NK Defectors in China Remain Concern

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are seeking asylum in neighboring countries. Those that escape to the South are welcomed by the South Korean government, which has been embracing all escapees. Those that flee to China are not so lucky, however, and human rights activists are pressuring South Korea to step in. Between 50,000 and 300,000 North Koreans seek refuge in China every year, but are allowed to stay for only two to three years as illegal migrants before the Chinese government repatriates them in accordance with a treaty with Pyongyang. Those refugees who are allowed to relocate from China to South Korea are forced to stay in a third Southeast Asian country for months on end while arrangements are made by South Korean religious and civic groups. Tensions among backlogged defectors run high, with fights breaking out and some even attempting to kill themselves during the long waiting period. But focusing only on the plight of refugees ignores the root of the problem. As one civic activist points out, "Apart from efforts to secure the safety of North Koreans in China and other third countries, the [South Korean] government needs to address food shortages and human rights abuses in North Korea to prevent more defectors from the North.” – YaleGlobal

NK Defectors in China Remain Concern

Pressure is growing on South Korea to address the plight of refugees and its northern neighbor’s human rights abuses
Seo Hyun-jin
Friday, July 30, 2004

Though 468 North Korean defectors were brought from a Southeast Asian country to Seoul this week, the government`s concerns have not abated because an estimated 100,000 North Koreans in China still seek asylum in the South.

With Seoul maintaining its policy of embracing all North Korean escapees who want to settle in the South, experts and civic activists are insisting the government`s measures should be far-reaching enough to address the plight of North Koreans hiding in China.

"It is very important that the government engages in active diplomatic negotiations with China and strengthens international alliances for the safety of defectors because China may step up its crackdown on them," said Do Hee-youn of the Citizens` Alliance for Human Rights of North Korean Defectors.

Do stressed cooperation between the government, society and experts in handing the issue.

China has rounded up more North Korean defectors as more sneaked across its borders to seek food since the mid-1990s, regarding them as illegal economic migrants rather than refugees and repatriating them to the North.

China, one of North Korea`s few remaining Cold War allies, is bound by a treaty with Pyongyang to return escapees from the North. Once returned, defectors face harsh punishment.

Seoul has been low key on the issue of North Koreans taking refuge in China in consideration of the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing. Thus, the transport of North Korean defectors from China to the South has been conducted in a "hush-hush" manner.

"Any fundamental solution to the issue seems elusive until all of about 100,000 North Korean defectors leave China," said professor Lee Woo-young at the Graduate School of North Korean Studies, Kyungnam University.

"South Korea should keep requesting China to stop harsh acts on them (defectors) through informal channels while focusing on general human rights issues."

South Korean and international human rights groups have pressured China to grant North Korean defectors refugee status, but China has rebuffed the calls.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees estimated in May that Chinese authorities repatriated some 7,800 North Korean defectors to their home country last year. The number of North Korean escapees to China varies from 50,000 to 300,000 according to estimates by civic groups.

"Not all of North Koreans in China wish to settle in the South, but most of them end up seeking asylum in the South because they cannot stay in China more than two to three years as illegal migrants," Lee said.

The hardships of North Koreans continue when they move to a third country to wait for the chance to get to their final destination, South Korea.

South Korean religious or civic groups have usually taken care of defectors in Southeast Asian countries for two months before they leave for South Korea.

But defectors have recently fallen under increasing pressure and discomfort as they have sometimes had to stay in the third country for four to six months due to a backlog.

The government assisted the en masse entry of North Koreans this week because religious groups that cared for the defectors in a Southeast Asian country called for its help. Defectors were fighting each other and some even attempted to kill themselves during the prolonged waiting period, government sources said.

The number of the North Korean group this week increased to 468 from an original 400 as other North Korean defectors in the South Asian country and neighboring nations joined the group in desperation after hearing about the mass transportation plan, the sources said.

"Apart from efforts to secure the safety of North Koreans in China and other third countries, the government needs to address food shortages and human rights abuses in North Korea to prevent more defectors from the North," said Lee Seung-yong, one of the leading civic activists on North Korean issues.

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