Free the four KoreansChina has detained four South Korean activists for 50 days, including Kim Young-hwan, an ardent advocate for human rights for North Koreans. Authorities have not yet prosecuted the four, and it’s not certain whether their cases will ever be tried. But they are still in confinement at a detention center run by China’s National Security Bureau, an intelligence agency, for violating China’s national security law. If tried on such a charge, they could receive life imprisonment. There are also reports that North Korea’s State Security Department could possibly request Beijing to impose a death sentence on all of them. If the reports are true, Beijing cannot be free from the criticism that it overstepped the mark.
Kim was the ringleader of a radical student movement propagating North Korea’s juche (self-reliance) ideology in South Korea through his “Iron Letters” in the 1980s. In 1991, he was smuggled into Pyongyang via submarine to meet the then North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and later set up the National Democracy Revolutionary Party in Seoul, which worshipped the juche ideology. Dismayed at the miserable reality of the North, however, he dismantled the revolutionary party and devoted himself to a movement for democratization of North Korea. The other three detainees, too, were members of the party who converted to capitalism and demanded human rights for North Koreans.
Kim argued that Pyongyang should follow Beijing’s lead of opening to the world and reforming its economy, praising what China has achieved in three decades. Yet Chinese authorities are likely to punish them on charges of undermining China’s security. The purpose of their activities in China was to improve the human rights of North Koreans. Therefore, Beijing’s alleged intention to punish them for incomprehensible charges appears to be driven by an impure motivation.
Chinese authorities reportedly are not providing sufficient information about the four detainees to South Korea. As a result, our government still does not know exactly why they were detained and how they have been treated by Chinese authorities. But if Beijing and Pyongyang cooperated with each other to arrest them, it is hard to rule out the possibility of their human rights being infringed. The government must do its best to protect these four Korean citizens. China should not make a mistake if it wants to avert international criticism that it still adheres to political ties with Pyongyang under any circumstance.