Election law raises asylum concerns

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Election law raises asylum concerns

The National Election Commission is mulling over plans to beef up security around South Korean diplomatic missions in order to block North Korean defectors’ attempts to enter the compounds and seek asylum when overseas voters participate in the upcoming April legislative elections.

Under the revised election law, South Koreans living abroad will be allowed to vote in legislative and presidential elections.

According to the NEC, nearly 2.3 million eligible voters will be able to cast ballots at 164 diplomatic missions around the world for the first time this spring.

The voting period for the overseas Koreans to elect proportional representatives - not the lawmakers representing constituencies - is from March 28 to April 2. About 290,000 Koreans in China are allowed to vote in nine South Korean diplomatic missions in the country’s major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

The new system, however, has created an unexpected diplomatic headache due to growing concerns that North Korean defectors in China may use the opportunity to enter the South Korean Embassy and consulates to seek asylum.

“We worry about possible diplomatic friction with China if the defectors en masse seek asylum in our missions during the voting period,” a senior official of the NEC told Yonhap News Agency.

The election watchdog said it plans to beef up security by cooperating with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. A special measure of checking passports to allow only South Korean citizens to enter the compounds is also being considered.

The proposed plan, however, quickly prompted criticism.

“No one has the right to say who can enter our diplomatic missions or not,” said Representative Yoon Sang-hyun of the Grand National Party. “The Chinese authorities may say they want to crack down the defectors to maintain public security, but it is an abuse of power for our government to block the defectors from entering our diplomatic missions.”

Seeking asylum in diplomatic missions has been a popular way for North Korean defectors to leave China to come to the South. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 378 North Korean defectors were waiting inside the diplomatic missions to be sent to the South as of late July 2011.

According to the ministry, more than 2,000 defectors annually have come to the South since 2006 by seeking asylum in the diplomatic missions.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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