The Chinese government’s attitude to North Korean defectors has been clarified by the revelation that earlier in 2011 they moved to block Japanese support for and protection of defectors in Tokyo’s diplomatic facilities in the country. South Korea and Japan have not been able to find a way to deal with the problem.
Essentially in exchange for the freedom of five defectors seeking to leave a Japanese diplomatic facility in the Chinese city of Shenyang, the Japanese government ended up submitting a written declaration to the Chinese stating that it will no longer assist defectors seeking asylum in or near its buildings.
The rationale for the Chinese government’s position is that since North Korean defectors violate Chinese law by illegally entering the country, they ought to be handled (meaning repatriated) by the Chinese government itself, and it looks as though Japan’s diplomatic facilities have adopted the same position. Sooner or later the rights of and safety zones available to North Korean defectors in China will disappear completely.
According to a member of the South Korean team dispatched to investigate the very public case of 21 defectors arrested by the Chinese police in Shenyang in September, “The Chinese government repeatedly said they would deal with it according to international and domestic law and from the humanitarian perspective; however, they never said they would repatriate the defectors.” Even as the refugees were being repatriated back to North Korea, Chinese officials were apparently pretending to vacillate.
Nevertheless, it was important to try. The problem of North Korean defectors in China is not one that can be solved in a day or even a week; it requires constant, persuasive diplomatic effort. Yet in the end it is the defectors themselves who suffer the most. We cannot afford to give up.
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