issue. He added that the UN is ready to provide appropriate support to related countries when requested.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked all concerned parties to do their best to find a mutually agreeable solution. He went on to stress the importance of making the well-being of the defectors the first priority.
The UN leader made a reference to international norms regarding the defector matter, through which he indicated that the issue should be dealt with according to the rules of the UN Refugee Convention.
The UN Refugee Convention defines refugees as those who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, and political opinion, and stipulates that signatories to the convention should not expel or repatriate refugees to regions where their life or freedom may be threatened. China signed the UN Refugee Convention in 1982.
Andrej Mahecic, who serves as East Asia spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in a ‘Voice of America’ broadcast, “We are really concerned about the news that China forcibly repatriated 31 North Korean defectors back to the North last month.”
Andrej Mahecic added, “We are planning to hear the official statement by the Chinese government in regards to repatriated North Korean defectors.” He said, “The UNHCR’s first position is that China should not forcibly send back the North Korean defectors to the North before the appropriate evaluation is not completed on the certainty that the defectors will not face danger back in North Korea and on the necessity of providing the international protection for the defectors.”
The UNHCR spokesman said, “According to reliable sources, North Korean authorities are imposing harsh punishment on defectors simply because they fled North Korea.” He added, “International refugee law stipulates that if refugees are likely to face persecution and serious and indiscriminate threats to their life, well-being, or freedom back in their homeland, no one should be repatriated.”
AFP news agency reported from Washington that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on March 9 (local time) that the US opposes China’s forcible repatriation of North Korean defectors to the North, where they will face punishment.
However, at a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan after meeting with him, Secretary Hillary Clinton did not directly comment on the report that China repatriated all 31 North Korean defectors it arrested last month to the North. A coalition of advocacy groups for North Korean defectors announced the report in Seoul that day.
However, Secretary Clinton added that by definitely defining North Korean defectors as refugees, the US shares the same concerns that the Korean government and Korean people have regarding North Korea’s human rights situation and treatment of its defectors.
Secretary Clinton urged all countries to cooperate in protecting North Korean refugees on their territory. She added that the US will make efforts to protect North Korean refugees and find solutions to help them permanently in cooperation with international organizations.
International attention on North Korean refugees is spreading. One Chinese American journalist, who were freed after being detained in the North three years ago, uploaded a video message onto the Internet calling for participation in a signature campaign to stop the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees. The video message is now spreading on the Internet.
Laura Ling, a Chinese American journalist, says in the video message, “We must speak with a unified voice. That is the only hope for which North Korean defectors will find freedom. We must raise our voice together for them.” The international movement against the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees is becoming more and more heated. If it is confirmed that the detained North Korean refugees have already been repatriated to the North, China is expected to face strong international criticism, as well as being labeled a human rights abuse nation.