Concerns are growing over the rising number of forced repatriations of North Korean defectors. While some governments have taken a principled stand, in reality, many are doing little to protect defector communities. Chinese public safety officers are under orders to arrest defectors, usually leading to their repatriation. The North Korean government has even dispatched agents to kidnap and repatriate North Korean defectors living in China.
Similar concerns exist in South Korea. Defectors and North Korean human rights organizations are skeptical that the Moon government will take a proactive stand on the repatriation issue. Some contend that the Moon government will not prioritize the human rights issue because the central focus is on restarting dialogue.
The North Korean leadership has already communicated to the South Korean government that it is not willing to discuss human rights issues. On July 22nd, the North Korean propaganda outlet Uriminzokkiri stated, “Just like the Park Geun Hye clique, the current administration makes flagrant anti-republic remarks over human rights and this keeps North-South relations in dire straits.” Whether the Moon administration will prioritize human rights as a significant issue if no real progress in resuming dialogue is made remains to be seen.
The present government has placed some of the blame on previous administrations. For example, it has said that legal measures to protect defectors in third countries have been carelessly overlooked. The North Korean Human Rights Law, which was passed in March, does not provide adequate protection for defectors hiding in third countries.
The government has also failed to check in on defectors who have re-settled in the South, which would aid in detecting illegal repatriations to the North. Since Kim Jong Un rose to power, 25 defectors are known to have returned to the North. The South Korean government has claimed that this was due to “free choice,” but has declined to conduct an investigation to determine the truth. Although North Korea will undoubtedly reject any requests from the South to communicate with these individuals, the government should nevertheless make an effort to ascertain the fate of its own missing citizens.
Bareun Party Representative Ha Tae Kyung published the following message via his Facebook account on July 18: “We have no estimates as to how many have been kidnapped and how many have returned freely. Even for the 25 individuals that North Korea publicly recognizes as returnees, there have been no calls from the Unification Ministry to determine the true reason for their return.”
The South Korean government has announced that it intends to strengthen the monitoring of defectors in the South to protect their welfare. But this announcement has been criticized as a late stop-gap measure, and there are no proactive policies in place to prevent kidnappings and forced repatriations.
The government also seems to be shying away from criticizing China for condoning the repatriations in the interest of preserving diplomatic relations. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “Under no conditions should a person be repatriated back to North Korea, where they can be brutally punishment.” However, the issue is considered less important than the overall bilateral relationship.
In a meeting with reporters on July 5, a Unification Ministry official said, “The South Korean government does its best to ensure a swift and safe transfer for all defectors, and the Chinese government is aware of our position on this.” The statement highlights the Moon administration’s preference for using indirect statements rather than direct language.
In response, a spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official response back to the South Korean government saying that it will continue to repatriate “illegal border-crossers.”
The families of defectors who are in serious danger of repatriation are upset that the government is not taking a more active role. Over 70 defectors were recently repatriated when caught crossing the Tumen River into China’s Jilin Province. A family member of a defector who was arrested said, “The [South Korean] government treats these life-or-death situations as mere administrative issues.”
Another family member of a repatriated defector told Daily NK, “After discovering that our family member was placed into Chinese custody, we immediately contacted the government. An official responded, saying, ‘We cannot confirm the status of defectors.’ The official did not say that they had any plans to try to address the situation, even though my family member was being sent back to North Korea and faces execution.”
National Human Rights Commission Chairman Lee Seong Ho said, “We urge the South Korean government to do its utmost to exert diplomatic energy into convincing the Chinese government to stop the forcible repatriations of defectors and guarantee their human rights in China.”
Efforts by North Korea to repatriate defectors have recently risen. A report by Daily NK indicates that North Korean intelligence and reconnaissance agencies have strategically deployed assets near high-traffic routes in order to abduct greater numbers of defectors. Some Chinese public safety officials are being bribed, and some even participate in the kidnapping plans.
The North Korean authorities have also accelerated efforts to entice defectors to return, saying that those who come back will receive a free apartment in Pyongyang. Attempts to lure and kidnap famous defectors who have settled in the South are also growing. This is likely because the North Korean authorities view such repatriations as valuable propaganda material.