China Ignores Seoul, International Treaty Obligations; Repatriates North Korean Defectors

For the better part of a week, South Korea has been worrying over and protesting China’s return of North Korean defectors caught inside China. The South has even discussed bringing the issue to the UN – a move that would mark a radical (and long overdue) departure from South Korea’s normal kowtowing to quiet diplomacy with its much larger neighbor.

It’s high time that China lived up to its international treaty obligations and stopped returning defectors to a country, in this case North Korea, knowing full well the dire consequences awaiting the refugees upon their repatriation. For its part, the South needs to be firm with China about protecting a group of people that, under South Korean law, have the right to become South Korean citizens. This may have short-term trade repercussions for the South with its largest trading partner, China, but long-term economic trends will mitigate any momentary damage to the relationship, plus provide domestic political and diplomatic benefits for the party willing to take a stand.

The South’s demands need to take place outside of the headlines and away from the media – drawing attention to the refugees before they are returned to the North simply makes the punishment for them and their families that much worse. “‘The 24 defectors have already made the situation too large, and I think there’s almost no possibility that they will survive if they are sent to the North,’ Jung said. ‘The more you make the defectors an international issue, the more sins they will be charged for in the North.’

Instead of occasionally drawing attention to select groups of refugees, risking their lives in the (often vain) hope that international exposure will embarrass the Chinese into upholding their treaty obligations, Seoul needs to clearly indicate to China that all North Korean refugees have rights to South Korean citizenship and are therefore to be given the opportunity of going to the South’s side of the Korean peninsula. The U.S. and other SK allies need to support the South in this effort NOT by calling attention to specific refugee groups, thereby endangering them and any family they may have remaining in the North, but by speaking directly to the Chinese government.

By focusing efforts on the Chinese government, rather than calling attention to particular refugee groups, and by the South explicitly stating that the refugees deserve all of the rights of South Korean citizens, this issue can stop bouncing from crisis to crisis and a resolution to the actual problem (rather than to the temporary bad PR) can be developed. This will likely mean the South keeping better tabs on North Koreans rounded up by Chinese authorities, and then explicitly offering to fly these people, quietly, to the South. By not drawing attention to the refugees, China does not have to publicly side against its North Korean ally, China no longer has to suffer periodic bouts of international opprobrium over its treatment of North Korean refugees, the South protects the refugees and brings them to their new home, and the North can conveniently ignore the issue (bluster aside, its normal approach to the refugees).

Keeping the refugee issue quiet, somewhat counter-intuitively, may turn out to be the best way of protecting the people involved, avoiding international embarrassment, and solving the problem of forced repatriation of refugees in legitimate fear of punishment upon their return home.

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