(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 16)

Repatriation of refugees

Stop forcibly sending back North Korean defectors

Sports enthusiasts might have wished the Asian Games in China had been a little longer.

However, no other people might have hoped more earnestly that the quadrennial event would continue than the North Korean defectors detained by the Chinese government.

Last Friday, the unification ministry said many North Koreans appeared to have been repatriated from China after the Asiad in Hangzhou ended on Oct. 8. The ministry's confirmation followed a media report that about 600 defectors had been forcibly sent back.

The forced repatriation was the last thing a G2 member should have done.

It was also regrettable that the South Korean government had not known and tried to prevent it. Especially so, because President Yoon Suk Yeol has emphasized his administration would be different from the preceding one. There are reportedly 2,000 more detainees awaiting deportation. Seoul must strongly call for Beijing to stop violating international norms.

Responding to the South Korean government's protest, China replied that it deals with the issue according to "domestic and international laws and humanitarian principles." Beijing has been saying the same thing, like a broken tape recorder, for decades. It regards North Korean defectors not as political refugees but as economic migrants and illegal aliens. That's a lame excuse. Beijing knows at least some North Koreans seek asylum.

All governments involved, especially Seoul and Beijing, must change.

It is not unusual for people in impoverished countries to cross borders - and be sent back. In North Korea, however, the returning defectors face ruthless abuses of human rights, including forced labor, torture and even execution. The International Convention on Refugees prohibits repatriating people against their will when it leads to retaliation, violates norms and is inhumane, which is the case with a country like North Korea.

The Chinese government might not want to displease Pyongyang when it is competing with Russia over influencing North Korea. Or it may be afraid of an influx of more North Koreans by treating them according to international norms. However, a self-proclaimed global leader - that says it has no human rights problems - should do better. Otherwise, the world will look deeper into China's human rights violations in its autonomous regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang. Beijing should allow North Koreans to request refugee status and review their cases sincerely.

Human rights must be free from politics, a principle that must be applied to the South Korean government, too. We welcome and praise President Yoon's emphasis on North Koreans' human rights. However, the rights situation in the reclusive regime was relatively good when inter-Korean relations were good, and vice versa. Seoul, and Washington for that matter, must think about how to harmonize their two conflicting goals of bettering human rights and enhancing sanctions in the recalcitrant regime.

One cannot reward bad behavior. However, humanitarian aid, including food and medicine, must continue regardless of the political situation.

The South Korean government and people must also ponder how they treat North Korean defectors settled here. The suicide rate among North Korean settlers is three times higher than the rest of the country, which itself records the highest suicide rate worldwide. Some even want to go back to the North. Many North Korean defectors have difficulty adapting to the capitalist economy, while others complain of discrimination.

However, South Koreans must know most North Korean defectors want to live in China or go back to their country "after earning enough money." Less than one-third of them head to South Korea. North Koreans know life in the South, especially for the poor, is not much better.

Traditionally, progressives in the South largely ignored the human rights situations of North Koreans in their pursuit of bettering inter-Korean ties. A case in point was the previous Moon Jae-in government, which can hardly be justified.

In contrast, conservative governments only emphasized the plights of North Korean lives without trying to improve fundamental conditions by bettering political and economic relations.

North Koreans must be hoping for a South Korean government that seeks greater cooperation and exchanges while pointing out problems in the North.

That must not end as just a daydream.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

scroll to top