China hands 3 boomerang defectors to South Korea

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China hands 3 boomerang defectors to South Korea

China surrendered to South Korea three out of five members of a family of North Korean defectors caught on Chinese territory on their way to the South, refusing to repatriate them to the North.

But the three North Koreans had previously defected to the South and hold South Korean citizenship. They returned to the North to help two relatives escape - and China is sending those relatives back to North Korea.

The five - Kim Kwang-ho, his wife Kim Ok-sil, their one-year-old daughter, and two siblings of Kim Ok-sil - have been detained by China in Yanji, Jilin Province since they were arrested July 14 as they tried to flee to the South.

This is the first case of defectors being dealt with by China since South Korean President Park Geun-hye officially asked Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Beijing summit in June not to repatriate North Korean defectors captured after escaping. How China would react to the next defector case was being closely watched in South Korea.

According to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, Kim and his wife defected to the South in August 2009 and obtained the Southern nationality. The wife gave birth to a daughter in the South.

In December 2012, the couple secretly returned to the North with their 10-month-old daughter, apparently via China, and appeared at a press conference aired by North Korea’s state-controlled Korean Central Television in January 2013, along with another double defector named Ko Kyung-hui.

At the press conference, they denounced the capitalist life and the “cold reality” of living in the South. Analysts in South Korea assumed they were being used for propaganda purposes by the communist state.

However, on July 16, Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told a press conference that the Kim family had fled a second time along with the two siblings of Kim’s wife.

According to Ha, the Kim family was sent to a labor camp on their return to North Korea because they “had led a wealthy life in the South.”

Ha said the family escaped to China on June 27 and were caught by Chinese police in Yanbian, northeastern China, on July 14.

Diplomatic sources told the JoongAng Ilbo they were arrested in Yanji, Jilin Province, not Yanbian. On July 18, China requested information from South Korea about the three defectors with South Korean nationality. On July 20, North Korea reportedly sent a special delegation to Yanji and requested the entire family’s repatriation. China decided on Friday to repatriate only two, based on their nationality.

The sources said the siblings were separated from the other three defectors in early August and sent to a different prison in Tumen, a region bordering with North Korea, raising speculation that they would soon be repatriated.

Rep. Ha welcomed China’s first release of a North Korean defector to the South. “We expect this to become a transition of the Chinese government’s perception in dealing with North Korean defectors.”

The South Korean government sees the release of the three as returning the favor for South Korea’s recent decision to extradict Liu Qiang to China rather than to Japan. Liu threw Molotov cocktails at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in January 2012. He was wanted by Japan for starting a fire at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

“China is thankful for our decision on Liu Qiang,” a South Korean government said.

Still, some analysts predicted there would be no change in Beijing’s position on repatriating normal North Korean defectors without South Korean citizenship. “They just stuck to the previous principle on repatriation because they didn’t send the two siblings with North Korean nationality,” Jo Yeong-gi, a professor of North Korean studies at the Korea University, said.


BY KIM HEE-JIN, JEONG WON-YEOB [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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