[MINORITY VOICE]Protect North Korean RefugeesI still remember Henri Plagnol, French parliamentary representative who returned from China in October 1999 after investigating the status of North Korean defectors, asking, "Can you tell me why South Koreans are so indifferent to the plight of their compatriots?"
But international society has shown considerable interest in North Korean refugees. On April 1, The New York Times reported the anguish of North Korean defector An Chang-suk, whose son, Yu Tae-jun, was executed in North Korea after he returned for his wife. On March 22, the Los Angeles Times recounted the hardships North Korean refugees experience as they try to reach South Korea. On March 5, Newsweek published a cover story on North Korean defectors traveling thousands of miles through Southeast Asia to "escape from hell."
In October 1999, President Jacques Chirac told visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin of the French interest in reports that China was abusing the human rights of North Korean defectors by deporting them back to the North, and asked for a written reply. Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who worked as a volunteer in the North before being given exit orders, gave interviews to about 150 Korean and foreign reporters about the abysmal human rights and medical situation in North Korea.
More than 100,000 North Korean escapees are living as fugitives in China and other Asian countries today. They are denied rights as human beings; their children cannot go to school, adults cannot work and women are sold by human traffickers. At a single word to authorities, they are arrested and repatriated to the North where they are subject to unspeakable abuse, torture, subject to being sent to concentration camps or executed.
How can we ignore their plight when we are of the same people, who have been pursuing national reunification? How can we selfishly discuss our welfare or quality of life when North Korean refugees are perishing under inhumane conditions? We will become laughingstocks if we do nothing to help them, while we talk of becoming leaders of the Asian Pacific region.
Fortunately, more than 100,000 foreigners and 10.6 million Koreans signed petitions asking the United Nations to protect the escapees by recognizing them as legal refugees under international law and prevent forced repatriations to North Korea. In January last year, when seven North Korean defectors were captured by Russian border police and turned over to China, which then sent them back to the North despite international outcry, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a rare statement, condemning China for violating their human rights. The UNHCR determined that the seven qualified as refugees because they are certain to suffer from political persecution upon return even though they had fled for economic reasons. The statement, which can be taken as recognition of every North Korean defector as an international refugee, was issued one month after the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees submitted a report on the status of North Korean refugees.
But many believe China will never recognize North Korean defectors as legal refugees because it is powerful enough to do as it pleases. But even China cannot afford to act as though it were a law unto itself. If it does, it should not be allowed entry into the World Trade Organization, to host the 2008 Olympics, or to become South Korea's regional partner. The ultimate raison d'etre of a state is the protection of its people. If South Korea does not show China or the North firm resolve for protecting North Korean refugees, it will not only disappoint the 10 million Koreans who signed the petitions, but also earn the world's contempt. The responsibility for prohibiting deportation of North Korean refugees and for establishing systemic protective measures rests with the South Korea's government and its people.
The writer is a lawyer and director general of the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees.
by Kim Sang-Chul