[Viewpoint] Defectors need our support

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[Viewpoint] Defectors need our support

The Chinese Embassy in Korea is located at 70 Jahamun-ro, Hyoja-dong, central Seoul, not far from the Blue House. At the top of the four-story building flies the Five-Star Red Flag, the national flag of the People’s Republic of China. It is still chilly in Seoul after a spring rain. The embassy entrance is closed and surrounded by police buses.

Across the street is Okin Church, where a tiny woman in her 40s sits inside a small tent. Kyung-in Women’s College Professor Lee Ae-ran, who is first female North Korea defector to earn a PhD in South Korea, has been on a hunger strike for 15 days to protest China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors. She started the protest with Liberty Forward Party lawmaker Park Sun-young, but after Park collapsed and received medical treatment, she has been staying in the tent all by herself.

Lee has set up signs in English: “Save my friends,” and “Give me liberty or death.” She has also written pleas in Chinese, such as, “Mr. Ambassador, would you send your family back to North Korea?” Supporters have also left notes reading, “Is it a crime to leave North Korea to escape starvation?” and “Hu Jintao should stop helping out Kim Jong-un.” Will the Chinese government listen to Professor Lee’s appeal? The possibility is low, and Lee is aware of it. So why does she continue such a lonely struggle out in the cold?

“Even the president of Korea cannot change the Chinese policy, so they won’t be affected by my protest,” she said. “But I am staging a hunger strike to spur Korean citizens to get interested in the defector issue.” She said that she could not comprehend why South Koreans are so silent about the misery of North Koreans when they became so passionate about protesting beef imports from the U.S. in 2008. The repatriation of the defectors is not a matter of ideology but an issue of human rights and life as people who are returned are imprisoned, tortured and executed. She argues that if only 10 percent of the people who participated in the candlelight protests against beef imports had joined the effort, Beijing wouldn’t send back the defectors so mercilessly.

The defector issue is a complicated problem for China as well. Giving North Korean defectors who cross the Yalu and Tumen rivers refugee status is likely to signal the collapse of the North Korean system. In September 1989, the Austrian and Hungarian governments gave East Germans refugee status and allowed them to go to West Germany, and the event became a catalyst for the exodus out of East Germany. The Berlin Wall fell and East Germany disappeared from the world map. If China allows the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to evaluate the North Korean defectors according to the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, it would have to expect a surge of North Koreans into its territory. That would be unacceptable for China, which values the stability of its border. It is the prime reason why China classifies the defectors as “illegal border crossers” and sends them back to the North.

The defector issue is a challenge that can only be resolved when China accepts the collapse of North Korea and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula as an inevitable reality.

As the public becomes increasingly concerned, the government has switched from quiet diplomacy to open diplomacy. The president urged Beijing to stop repatriating the defectors forcibly and sent a delegate to the UN Human Rights Council to officially raise his concern. However, that is not a wise strategy. China is not a country that will submit to pressure from the international community, as we can see with the Syrian crisis. Open pressure through diplomatic channel will not only make the defector issue more complicated, but also aggravate the Korea-China relations.

The government should return to the conventional method of behind-the-scenes negotiations, and civilian groups need to take the initiative. The unified voice of the people urging a humanitarian approach should change Chinese public opinion. Even the Chinese government cannot ignore domestic public opinion. It is a notable change that some intellectuals in China have started to speak up opposing the repatriation of the defectors. Pop stars and actors have employed the Korean Wave to get attention for the defectors’ plight, and ordinary citizens should pick up their own megaphones.

When asked how long she will continue her hunger strike, Professor Lee said that she would continue until 400 citizens gather in front of the Chinese Embassy for a candlelight protest. Let’s break out of indifference and light the candles for the defectors. Let’s save the defectors from fear of death with warm candlelight. There is no guarantee that China will change its policy, but we don’t have the right to speak of human rights, brotherly love and reunification if we don’t stand up for the cause. Tens of thousands of candles should be lit to pray for the safety of the defectors.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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