Awaiting Beijing’s drastic decisionChina has reportedly proposed to swap eleven North Korean defectors, who have been waiting for a permission to send them to South Korea, with the Chinese fishermen who were arrested by South Korean Coast Guard in the Yellow Sea last December. The defectors who fled to South Korean consulate offices in Beijing and Shenyang three years ago include five members of families of South Korean Army who had been held captive in the North during the Korean War.
President Lee Myung-bak had called for repatriation of them during the summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in January, 2011. At the time, China reportedly decided to send the families of South Korean prisoners of war first, but then suspended their repatriation. The swap offer by China came in a delicate timing when Beijing appears to push ahead with a forcible repatriation of 30 North Korean defectors who recently were arrested by Chinese police.
We are dumbfounded by the Chinese offer because the act of repatriating North Korean defectors in return for release of Chinese fishermen - who joined to kill a South Korean Coast Guard officer in a bloody fight at sea - clearly violates domestic and international laws. China’s such action, which amounts to brazen dismissal of humanitarian principles, can invite a harsh condemnation from the international community. It is not only right but also will not help promote China’s national interests because China must treat the North Korean defectors as refugees according to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR).
Most of the defectors are destined to receive unfathomable persecution and punishment when they are forcibly repatriated. They are eligible for the status of refugee as they crossed the border to escape economic hardship or political persecution. Therefore, China as a member nation of UN CRSR should protect them on humanitarian grounds and let them immigrate to a third country if they want. Beijing must also pay heed to the new trend in which western countries, including the United States and the UK, increasingly accept them to settle down. No one would want to see a bad image of China which turns a deaf ear to the world’s criticism against the Chinese government’s barbaric act to thwart departure of North Korean defectors who only sought shelter at South Korean consulates in China.
China can rise to the status of respectable G-2 only when it makes genuine efforts to address the North Korean defector issue. China’s open-minded attitude will enable Beijing to earn reputation as a strong soft power befitting its economic might. We urge Beijing to make a drastic decision.