[Viewpoint] Refugees, not defectors

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[Viewpoint] Refugees, not defectors

An unfortunate incident took place during a session of the UN Human Rights Council on March 12, in which South Korean lawmakers visiting Geneva surrounded the North Korean ambassador to the UN, shouting slogans against forceful repatriation of North Koreans refugees in China scuffling with delegates from the North.

First of all, the lawmakers picked the wrong target. North Korea is responsible for creating refugees by neglecting its residents in impoverishment, but it is not the subject of a plead for stopping repatriation of North Koreans in China. Moreover, the purpose of the parliamentary delegation headed by Kim Hyung-oh, former speaker of the National Assembly, was in raising international awareness of the forceful repatriation and its tragic consequences, not lodging a protest against the North.

Secondly, their approach to the issue was wrong, too. The sentimental tack, such as shouting slogans or rallying at a meeting place, is acceptable only in South Korea, not in international society. After all, they ended up creating a disturbance in a UN meeting, being held back by the UN security guards and finally getting expelled from the meeting room.

To stop repatriation of North Koreans in China to the North, we should start with referring to them in a proper way. We should call them North Korean refugees, or bukhan-nanmin, not North Korean defectors, or talbukja. And all efforts should be made to get refugee status determination for them.

Certainly, the lawmakers could play a part in this regard. During their stay in Geneva, they could visit the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to explain that most North Koreans arrested by Chinese authorities and sent back to the North are not illegal immigrants, as the Chinese claimed, but asylum-seekers, and that they face harsh punishment and could become victims of torture and execution.

The next step is demanding that the Chinese government ensure that North Koreans on its territory are treated in accordance with international standards. At present, the Chinese consider the tens of thousands - or perhaps hundreds of thousands - of North Koreans in hiding in China as “illegal immigrants” and repatriates them at random to the North by force. We should demand Beijing to undertake individual refugee status determination. North Koreans who fled the North because of their social status or political belief should be distinguished from other migrants. They deserve refugee status determination.

Chinese government worries that if it declares it will no longer repatriate North Koreans to the North, there will be a rush of hunger-stricken North Koreans crossing over the 1,300 kilometer-long border in search of a new life in an economically affluent China. In China’s position, it is no different from advertising to the North Koreans across the border to desert the North and cross over to China. Politically, it is equivalent to bidding a farewell to Pyongyang. Economically, it will be an enormous burden to China. In view of these, it seems unlikely that China will stop forceful repatriation of North Koreans in the near future.

But the Chinese government should keep in mind that it is responsible for ensuring that the North Koreans are treated in accordance with international standards. Otherwise, the UNHCR may have to step in and undertake individual refugee status determination.

As refugee protection measures are taken on humanitarian grounds, they should not give excessive burden to one side or cause tension to the states concerned. Consequently, a desirable solution can be found through international cooperation only. This is the reason why South Korean government has maintained “silent diplomacy” as its basic policy towards the North Korean refugee issue so far. However, “silent diplomacy” should not stop at studying the face of China, or covering up the blunders afterwards. Although the policy is “silent,” we must tell China and the UN refugee organization what should be done.

During the past one month, over 300 North Korean defectors were forcibly repatriated to the North. We can no longer evade the tragic fate that North Korean refugees face when they are repatriated. It is time for the government to step forward. In close cooperation with the UNHCR, China, Russia and other concerned countries, the government should establish a relief agency that will help North Korean refugees resettle in the country of their choice.

Through the agency, the government can provide necessary assistance to North Korean refugees and sort out matters related to individual refugee status determination, their accommodation in China and travel to the resettlement country. This is no time for “silent diplomacy.”

* The author is a visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.

by Park Sung-soo
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