Task force formed to aid defectors
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established a task force to support North Koreans who hope to resettle in the South and to streamline the handling of defector matters.
The new task force, called the Korean Community Team, was established under the ministry’s Korean Peninsula Peace Regime Bureau. It will have five members, including a Unification Ministry official, a Foreign Ministry official announced yesterday. The task force will be headed by Kim Ji-min, a former counselor at the Korean Embassy in Dominica.
The team will handle issues related to North Korean defectors who are staying in third countries, such as China or Southeast Asia nations, in the hopes of resettling in South Korea. The government has come under heavy domestic criticism in the past when defectors in third countries were forcibly repatriated to North Korea.
In May, the repatriation of nine young North Korean defectors who had been detained in Laos and then returned to Pyongyang triggered an outcry not only in South Korea but internationally as well. The youths, mostly orphans, had fled North Korea to escape starvation; they crossed into Laos from China, led by a missionary couple, in an attempt to eventually apply for asylum in South Korea.
The Laotian government handed them over to North Korean agents on May 27; they were flown first to China and then to Pyongyang on May 28. The Korean Embassy in Laos and the Foreign Ministry here were attacked for alleged blunders in handling the matter and for not intervening on behalf of the youths in time to prevent their forced return to the North. The nine appear to be safe for the moment and have appeared on North Korean national television asserting that they voluntarily returned to their homeland.
Defectors who are forcibly repatriated to North Korea usually face harsh penalties such as confinement in labor camps or sometimes even the death penalties.
Following that backlash, the ministry pledged to take steps to improve its response. The steps included drawing up a standard procedure for embassy and consulate officials to follow when dealing with defectors and the establishment of the task force announced yesterday.
Many defectors, such as the nine youths who fled North Korea, hide in China temporarily and then travel to Southeast Asian countries such as Laos or Thailand before reaching South Korea. China says its treaty obligations with North Korea require it to return defectors to Pyongyang, although Beijing has bent those rules on several occasions, usually when cases become public and the outcry gets noisy.
The new defector team will unify tasks that had previously been divided among several ministry offices, a practice that was frequently criticized as being inefficient.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]