Seoul steps up efforts over NK defectors

UN envoy urges China to halt forced repatriation

Efforts are taking concrete shape both at home and abroad to stop China from repatriating North Korean defectors to their home country.

The U.N. special rapporteur on North Korean human rights has urged neighbors of North Korea to handle those who escape the repressive state under international norms, in what was seen as a stern message against China’s repatriation policy, a U.S. broadcaster said Thursday.

Marzuki Darusman, in a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), said countries surrounding the peninsula should adhere to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Voice of America reported. The council opens its 19th session Monday in Geneva.

The report came amid widespread concern over the plight of dozens of North Koreans thought to be in grave danger of being returned to their homeland after a period of detention by China. Defectors say those who are repatriated are subject to harsh punishment including torture and even death.

Darusman, who is from Indonesia, echoed such concerns, adding that even family members of those caught defecting can be put into concentration camps or tortured. Despite frequent attempts, the envoy has not been permitted to visit the secretive state.

The UNHRC session is shaping up as a key venue for debate amid concerns over tension over the matter between Seoul and Beijing.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade indicated this week it would raise the issue in Geneva after efforts to convince Beijing to send them to a third country in consideration of their human rights apparently failed. Whether it would specifically finger China, a move that could raise tension, remained unclear.

China’s foreign ministry said Tuesday the escapees in question entered China illegally due to economic reasons and so did not fall under the relevant U.N. mechanism.

Beijing’s repatriation policy — implemented under a deal with its ally Pyongyang — is a thorny issue with Seoul as many of those who escape intended to travel to the South, where they are granted citizenship.

Apparently seeking additional ways to prevent the repatriation of the detainees, the ruling party floated the idea Friday of issuing South Korean citizenship certificates to detainees in the China.

The idea was proposed to Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, who earlier held a meeting with Saenuri Party lawmakers at the National Assembly.

The group of detainees is said to comprise some two dozen refugees who have been detained since early this month. Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, which is home to more than 23,000 North Korean defectors. <Korea Times/Kim Young-jin>

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