S. Korea urges China to stop repatriating NK defectors at UN

South Korea urged China to stop repatriating North Korean defectors detained there in a speech at the United Nations, Monday. It said they fled from the destitute communist state “in pursuit of freedom and the right to live” and their repatriation amounts to a “grave infringement of human rights.”

This was the latest in a string of steps taken by the private and public sectors here to prevent dozens of defectors detained in China from being sent back to the North.

Some 30 defectors recently caught by Chinese police face imminent repatriation, according to human rights activists and lawmakers here. They say returnees face severe punishment or even death. Some of the detained defectors have allegedly already been handed over to the North Korean authorities.

The first speech of this kind at the United Nations was delivered by Kim Bong-hyun, deputy minister in charge of multilateral affairs at Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, during the 19th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

Kim used the term “directly involved nations” to indicate China and avoid a possible diplomatic conflict while dealing with the humanitarian issue.

“All countries directly involved in the case are urged to abide by the international rule banning forced repatriation” of people with a fear of persecution at home, the envoy said, citing China’s signatory to the U.N. Convention relating to the status of refugees. The convention requires member states to grant asylum to those within its borders with a genuine fear of persecution in their country due to race, nationality, religion, and political reasons, among others.

Beijing has been pressed to acknowledge defectors as refugees and guarantee their safety. But China has refused to do so, defining them as “illegal migrants” who crossed the border due to economic reasons.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said last week, “They (North Korean defectors) are illegal border crossers. They are not within the category of refugees.”

President Lee Myung-bak also urged the neighboring country to follow international norms in handling North Korean defectors detained in China.

Lee said, “When it comes to the North Korean defectors, it is right for the Chinese government to handle them in line with international rules as long as they are not criminals.”

South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers plan to meet in Seoul later this week and the defector issue is expected to top the agenda.

China’s repatriation attempt prompted hundreds of South Korean activists, politicians and celebrities to stage protest rallies in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. The campaign has gone viral on the Internet, drawing countless encouraging messages around the world.

Meanwhile, senior presidential secretary for national security Chun Yung-woo paid a visit to an opposition lawmaker on hunger strike against China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors Sunday. This was a rare move that spawned speculation that Seoul is trying to show its commitment to the issue.

Rep. Park Sun-young of the minor conservative Liberty Forward Party has been on hunger strike since last week in front of the Chinese Embassy.

“It is not that I was instructed to go there,” Chun said, cautioning against reading too much into what he said was an “unofficial” visit.
“I told her that the government is doing everything it can and asked her to trust the government,” Chun said. <Korea Times/Park Si-soo>


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