[Viewpoint] China, don’t send back the North Korean refugees

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[Viewpoint] China, don’t send back the North Korean refugees

On March 30, 2006, the White House issued the following statement only weeks before the visit of Hu Jintao to Washington:

“The United States is gravely concerned about China’s treatment of Kim Chon-hui. Despite U.S., South Korean, and UNHCR attempts to raise this case with the Chinese, Ms. Kim, an asylum seeker in her thirties, was deported to North Korea after being arrested in December for seeking refuge at two Korean schools in China. We are deeply concerned about Ms. Kim’s well-being. We also call upon the Government of China not to return North Korean asylum seekers without allowing UNHCR access to these vulnerable individuals.”

This was the first statement made by any government naming a specific case of refoulement and calling on the Chinese to rectify the case. Refoulement refers to the forcible expulsion of political refugees.

As has been evident in this week’s entreaties by the Lee government to Beijing, China has been actively engaged in efforts to sweep up and forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees who enter China.

Let there be no doubt - as a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol to that Convention, China is obligated to recognize a political refugee who flees her country because of fear of political persecution.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is the agency that ensures that once an individual is considered a refugee, she is accorded certain rights, resources, and protection.

Parties to the Convention, including China, moreover, are obligated to the principle of “nonrefoulement,” meaning that “No contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

China has consistently refused to recognize North Koreans as refugees and, in a 1986 bilateral agreement with Pyongyang, has forcibly repatriated them where the majority are imprisoned, tortured or killed.

I empathize deeply with the ROK government’s efforts this week to persuade China to do better. Indeed, the more that is said to condemn China’s practices, the better.

The world’s utter ignorance of the courage and fortitude of these North Korean individuals who attempt to escape is tragic. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang reportedly told Kim that he did not want to discuss the issue anymore for fear of drawing too much international attention to it.

Of course, Yang wants to silence discussion. Why? For China and for North Korea, the best ally of their inhumane refoulement agreement is anonymity.

When there is anonymity, there is nothing for the international community to rally support for. There is no Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela figure. When the Chinese forcibly repatriate, they return the North Koreans on buses with curtained windows to reinforce anonymity.

Yet there is not a single identifiable name, face or story associated with the practice of refoulement that is known around the world. This is why the White House issued a statement about Kim Chon-hui.

We wanted to use the biggest platform in the world to draw attention to China’s inhuman practice and to identify a single story and name to capture the public’s imagination and sense of conviction.

That is the best way to put pressure on the Chinese government to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to have access to escapees to determine whether they can be classified as political asylum seekers.

More stories like Kim Chon-hui’s need to be told. We need to draw world attention to a problem by humanizing and by giving voice to one individual as a window into the masses of unknown others.

Without such stories, these courageous defectors become nameless and faceless statistics, all of whom eventually get sent back to face certain death behind the drawn curtains of buses in the dark night.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His book, “The Impossible State: North Korea’s Past and Future” will be published in April.

by Victor Cha
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