China’s forced repatriation of hundreds of N. Korean defectors

China is said to have sent back N. Korean defectors a day after Asian Games ended.


This file photo, taken Aug. 16, 2023, shows buses crossing a bridge from North Korea's border city of Sinuiju to China's Dandong. PHOTO: YONHAP/THE KOREA HERALD

October 16, 2023

SEOUL – China is said to have forcibly repatriated hundreds of North Korean defectors locked up in its detention facilities.

The Ministry of Unification said such claims by civil organizations working to improve North Korean human rights seem to be true and that South Korea expressed regret to China over the issue. Beijing, however, is silent.

According to the organizations, Chinese public security authorities forcibly sent back about 600 North Korean defectors imprisoned near the border with North Korea at the night of Oct. 9, the next day after the Hangzhou Asian Games came to a close.

When North Korea lifted its border blockade in August, the groups raised concerns that China would send back North Korean defectors soon. And China seized the moment of the end of the Asian Games to carry it out.

The groups estimate China detained more than 2,000 North Korean defectors during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of them are feared to face a similar fate.

North Korean defectors escaped from their country at the risk of their lives because they were unable to withstand political persecution and abject poverty.

It is undeniable that they are refugees under international law.

If they are forcibly deported back to North Korea, they will be housed in concentration camps, where they will be likely tortured or worse.

China knows this well, but it repatriated them against their will. It is an inhumane and reprehensible act.

The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention Against Torture prohibit forced deportation of refugees to a country where they will be likely tortured and persecuted.

China joined the conventions on the status of refugees and against torture in 1982 and 1988, respectively. North Korean defectors should be protected as refugees but China does not regard them as such but as illegal immigrants. It has cracked down on North Korean defectors and repatriated them. Even if Beijing does not regard them as refugees, it goes against the anti-torture convention to send them back.

China repatriates them because it puts its relationship with Pyongyang before human rights. The international community is worried that North Korea’s recent closer ties with Russia may make China become more active in arresting North Korean defectors and sending them back home in a bid to cajole Pyongyang.

China’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors is nothing new. It has returned them in the past despite the South Korean government’s strong opposition. This time, too, China is said to have ignored Seoul’s demand.

China may be proud of being the second-largest economic power in the world, but it would be difficult to regard it as a civilized country.

The latest repatriation of North Korean defectors was foreseen to some extent.

It was predicted that China would return many of them when North Korea opened its borders for the first time in more than three years.

That is why the South Korean government demanded Beijing should not repatriate North Korean defectors and it also said that it would accept all of those who want to live in South Korea.

But the government needs to review if it made sufficient diplomatic efforts to prevent the repatriation of North Korean defectors. It must do its utmost to save them. However, past governments refrained from criticizing China for fear of diplomatic friction with it.

Taking this opportunity, the government must reconsider its current policy to protect overseas North Korean defectors. It should examine if a quiet diplomacy is the best way.

It is hard to find realistic ways to stop China’s forcible repatriation. And yet the government needs to foster international opinion that Beijing should respect the universal value of human rights. The government must urge the Chinese government more strongly to stop sending back North Korean defectors. It must consider condemning China’s behavior jointly with the international community and raising the issue in the United Nations.

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