On November 7, the government deported two North Korean defectors back to North Korea. This is the first time the South Korean government has forcibly repatriated defectors back to North Korea. The government’s rationale behind the deportation was that “these individuals did not deserve protection given their grave nonpolitical crimes, including murder; that admitting them to South Korean society would pose a threat to the lives and safety of the public; and that they were not eligible for asylum status under international law because of their atrocious crimes.” I find all these reasons difficult to understand. 

First of all, if they are suspected of a crime, then there should have been enough time to thoroughly investigate and determine the facts. The South Korean government only spent five days investigating the murders the defectors allegedly carried out. That probably is not enough time to sufficiently prove whether they were guilty or not. Moreover, South Korea handed over their to North Korea the next day after their deportation. The government got rid of the most important evidence that may prove their innocence. For the two men and their family, it was a life and death issue and the allegations shouldn’t have been dealt with in such a rushed manner. 

Second, the South Korean government’s claim that the two men are “exempted from protection pursuant to the North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act” is just plain wrong. “The North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act” is not a basis for determining who is eligible for protection or deportation; it is only meant to decide whether North Korean refugees are eligible to receive government support for such things as housing, education, and employment. If a defector is not eligible for protection because they committed a crime, then he or she can be excluded from benefits such as settlement fees and housing. There are no provisions in South Korea’s Constitution or laws that allow North Koreans who have entered South Korea to be forcibly repatriated back to North Korea. North Korean human rights groups have even issued a statement saying that the government has infringed on the rights of the two men and violated the United Nations Convention Against Torture. This convention bans the deportation, repatriation, and extradition of anyone where there are substantial grounds for believing they will be tortured.

Third, the South Korean government was wrong to attempt to deport the men in secret. If South Korea’s media hadn’t published a smartphone picture accidentally taken by a South Korean intelligence official, the public would have found out about the case either after it happened or not at all.  

The facts surrounding the reasons for their deportation were unclear and South Korea’s opposition party demanded “the deportation should be quickly stopped.” Given that, I wonder why the government pushed forward with the deportation in secret without telling the public. A South Korean government official argued that information obtained through an unspecified “channel” was used to find outs about the crime. This is doubtful. Is it possible that perhaps the government hastily repatriated the North Koreans without a thorough investigation after just listening to the North Korean authorities assertion that they defected after committing a crime? If that is the case, the two men and their family were just sacrificed as a political tool to break the current deadlock between South and North Korea.

The South Korean government must disclose what really happened. South Korea’s National Assembly will need to conduct an investigation and examine all the facts surrounding the deportation. It is hard to understand how this incident unfolded unless it was intended to gain political benefit at the expense of human life and human rights. Of course, if South Korea’s laws on how to deal with North Koreans who have committed grave crimes such as murder are insufficient, then these laws need to be improved. 

*Translated by Yongmin Lee

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Daily NK published an interview with three of its sources on the deportation incident here