[OUTLOOK]Chinese culture and refugees

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[OUTLOOK]Chinese culture and refugees

Because of the yellow sand blowing from mainland China last week, both North and South Korea seemed to be bathed in perpetual twilight. But the yellow sand wasn't the only thing that blew in from China. Beijing spoke angrily about 25 North Korean defectors who rushed the Spanish Embassy seeking asylum. The Chinese government said the issue of the defectors should have been resolved quietly, but it became a messy public situation that made the Chinese government uncooperative.

I doubt that I was the only person to feel thankful to the Chinese government for its humanitarian action when it said, immediately after the 25 defectors stormed the grounds of the Spanish Embassy in Beijing, that it would not force the defectors to return to North Korea. But Beijing refused refugee status to them.

The Chinese authorities also warned civic organizations not to violate Chinese law. Several groups announced that they had helped North Koreans travel to Beijing and enter the Spanish Embassy to seek asylum. Now, reports have said, Beijing has started an extensive crackdown on the organizations.

China and Korea established diplomatic ties 10 years ago. Beijing and Seoul had a very close relationship until the communists took over China in 1949. Close ties were re-established only after the Cold War ended.

In the last decade, the two countries' economic, social and cultural relations grew rapidly. The political dialogue, including meetings between the two nations' leaders, helped greatly in thawing relations and increasing mutual understanding. So it was disappointing to Koreans when the Chinese began to crack down on defectors from North Korea.

The asylum issue is not one of national gains or losses - it is a matter of fundamental values. How the Chinese authorities deal with North Koreans in their country says a lot about the values that Beijing holds important. Does Chinese culture respect human rights and value personal freedoms? Or does it place more value on the interests of the group than those of any individual?

We can gain some understanding of the Chinese culture's inclinations concerning values by watching whether the Chinese government would choose to deal with the issue of North Korean defectors in a humanitarian manner or whether it elevates its national relationship with North Korea to the top of the list of its priorities.

Historically, Korea has been very much influenced by Chinese culture, so it is not surprising that our sense of values tended to follow the collectivist values of China in the past. Only as we entered the modern era did our values change as Western social values began to be known here and take root. As a result, we turned to a more critical view of our Chinese-influenced traditions.

China is in the middle of a huge modernization program, and it is heading towards an uncertain future.

Korea, which is historically connected to China, only hopes that the mainland would head in the same direction that Korea is headed.

The reason that the Chinese government complained about the North Korean defectors to the Korean government, and the reason for the crackdown on civic groups assisting the defectors, may be that it needs to make a gesture to prevent complaints from Pyeongyang. I hope that the explanation for China's recent behavior is as simple as that.

China could also be anxious about the alarming increase in North Korean defectors, which is approaching the scale seen in East Germany in 1989. That could be a scenario that could eventually lead to the end of communism in North Korea as happened in East Germany.

If that is indeed a concern, China should realize that it would be more threatening for the communist rulers of North Korea if North Koreans who escaped their country, risking their own lives to evade communist rule, are sent back there.

Finally, China must also think about the image it portrays to the global community and to Korea in particular. China is teetering on the edge of being seen as a country that would quickly trample on human rights if it is in its national interest.

China must realize that for the "country in the center of the world" to take its place as a leading nation in the 21st century, its value system must be one that will be recognized by the rest of global society.

Just as the yellow sand phenomenon has stopped, I hope the bad news about North Korean defectors' problems will end as well.


The writer is the president of the Institute of Social Sciences.

by Kim Kyung-won

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