Park Sun-Young, a politician from the Conservative South Korea opposition party Liberty Forward, collapsed after 11 days of hunger strike in protest of China repatriating North Korean defectors. The protests outside of the Chinese embassy in South Korea are still going strong, as are defections from the North with a new recently emerging report of 50 orphans defecting from Hyesan to China. It appears that the situation has frustrated South Korea politicians so much that on Monday they resorted to chanting pro-defector slogans at a North Korean diplomat at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Switzerland. In the midst of the drama, the question remains why, when so many influential celebrities and politicians are actively and loudly campaigning, does China seem to be paying no attention?
A report by the Asia Times gives the simple answer that China’s harsh treatment of its own people tends to be widely ignored and somewhat passively accepted, therefore, some people think that it is natural for China to treat North Korean defectors in the same manner as its own people.
Many famous faces, including Ahn Cheol-Soo, have shown support for the cause by joining a candlelight vigil in from of the Chinese embassy in Seoul on March 4th. Ahn is often heralded to be the embodiment of the South Korean dream being a medical doctor, self-made business man and professor. In addition, his popularity with young South Koreans has sparked further interest from the public in the North Korean defector issue. The celebrity interest has ensured that presence of the protestors at the Chinese embassy in Seoul has remained strong up until Monday 13th March.
In terms of South Korea politics, however, the issue is far more complex. Park Sun-Young, whilst recovering in hospital, has suggested a meeting of all of South Korea’s political parties to discuss China’s repatriation policy. Members of other South Korean parities have been far less enthusiastic to offer their voice to the issue. The Democratic United Party said “it’s difficult to see it happening” due to the differing opinions of the political parties in the South and thus shows the extremes of support and interest in the defector issue inside South Korea. To emphasise the need for unity, an official of the Korean Foreign Ministry told the Korean Hereald that domestic political parties need to act together in order for the issue to be resolved.
The two opposing views of how to handle North Korea as debated by some of the most concerned parties can be seen below in the review of some of the South Korean Parties’ attitude to North Korea:
- The ruling Saenuri party have always supported increased military ties with the U.S. and a distancing from North Korea. They vocally support the freedom of the defectors.
- The opposition, the Democratic United Party, has distanced itself from commenting too strongly on the defector issue as it supports increased co-operation with North Korea and normalising of relations in order to achieve denuclearisation.
- The Liberty Forward Party are pro-U.S. and, as shown by Park Sun-young’s hunger strike, pro-integration of defectors. They want to co-operate with Pyongyang in order to encourage change, but despise the regime’s humanitarian record.
Simultaneous to the campaigning to get the defectors to come to the South, other rights workers are highlighting South Korea’s failure to ensure asylum is granted to defectors from other countries. This story is yet to be abused by the North Korean propaganda machine, yet shows the need for the rights of defectors to be assured everywhere, especially in countries so critical of China’s own policy.
With the voice of discontent growing ever louder, China has gone silent on the matter, seemingly stuck between North Korea, the traditional ally and South Korea, the economically rewarding ally. China’s fear has always been that any disagreement with the DPRK could cause them to become an antagonist or be pushed towards conflict on the peninsula, something it is desperate to avoid. However, China’s attitude towards the North seems to be showing signs of change. On a recent trip to Saudi Arabia Premier Wen Jiabao unexpectedly announced that China supported sanctions against Iran for its nuclear programme – although not against its oil industry. This rare condemning of foreign nuclear programmes could signal China is learning from its mistakes with North Korea, and could even be slowly changing its attitude. As China still refers to itself as the ‘world’s largest developing country’, this unexpected attitude could be a positive sign that, in the future, China may be more likely to develop to join the consensus of the international community. Though, for now at least, China, whose own name in Chinese means “middle country”, are remaining right where they are – in the middle of it all and without taking sides.
The U.S. also stepped up to apply pressure to China over releasing the defectors, though this too was met with a wall of silence. Beijing could have been attempting to reduce possible tension between China and anti-American North Korea by refusing to publicly respond. However, the pressure on China is ever increasing with U.S. congress holding an emergency meeting on China’s North Korean policy meaning that the situation is unlikely to stay out of international headlines.
On Monday, Park Sun-young attended the meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva which she had campaigned for as part of her hunger strike. Though still weakened by the ordeal, she admitted to the press that she had been willing to lose her life to raise awareness for, and ultimately save, the defectors in China. At the same time as international pressure is being placed on China, Yim Yae-hee, a South Korean former presidential chief of staff, travelled to China and returned on Monday. Yim had been in Beijing only one month before and it was speculated then that he had met with North Korean officials.
The news also broke just days ago that some of the defectors may have already been repatriated. Though the numbers are uncertain, it seems clear that some are already back in North Korea. Despite the devastating news, the protests in South Korea are continuing with as much passion as ever. The original campaign for the defectors started under the name of ‘Save my Friend’, but now it seems to have become ‘Save All of Our Friends’, and many, like Park Sun-young, will not rest until we do.