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Stop forcible repatriation of NK refugees

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By Shim Jae-yun

China has taken growing global flak for allegedly having repatriated some 600 North Korean defectors to their reclusive home country against their will last week. Justice for North Korea, a human rights advocacy body, asserted Chinese authorities put the refugees in trucks bound for the North. The defectors had been detained in five Chinese cities near borders such as Hunchun in Jilin and Dandong in Liaoning provinces. Some claimed even North Korean security guards were seen assisting the forced repatriation.

Once repatriated, the refugees are vulnerable to cruel punishments such as torture, forced labor and even execution. Most of them were caught by Chinese authorities while attempting to escape to South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. The body claimed a majority of them are women and children.

About 2,600 North Korean defectors are presumed to be in custody in China since the COVID-19 outbreak. North Korea lifted its border closure in late August for the first time since the pandemic, allowing its people staying abroad to return. The North is estimated to have begun the repatriation from that time around. Suzanne Scholte, who is chairperson of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, said in a recent interview with The Korea Times, "It is extremely cruel and cynical that Xi Jinping appears to have now repatriated another 500 refugees back to North Korea while the world's attention was on what happened in Israel."

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) issued a statement Friday. "I am truly appalled and disheartened that China has reportedly forcibly repatriated a large number of North Korean refugees against their will to North Korea. Some reports estimate that at least 600 -- and perhaps as many as 2,600 – were repatriated in the middle of the night."

China should immediately stop such "inhumane" forced repatriation. Most disappointingly, China carried out the repatriation just one day after the Hangzhou Asian Games. This shows that China lacks caliber and prestige as a responsible member of the international community and especially as a pillar of the G2 along with the U.S.

It is absurd for China to have been chosen as a board member of the U.N. Human Rights Council during a U.N. General Assembly the following day. China has been defending itself by claiming the "North Koreans crossed the border for economic purposes." A ranking official at the Chinese embassy in Seoul also told The Korea Times that Beijing "handled the issue according to the domestic laws of China as well as international laws and humanitarian principles." Yet this is nonsense as many of the defectors seem to have been exposed to possible oppression in the North. This means China has apparently violated the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and U.N. Committee against Torture.

Coincidentally, the White House has just appointed Julie Turner as special envoy for North Korean human rights. The South Korean-born official visited Foreign Minister Park Jin on Monday to discuss the recent issue of North Korean defectors. Park told Turner, "It is the Korean government's firm stance that North Korean refugees should not be sent back to the North against their will under any circumstances." Turner stressed the need to closely work together to expose the (North Korean) regime's terrible abuses. U.S. Ambassador to Korea Philip Goldberg also attended the Park-Turner meeting.

Despite repeated requests from the South Korean government to send the North Korean defectors to the South, China has remained reticent. China might try not to undermine relations with the North especially at a time when Pyongyang and Moscow are forging ever closer military ties.

Unification Minister Kim Young-ho pledged to accept all North Korean defectors should they want to settle in the South. Now it is time to turn our eyes to the North Korean refugees who are still put in prisons in China. The Yoon Suk Yeol government and relevant parties including the U.S. and U.N. should strengthen cooperation to ensure the safety of the North Korean defectors and save them from possible suffering in case they are forcibly sent back to the North. China, for its part, should carefully listen to the calls by the international community and adhere to its role as a responsible superpower.

The author is Chief Editorial Writer of The Korea Times.

Shim Jae-yun


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