Gov’t commission to probe defectorsAfter receiving a petition to open communications with a North Korean defector sheltered in the South Korean Embassy in China, the National Human Rights Commission in Seoul confirmed yesterday that it is investigating the plight of North Korean refugees overseas for the first time. The commission has asked the Foreign Ministry for help.
According to the commission, an official with a private North Korean human rights group in Seoul filed a petition last September asking permission to start exchanging letters with a North Korean refugee in the embassy. It was the first time that the human rights commission was asked to deal with North Korean refugees held in an overseas embassy.
The petitioner told the commission that North Korean defectors are essentially locked inside the embassy with no access to communication, sources said. He also argued that the refugees haven’t been able to come to South Korea because Seoul has not tried hard enough to address this issue for fear of creating diplomatic strains with China.
There are reportedly hundreds of thousands of North Korean defectors hiding in China. But China recognizes them as economic migrants, not as refugees. Under a clandestine deal with North Korea, China repatriates them and they face torture or even execution once they return.
The United States has denounced China for deporting North Korean refugees and has pressed the country to allow access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
An official at the Foreign Ministry said the refugee mentioned in the petition has stayed in the South Korean embassy for more than two years and that the activist and the refugee have exchanged letters since last September. The ministry official also said the South Korean government is negotiating with the Chinese government over the handling of North Koreans at the South’s embassy in Beijing.
“North Korean defectors end up in the South after they’re expelled by China to a third country,” a commission official explained. “But diplomatic situations have kept some of them at the embassy for an extended period of time.” Such third countries have included Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
There are about 70 North Koreans currently sheltered in the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, according to activists here. The Foreign Ministry and the Unification Ministry don’t deny that the embassy holds refugees but they don’t provide further details on the refugees’ living conditions or their future.
Tightened security has made it difficult for the refugees to climb over the wall into the embassy. Local brokers have produced forged Chinese passports for the refugees, each worth up to 700,000 South Korean won ($614).
Even if they make it into the embassy, the refugees aren’t entirely liberated. They can’t leave the property and they get to stay outside the building for only about three hours a day. Because of security concerns, they are not allowed to have phone conversations.
Some embassy employees run education programs for the refugees. A diplomatic source here once said these employees take their turns overnight watching the refugees.
By Kang Ki-heon [email@example.com]
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