UN discusses ways to better protect defectors

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UN discusses ways to better protect defectors

The UN Refugee Agency top official Wednesday discussed with Seoul senior officials methods to strengthen protection for North Korean defectors, adding that the agency is closed to consultation with those countries that force repatriation of asylum seekers.

“Korea is becoming a country that is recognized worldwide for its refugee policies,” said Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as he met with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and Second Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul yesterday at the ministry in central Seoul as part of a two-day visit and discussed cooperation on refugees and other humanitarian issues.

This was the first time in 10 years that a high commissioner for refugees has made a trip to Korea. Guterres, a former Portugal prime minister, said the UNHCR has a shared concern, especially for North Korea defectors. He also asked Korea to expand aid to vulnerable regions such as Syria, Sudan and Mali.

Guterres emphasized the importance of the principle of nonrefoulement, a cornerstone of asylum and refugee law, banning forceful return of refugees to the country they were or might further be persecuted in.

An issue of concern for South Korean officials is that Beijing does not recognize North Korean defectors seeking refuge in China to eventually cross over to South Korea. But because China does not grant asylum status to these defectors, they face repatriation to North Korea where they can receive harsh punishment.

Guterres later told Yonhap News Agency Wednesday in an interview that the UN Refugee Agency is “in very close contact with the Chinese authorities” on the issue of forced repatriation of North Korean defectors and that it “should never take place.”

Guterres also said to Yun that the UNHCR regards highly Korea’s adoption of a new refugee law which clarified and simplified the procedure for recognition of refugee status and their rights and treatment, including social benefits ranging from education and integration programs. He added that Korea can set an example in Asia in this aspect.

The Refugee Act was enacted by the National Assembly on Feb. 10, 2012, and will go into effect on July 1. The new act, which was signed under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration, further established a Refugee Committee and outlined in its Article 29 exchange and cooperation with UNHCR.

The act was a response to the lack of a legal framework regarding the treatment and status of refugees and was significant because it was the first independent refugee law passed at the national level in East Asia. Previously, refugee law was covered under the Korean Immigration Control Act.

Yun conveyed to Guterres, “The new administration has a lot of empathy for the work that you do,” and “ranks with the highest importance the issue of North Korean refugees.”

“As you know,” Yun continued, “the new government’s motto is the happiness of all Korean people,” indicating both North and South Korea.

Guterres became the 10th commissioner of Geneva-based UNHCR in 2005 and was re-elected for a second term in 2010. He is on his third visit to Korea, first in the 1980s for business then again for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Seoul in 2000.

South Korea’s Choi Seok-young, current vice chairman of the UNHCR’s executive committee in charge of program and budget approval, and also present at the meeting yesterday, will assume chairmanship of the committee in October.

Korea joined the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention, which defines refugees and their rights, in 1992 shortly after joining the United Nations in 1991.

Guterres and Yun also discussed the one-year probe into suspected widespread and systematic human rights violations in North Korea established by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in March.

By Sarah Kim [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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