Rights watchdog’s slip up puts North defectors at risk

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Rights watchdog’s slip up puts North defectors at risk

The state human rights watchdog leaked information about a group of North Korean defectors arrested in China to the local media, increasing their risk of being sent back to the North.

“The careless act of the National Human Rights Commission put the defectors at risk of being forcibly returned to the North,” Kim Hui-tae, secretary-general of Buhan Ingwon, a civic group working for human rights in North Korea, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “The commission, which is supposed to protect the human rights of people, put them in danger of having their rights abused.”

According to Kim, 10 North Korean defectors were caught by Chinese police on Feb. 8 on a bus in Shenyang, a northeastern city of China, trying to flee south. Two in the group were teenagers trying to be reunited with their parents and siblings who defected earlier to the South.

Since North Korean successor Kim Jong-un reportedly lashed out late last year, saying he “would execute three generations of people who attempt to defect,” China has tightened security on escapees from the North.

“We sent messages via fax about their situation to the Blue House, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the National Human Rights Commission to seek their help,” Kim said. He took for granted everyone would keep the information confidential.

However, five days after the defectors’ arrests, state-run Yonhap News Agency reported on their defection, releasing an erroneous article saying they had requested an emergency rescue by the commission. After the report, Liberal Forward Party lawmaker Park Sun-young also publicly stated that 24 defectors, including the 10 arrested in Shenyang, were at risk of being repatriated to the North.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry warned the commission about leaking the information to the media because it was working behind the scenes to rescue the 24 defectors, which was almost screwed up by the commission.

“We were cooperating with the Foreign Ministry trying to rescue them secretly and we were making progress,” Kim said. “We didn’t expect the commission to open this incident to the public.”

The foreign ministry doesn’t know the fate of the 10 defectors.

In response, an official at the commission told the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity that 11 commissioners held a general meeting on Feb. 13 and one of them brought up the incident, saying, “I was informed that a group of North Korean defectors were arrested by Chinese security. Why don’t we talk about this?” Reporters had been invited to cover the meeting.

“We are aware of the importance of keeping secrets on defectors,” he said. “It just slipped out.”

Regarding China’s toughened measures against defectors, Amnesty International Tuesday sent a letter to former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, urging the nation to reconsider repatriating fleeing North Koreans.

In the letter, Amnesty said North Korean defectors returned to the North were generally executed or imprisoned.

China classifies North Korean defectors as illegal immigrants, it added.

By Kim Su-jeong, Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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