[VIEWPOINT]Defector issue won’t go away

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[VIEWPOINT]Defector issue won’t go away

The gap between the North Korean defector policy of the United States and of South Korea is going to grow even wider, since Chung Dong-young, the unification minister, made a de facto apology to North Korea over Seoul’s airlifting of 468 North Korean defectors from a Southeast Asian country on July 27-28. Mr. Chung went even further, to demand that relief organizations that help North Korean defectors refrain from inducing or encouraging North Koreans to defect, since such activities didn’t fit in with Seoul’s reconciliation policy toward North Korea. Mr. Chung’s remarks at Sunday’s press conference were echoed by Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon on Monday. Mr. Ban was quoted by the local press as having implied the possibility of government rejection of the entry into South Korea of a group of defectors guided by non-governmental organizations.
Seoul’s sudden shift in defector policy, which came 20 days after the airlifting of 468 defectors from a Southeast Asian country, has to do with the barrage of verbal attacks from the North accusing the South of abduction. The North is reportedly even threatening to use terrorism against the South in retaliation. The South Korean intelligence agency has issued a warning to Koreans who travel to Southeast Asian countries or work for Korean relief organizations to be on alert against possible North Korean terror attacks.
On the other hand, the United States is expected to come up with a strong policy aimed at enhancing human rights awareness among North Koreans and inducing an exodus from North Korea. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 on July 21. The law authorizes the U.S. president to provide assistance to organizations that help North Korean refugees, defectors and orphans outside of North Korea. It also ensures that North Koreans are eligible for refugee status or asylum in the United States. The Senate is expected to combine the human rights initiative of the House with its North Korea Freedom Act.
When the new law is implemented next year, the number of defectors along the Chinese border could increase greatly. And already active non-governmental organizations will gather along the Chinese border with North Korea to help defectors. The rush of North Korean refugees, international attention on the influx of freedom seekers and Washington’s request for cooperation on humanitarian grounds will put Beijing, which has implemented a policy of “arrest and forced deportation” of North Korean defectors so far, in an awkward position.
South Korea has been using “silent diplomacy” as its guideline for the North Korean defector issue. In essence, Seoul is afraid of annoying the North, lest the bigger policy goal of reconciliation be disturbed. Seoul has been arguing that “silent diplomacy” serves better for the Chinese government to take favorable action on defectors and provides defectors with better chances of escape from the North by keeping North Korean alertness along the border at a low level.
The combination of the “silent diplomacy” of Seoul and the “arrest and forced deportation” policy of Beijing has resulted in gross human rights infringements on North Korean defectors. The number of defectors who crossed the Chinese border in the past 10 years is estimated at around 300,000, according to international relief organizations. But those who have succeeded to make their way to Seoul are less than 5,000. The others are mostly hiding in remote areas of China suffering from extreme human rights violations ― forced labor, prostitution, deprivation and violence.
If South Korea wanted to protect defectors’ human rights without annoying the North, it could have tried to adopt the German model. There was an example of East and West Germany before unification in which the West paid compensation to the East in exchange for a number of East German refugees. But international opinion will not be favorable to applying the German model to North Korean defectors at this stage. If it were before the issue had risen to international attention, the two Koreas could have made such an under-the-table deal between themselves. It is no longer an issue limited to the two Koreas and China. It has become an international issue.
Now, Seoul must let Pyeongyang acknowledge that the North can no longer deny the fact that a large number of its residents escape the country, and that Seoul can no longer keep silent on it. Then, Seoul must review existing defector settlement programs and improve them drastically, establishing networks of cooperation with Beijing and Washington. The government should also establish cooperative relations with non-governmental relief organizations, instead of demanding that they refrain from helping defectors.
The best solution to the defector issue, however, is making North Koreans satisfied with their lives in the North. If there are chances for North Koreans to work in South Korean factories in the North, many North Koreans would prefer to stay home than to defect and risk their lives.
In the long run, the South should persuade the North to resolve the nuclear issue and promote active economic cooperation programs with the South, creating industrial complexes like the Gaeseong industrial project in Nampo, Hamhung and Sineuju. Both Koreas can also create industrial cities inside the Demilitarized Zone where North Koreans would work together with South Koreans. Ultimately, the North should allow exchanges of communication, passage and trade between the two Koreas. That would be the ultimate solution to the defector issue.

* The writer is the opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.


by Park Sung-soo

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