A critical dereliction of duty

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A critical dereliction of duty

After Chinese security authorities’ egregious torture of Kim Young-hwan, a South Korean human rights activist for North Koreans, sounded a loud and clear alarm for the safety of our nationals overseas, the government has begun to investigate foreign countries’ treatment of our citizens. As it turned out, however, the Korean government is not even aware of how many Koreans are imprisoned on foreign soil. For any government, protection of citizens overseas starts with determining how many there are. But its alarming ignorance on the matter proves it is unprepared to fulfill even its basic responsibility as a state.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has announced that as of last Friday, a total of 1,169 South Koreans were imprisoned in 36 countries, 346 of them in China. But Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said at a session in the National Assembly last month that about 1,780 citizens were in jail, with 619 of them behind bars in China. That means the number of inmates dropped by 34 percent and the number of Koreans held in China was cut almost by half - all just in two weeks.

Responding to the astonishing gap, the Foreign Ministry explained that the discrepancy resulted from a technical problem, not an arbitrary omission. In other words, the number of prisoners is exaggerated because our consuls in charge of citizens’ safety habitually push only the “closure” button after they are released, instead of two - “release” and “closure” - buttons when a case is settled. But that explanation now translates into either an admission of a critical flaw in the computing system or a dismissive attitude toward the guidelines. If Kim’s torture had not occurred, would the ministry be aware of the problem?

With the number of our compatriots residing overseas reaching seven million and the number of tourists more than 13 million annually, our consuls’ job is more important than ever. If our nationals cannot receive proper assistance in times, that’s a critical dereliction of government duty. Koreans overseas continue to express discontent over how many staff at our diplomatic offices worldwide address their pleas for help.

Unless our diplomats fundamentally change their attitudes toward consular service - a critical part of their job - the problem will persist. We urge the Foreign Ministry to be fully prepared for any requests for help from our citizens overseas.
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