Six defectors allowed to leave China

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Six defectors allowed to leave China

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After years of virtual imprisonment in cramped South Korean diplomatic missions in China, a group of North Korean defectors were finally allowed by Beijing to go to the South, a diplomatic source confirmed yesterday.

The six defectors arrived here last week, days before a May 14 summit in Beijing between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

According to the source, the Chinese government allowed the six defectors, who sought asylum in the South Korean consulates-general in Shenyang and Shanghai years ago, to travel to the South. They traveled through a third country.

Two are family members of a South Korean prisoner of war, captured by the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. Of the remaining four, two were identified as men and two as women.

Earlier last month, four defectors, including three family members of another South Korean POW, were also allowed to leave the consulate-general in Beijing and arrived in the South. The family of Baek Jong-gyu, who died in the North in 1997, spent nearly three years in the diplomatic mission.

The source said the defectors are being questioned by intelligence authorities.

South Korean diplomatic missions in China have no remaining North Korean defectors seeking asylum.

China’s decision to let the defectors leave appeared to be a good will gesture before Lee’s summit with Hu. Lee visited Beijing Saturday to attend the annual Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit and had a bilateral talk with the Chinese President on Monday on the sidelines of the meeting.

President Lee, during a visit to China in January, asked Beijing to find a humanitarian resolution to end the years of confinements of the 10 defectors. Hu, during his visit to Seoul in March, promised to resolve the issue.

It remains to be seen if China’s decision signals a more fundamental change. China has a history of forcibly repatriating North Korean defectors captured in its territories, where they face harsh punishments, if not death.

At the Lee-Hu summit on Monday, the two leaders agreed that the two countries will work to smoothly resolve defector issues.

China also arrested four South Korean advocates of North Korean human rights in March and detained them for interrogation on charges of “threatening the national security.”

By Kim Su-jeong, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr ]

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