Protect young defectors’ safety first

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Protect young defectors’ safety first

Society is deeply concerned about the fate of the young defectors mostly in their teens and early 20s who were stopped by Laos security authorities and repatriated to North Korea last week. There have been many accounts of the harsh punishments that await defectors who are returned to North Korea. We need not go through the countless cases of human rights violations in the secluded nation to point out what dangers the young defectors can face back in their motherland. In fact, their lives could be at risk at this moment.

The international community should engage in multilateral efforts to ensure their safety. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has demanded independent and immediate access to the group that includes five minors. Ed Royce, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, also sent a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping protesting Beijing’s suspected involvement in their repatriation. The moves underscore Washington’s demand that Beijing take greater interest in the ever-worsening human rights situation in North Korea.

The human rights of North Korean defectors should be seriously discussed during the upcoming summit between President Park Geun-hye and Xi this month. North Koreans fleeing from the starved nation usually cross the border to China to seek a new life. The fate of North Korean defectors who hide in China remains in the hands of the Beijing government.

Beijing has been less than helpful on the issue. South Korean human rights activist Kim Young-hwan claimed last year that he was beaten and even electrocuted by Chinese police while in their custody. But China cannot maintain its attitude. If Beijing hands over North Korean defectors to Pyongyang and considers the severe punishment they are destined to face only as a North Korean domestic issue, that constitutes turning a blind eye to inexorable cruelty.

It is time that China join international efforts to protect North Korean defectors as part of a stronger commitment to universal human rights. Otherwise, Beijing will lose international credibility because of its unacceptable human rights policy.

South Korean politicians must have their priorities straight.

Our government must focus primarily on ensuing the safety of young defectors before demanding accountability for the inhumane incident from Beijing.
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