[VIEWPOINT]Policies must reflect new realitiesThe North Korean defector problem has become an international issue after North Korean defectors began using a new technique of entering foreign missions in China.
The case of the five North Korean defectors who tried to enter the Japanese consulate in Shenyang but were arrested by the Chinese police is particularly interesting; it triggered a serious dispute between China and Japan and was also the first case in which Beijing allowed North Koreans it had arrested to go to South Korea via a third country.
The North Korean defector problem may develop into a serious diplomatic issue between South Korea and China. If it becomes a political issue in South Korea through sensational reporting, it will weigh heavily on relations between the two neighbors. To prevent the issue from being exploited and sensationalized, we need a systematic investigation of the conditions that face North Koreans who have left their homeland for China, but at this time, only the Chinese government can conduct such an investigation. Beijing has apparently never done so for fear of damaging its relations with Pyeongyang, but it should not delay any longer; delay will not only damage Seoul-Beijing relations critically but also hurt China's international reputation.
Beijing has been preventing Seoul's interventions in the issue so far. That was made clear in the Chinese demand to hand over the four North Korean defectors who entered the Korean Embassy in Bejing asking for asylum in South Korea. Clearly, the Chinese intend to handle this case differently than they did the instances when defectors entered other countries' premises. In other words, Beijing intends to head off any further South Korean involvement in such issues.
But under the South Korean Constitution, the defectors are South Korean citizens, and most of them want to come here. In addition, China's action in deporting other defectors to a third country is only a pretense; they do not have to admit that the defectors are going to the South even though their final destination is clear. So these defectors are patently a bilateral Beijing-Seoul question.
Relations between South Korea and China have developed into ties of wide-ranging general cooperation, including in the fields of politics and security. There is no reason for the Chinese to continue to freeze out South Korea in handling these defectors.
Instead, the problem should be put squarely on the table as one of the most important issues on their bilateral agenda. A solution is urgently required. Beijing should also make the results of these bilateral negotiations with Seoul available to the North Koreans. China-North Korean ties have improved and expanded quite a bit recently, and communications channels between the North and China are wide open.
For a long time, the Chinese government forcibly returned captured North Korean illegal immigrants to their homeland based on a treaty it signed with the North in 1986. But China's recent deportation of five North Korean defectors captured in Shenyang to a third country suggests that Beijing's attitude toward the treaty has changed, probably because it simply does not reflect reality. China's policies toward the Korean Peninsula have changed a great deal since the signing of the protocol because its relations with the two countries on the peninsula have undergone a sea change.
Border violations by a few North Koreans have mushroomed into a flood of escaping North Koreans, and their motives are now in many cases more complex than those of earlier escapees who were only escaping from the North to search for food sources in China.
The old treaty has very little meaning in these new circumstances; China should seek to revise it in accordance with the new situation or renounce it altogether to reflect its changed interests.
The Korean government should systematically analyze Beijing's new approach and policies toward the defector problem. Seoul should give up its former "quiet diplomacy," in which we refrained from intervening in the Chinese decisions on North Korean defectors.
Seoul should push hard to put this item on its diplomatic agenda with China.
The writer is a professor of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
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