Experts urge pressure China to stop repatriating defectors

Kim Ga Young  |  2017-11-15 09:46

Over the past six years that Kim Jong Un has been in power, the North Korean regime has systematically ramped up surveillance of cellphone communication and border crossings, which has had a dramatic impact on the likelihood of a successful escape out of the country. Those who manage to cross the Tumen or Yalu rivers face Chinese and North Korean authorities in China who cooperate to apprehend defectors. Only after escaping China can they begin to let their guard down.

If caught and repatriated back to North Korea, defectors face severe punishment. Many of those caught have been forced to make tragic choices. Daily NK is reporting on some of these stories, exposing the systematic violations of human rights perpetrated by the Kim regime as it seeks to retain control over the North Korean people.

The United Nations Human Rights Council. Experts have stressed that while there
is no legal way to stop China from repatriating defectors back to North Korea,
it is important to continue ramping up the pressure to achieve change.
Image: Yonhap New Agency

Pressure from the international community is increasing for China to cease repatriations of North Korean defectors. The severity of the problem has escalated, and the issue has been brought into public discussion on the world stage. Analysts believe it is important for China to face diplomatic and moral pressure for the continued repatriations.

There remains no legal way to coerce China into refraining from the repatriations. Although China is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it does not classify North Korean escapees as defectors, but rather considers them to be economic migrants and therefore not subject to the same rights as refugees. Requests to cease the repatriations have been issued from the UN on numerous occasions. Without legally binding force, however, these appeals have fallen on deaf ears.    

Accordingly, experts are arguing that the issue should be continuously debated in public at an international level, and pressure should be applied so that China feels the diplomatic fallout of continuing to repatriate North Korean refugees. Lacking the legal recourse, the naming and shaming method is one way to pressure the Chinese authorities into changing their policy.

The UN should take a more active role in blocking China from repatriating the defectors, said North Korean Human Rights Ambassador Lee Jeong-hoon, a South Korean government official. He spoke to Daily NK on October 28, adding that, We didnt just start pointing out the problem of China repatriating North Korean defectors. Michael Kirby, Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK, called the repatriations a violation of human rights. Yet, the situation has not improved.

There is talk that the UNs top representative for human rights should take the defector repatriation issue more seriously and China should accord the status of refugee to the defectors. The UN needs to urge the Chinese much more strongly to change their policy, Ambassador Lee continued.

Awareness of the repatriation problem needs to be promoted through UN North Korean Human Rights Resolutions and through statements from NGOs, added Kwon Eun-gyeong, Secretary General for the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK). If the issue becomes more public, China cannot avoid it.    

Some believe that China should not be permitted to remain a member of the UNs Human Rights Council. Lawyers for Human Rights and Unification of Korea (LHUK) Representative Kim Tae Hoon noted that, We could consider revoking membership on the council to nations that facilitate systematic violations of human rights. NGOs need to keep pressing the issue of the repatriations to the UN Human Rights Council and petition member countries to consider Chinas status. This will result in significant pressure against China.   

Representative Lee is also considering installing a statue of a defector family in front of the Chinese embassy. We are discussing the installation of a statue of a defector family, as many of the defectors escape with their family. It will have symbolic meaning if we install it in front of the Chinese embassy, forcing the Chinese government to come to terms with the outcomes of its repatriations," he said."

Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia) served as the UN¯s Special Rapporteur for human
rights in the Democratic People¯s Republic of Korea from 2010-2016. He urged
North Korea¯s neighboring countries to cease repatriations. Image: Yonhap News.

Because China is not even accepting refugee applications from defectors, they arent screening them, said Yoon Yeo Sang, chief director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB). If China, as a member of the UN Convention on Refugees, refuses to acknowledge North Korean defectors as refugees, then it is clear that they will continue to send the defectors back to their home country. The Chinese government needs to use domestic legal procedures to devise a system for determining the status of defectors, whether they are subject to forced repatriation or considered as refugees.       

The Korean government should use unofficial and back channel communication to explain to the Chinese government that repatriations of defectors is a critical issue, said ICNK Secretary General Kwon. The Korean government should send messages to the Chinese pressuring them to suspend the repatriations. The message should communicate that the Korean government will not tolerate the repatriations.  

LHUK Representative Kim agreed with this sentiment, saying, Chinas forced repatriation of defectors is a clear violation of the UN Convention on Refugees. The Korean government must absolutely raise the issue. Instead of being concerned that the Chinese might be sensitive about discussing the topic, the government should say what needs to be said.

Other observers are pointing towards the need to address the issue with North Korea. South Koreas North Korean Human Rights Ambassador Lee Jung Hoon said, The government is stressing democratization and the sanctity of human rights as the central issue, but there is a need to raise the North Korean human rights abuse problem from a North-South issue to a universal one. As we address the nuclear weapons program and the possibility of aid to the North, we should also talk about the repatriation issue and other human rights problems.  

The North Korean human rights problem is not going to improve overnight, but, even so, we would be mistaken if we did not discuss the problem openly. Interactions with the North are entirely more justified if we discuss human rights issues with them, Ambassador Lee continued.

Ambassador Lee also stressed the role of the domestic and international media, explaining, The press is fascinated with stories about North Koreas nuclear and missile tests and the war of words between Washington DC and Pyongyang. And so the human rights issue gets buried. The government is more focused on North-South dialogue. There is a need for the press to step up and illustrate the difficulties that these defector refugees endure so that the whole world can see how the Chinese authorities support the human rights violations being perpetrated by North Korea.
A tragic story from July this year has put more urgency on the issue. A family of defectors was arrested by Chinas Ministry of Public Safety and was likely to be repatriated. Rather than go back, they all chose to commit suicide by ingesting poison.

The Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea Lee Sung Ho issued a statement saying: We encourage the government to carry out the strongest diplomatic outreach possible to urge the Chinese government to protect the human rights of North Korean defectors in China and to suspend forced repatriations.

The official position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the matter is that it is unacceptable to forcibly repatriate North Korean defectors back to North Korea, where they are expected to receive severe punishments.
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