The typical route of defection to South Korea is through China. However, once in China defectors face significant risks of exploitation, abuse and even repatriation.
Indeed, international human rights organizations have long criticized China for repatriating defectors to North Korea and not recognizing them as refugees. The UN Commission of Inquiry Report on Human Rights in the DPRK from early 2014 pointedly criticized China on precisely this front.
South Korea currently supports asylum in Southeast Asian countries, but there are mixed opinions as to whether Seoul is doing all it can, particularly for those who have not made it out of China yet.
Speaking to NK News, former North Koreans now working on DPRK issues in the South pointed out that the diplomatic relations between Seoul and Beijing now make it difficult to openly help defectors in China, considering Beijing’s ties with North Korea.
While one expert said there is not that much that can be done, most said South Korea needs to take action via international organizations.
In part 34 of an NK News expert interview series, defector experts interviewed include:
- Kim Heung-kwang, Representative, North Korean Intellectual Solidarity
- Kim Seong-min, Executive Director, Free North Korea Radio
- Kim Young-hui, Korea Development Bank, Chief of the North Korean Economy Team, (Ph.D. in North Korean Studies)
- Lee Youn-geol, President, North Korea Strategic Information Service Center
- Kim Seung-chul, President, North Korea Reform Radio
Q33) What more can the South Korean government do to make it easier for North Koreans to defect to South Korea? Is enough being done to convince China not to repatriate defectors to the North Korea?
In some sense, the South Korean government is helping North Koreans to defect to South. But the most important thing one needs to cross the Tumen River between China and North Korea is a wall built of money.
North Korean soldiers take bribes for the price of defecting. In order to defect from North Korea, you need around 5 million Korean won, which is around $4,400. Without money, you cannot escape from North Korea. If one is caught by the Chinese police during defection, one is imprisoned in a North Korean gulag. And a defector who has lived with Chinese nationals faces one-to-two years of imprisonment in a labor camp.
It would thus be very helpful for defectors if the South Korean government could guarantee safe passage to South Korea. During the former South Korean administration, defectors who had barely made it to the gates of the South Korean embassy were denied entry or refused any form of help.
That was how uncooperative South Korean officers were between the years 2000 to 2008. But since President Lee Myung-bak’s term, South Korean government offices started to take defectors without any pre-conditions. At least for those who have arrived at the gate of an embassy, the South Korean government should help them and accept them at all costs.
At least for those who have arrived at the gate of embassy, South Korean government should help them and accept them at all costs
While the numbers of defectors are diminishing, there are many other South Korean offices in foreign countries that still provide help. The best option for the South Korean government would therefore be convincing the Chinese government to stop returning defectors to North Korea. Should that option fail, the South Korean government must urge support from international society. Even if we can’t provide a safe runway for defectors, we should at least get rid of all obstacles.
In both the past and the present the South Korean government has provided a channel of entrance for high-ranking defectors, including Hwang Jang-yop, the former secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. But the total number of those kinds of high-level defectors does not exceed 10.
On the other hand, 28,000 defectors have entered South Korea without the help of the government, usually through a broker or religious parties. They cross the borders of China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand to enter South Korea.
They usually have to overcome around 4,000km of travel. It is also common for defectors to get arrested in China or other countries and be forcefully sent back to North Korea. Even though there are defectors that have died trying to cross the border, the government is still adamant in its position of “take care of your own passage.”
Of course there are governmental systems in the other countries’ refugee camps that aid defectors, but defectors need urgent help from the government of China.
The South Korean government needs to take a diplomatic stance stating that ‘by law, defectors are South Korean citizens’
The South Korean government needs to take a diplomatic stance stating that “by law, defectors are South Korean citizens.” They need to convince the Chinese government not to forcefully repatriate these defectors and provide an institutional mechanism to help them, such as providing a temporary passport and protection in the Chinese embassy.
It is difficult to say that they are doing enough, but it is even more difficult to do anything more.
No matter how hard the South Korean government tries, they cannot stop defectors from being repatriated
No matter how hard the South Korean government tries, they cannot stop defectors from being repatriated (from China). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other governmental agencies should try their best, but there has not been any result so one may conclude that these agencies are not performing their duties well.
The South Korean government cannot publicly help North Koreans, yet, due to concerns about North Korea-China relations and, especially, due to the inter-Korean relationship. And I’m aware that even if the South Korean government did make a real effort to improve things, it could all fail due to the interests and ignorance of officials in the field.
It is better to put an enormous strain on China, through things like raising human rights issues at the UN and other international organizations.
However, it is better to put an enormous strain on China, through things like raising human rights issues at the UN and other international organizations, because China has a central role in those.
The Chinese government, which has gone global, will eventually respond if there is sufficient pressure from the international community. This is because their economic role in the world could be impacted as the human rights issue becomes more politicized.
It is cumbersome for the South Korean government to support North Korean defectors living in foreign countries. Because there are political and diplomatic barriers and a distinct relationship that the South has with North Korea, it would not be an easy decision for the South Korean government (to help overseas defectors).
China, Russia and Southeast Asian nations might be able to provide unofficial help in supporting defectors arrive in South Korea. But I am still doubtful whether the South Korean government is promoting policies similar to those.
The South Korean government provides basic support for a refugee camp located in Thailand. But further support from the South Korean government is required, as defectors have to partially pay the fee for staying in the refugee center.
The South Korean government is doing almost nothing to prevent the Chinese government from sending defectors back to North Korea
The South Korean government is doing almost nothing to prevent the Chinese government from sending defectors back to North Korea. I am also doubtful as to whether the South Korean government is regularly checking on China’s new policy toward defectors.
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