China and defectorsLeaders of the Group of Eight countries have finally made an issue of the deplorable human rights condition of repatriated North Korean defectors. In a joint statement after closing a summit in Northern Ireland on June 19, they strongly urged Pyongyang to deal with the international community’s growing concerns about the human rights situation of North Koreans, including those who are forcibly deported back to their impoverished homeland.
It is the first time that a G-8 summit, which normally deals with global issues, mentioned the tragic repatriation of North Korean defectors. The announcement reflects international society’s unprecedented worries about the fate of nine young North Koreans who were deported by Laotian and Chinese authorities back to North Korea. A forcible repatriation of a defector is a universal human rights issue rather than the internal affair of a particular country.
The inhumane treatment and merciless punishment of repatriated defectors is widely known to the world through various testimonials by defectors. North Korean authorities appeared to offer the nine young defectors special treatment after the international community’s criticisms. But the vast majority of North Korean defectors forced to return home suffer an unimaginable degree of torture and abuse, mostly at prison camps across the country. Cruel treatment of the defectors - who are de facto economic refugees - constitutes a brazen abuse and infringement of human rights. We hope that North Korea sincerely accepts the G-8 leaders’ warning and guarantees the young defectors totally humanitarian treatment.
A party who holds the key to the issue is China. Despite Beijing’s contention that it has been dealing with North Korean defectors based on humanitarian principles, it’s our judgment that China has persistently approached it from the perspective of its national interest.
Beijing still believes that a massive influx of North Koreans across the porous border will not only threaten the security of its traditional ally, but also goes against China’s national interests. Though we understand China’s position on the difficult issue, a country’s individual interest cannot have a higher priority than universal human rights.
We hope that President Park Geun-hye points out the inappropriateness of forced repatriations of North Korean defectors in China and urges the Chinese leadership to change its policy. What approach Beijing will take on the issue will be a real litmus test of China’s status as a superpower.