[VIEWPOINT]Defector issue is too hot to hide

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[VIEWPOINT]Defector issue is too hot to hide

Japan and China are feuding over the capture of five North Korean defectors at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang by Chinese police. Japan protested the entry of Chinese police into the compound and urged China to free the arrested North Koreans, while China claimed its guards had permission from Japanese officials to enter the Japanese compound to remove the asylum-seekers.

The videotape that caught part of the confrontation between the asylum-seekers and the Chinese police guards outside the compound clarifies several things.

First of all, when the five North Korean asylum-seekers tried to enter the Japanese consulate, the Chinese guards came inside the gate without approval from Japanese officials to take three of them away. That act violates international law; the diplomatic compound is Japanese territory. China's Foreign Ministry argued that the police entered to protect the Japanese consular staff, referring to the Vienna Convention that governs diplomatic relations. But the argument is not persuasive. They intended not to protect the consulate but to stop the attempted defection. Forcibly dragging out a mother with a 2-year-old daughter on her back is not protecting diplomatic premises.

The attitude of the Japanese consulate is also deplorable. In the video, a Japanese consul did nothing but watch the North Korean women miserably struggling with the Chinese guard, and then he picked up the guard's hat and returned it to him. His actions showed no understanding of the inviolability of a consulate or respect for basic human rights. I don't want to make an issue of the quality of a foreign country's diplomatic officials, but I hope that man is not representative of Japanese diplomats.

I seriously doubt that Japanese officials made any attempt to stop the arrest of the two defectors who managed to get inside the consulate. Might the officials there have regarded the defectors as just a headache and have hoped the police would solve the problem quickly? How could the Chinese police have entered the compound to take them away if the Japanese had forbidden entry?

We do not yet know how this case will be settled. But it is clear that the problem of North Korean defectors is an international human rights issue that cannot be brushed under the rug. Until now, China has refused to recognize North Korean defectors as refugees; it has expelled to third countries North Korean asylum- seekers who made it inside diplomatic missions in order to make the legal situation ambiguous.

But North Korean defectors have recently begun to attract global attention though their asylum attempts at diplomatic missions in China, and Beijing is taking a hard line, cracking down on defectors and nongovernmental organizations that help them. China is also bolstering its security outside diplomatic missions in Beijing and elsewhere in the country. But that hard-line approach is only making the North Korean defector problem more prominent in the world's eyes, not suppressing it. If China keeps up such opposition to the currents of international opinion on human rights protection, China's international standing will be affected.

The South Korean government should also re-examine its general policy on North Korean defectors. The government has used so-called "quiet diplomacy" on these matters to avoid diplomatic tension with China and to keep alive the flame of the sunshine policy with North Korea. The policy also has a practical motive; if the North Korean defector issue becomes too highly public, the situation of North Korean defectors in China could worsen because of the Chinese crackdown.

There is some merit in that policy, but the essence of the problem is whether Seoul has any clear principles that are guiding in its handling of issues surrounding North Korean defectors. If it has no principles to fall back on, the government is only reacting to North Korean and Chinese measures and policies.

Seoul should make it crystal clear to Beijing that North Koreans also have South Korean citizenship under our constitution, and that we expect our citizens to be treated in accordance with globally recognized standards of human rights protection.


The writer is a professor of international law at Seoul National University.

by Paik Jin-hyun

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