CHOI: China’s callous handling of North Korean defectors

Routine repatriation is often a death sentence

As a resident of Washington, I receive a never-ending stream of sad stories from the China-North Korea border. This time, the Chinese government has an- nounced it is planning to send 33 North Korean defectors who were detained in February back to North Korea.

Many of the defectors crossed the border for food and freedom, ultimately seeking political asylum in South Korea. China declared that they were not seeking political freedom, but simply food. Since they were not considered political refugees or defectors, China declared it was justified in its decision to repatriate them to North Korea. Once repatriated, it is likely a kangaroo court will sentence them to life in prison or execution.

The Chinese government does not consider the consequence of repatriation. The Tumen River forms the China-North Korea border. It is not deep and expansive except during the summer flood season. Many North Koreans attempt to make their way to South Korea if they can first reach Thailand. First they cross the Tumen into China, then travel through the tropical jungle to the China-Laos border, then cross into Vietnam and ford the Mekong River to reach Thailand, where they hope to find asylum. Each border is guarded by border patrol soldiers and police forces in uniform and civilian clothes. Needless to say, the most dangerous border is the China-North Korea border. Now, 33 men and women who failed to escape detection have been arrested and will be forcibly repatriated to North Korea.

The world has witnessed dramatic scenes of Chinese police and security forces arresting North Korean defectors who try to enter foreign embassies in Beijing for political asylum. Some defectors are now resorting to risky travel through the stormy Yellow Sea to reach South Korea.

China and North Korea, the two neighboring nations, are not friendly to those who seek food and freedom. The North Korean regime considers those who seek to escape to Manchuria as traitors to the motherland, and the Chinese border security forces always attempt to find, arrest, interrogate and finally repatriate them to North Korea. That those fleeing are driven by hunger wins no sympathy from the Chinese.

Sometimes, defectors attempt to buy their freedom by bribing North Korean patrol soldiers and Chinese authorities. But this is no “Mission Impossible” adventure story. There is the danger of being caught by the North Korean or Chinese agents and shot at any moment. Many have failed in crossing the Tumen River, and many have been arrested in Manchurian hideouts. If they are lucky enough to make it to Thailand, they receive political asylum and permanent settlement in South Korea. There, they are accepted as fellow citizens after a short period of training and readjustment, and they receive the funds to start new lives.

There is no such a thing as human rights in North Korea. There is no due process or defense lawyers. Brokers from North Korea and China have networks for the sale of North Korean women, young and old, with varying price tags. Young women in their 20s are sold for $5,000 while older women in their 30s are sold for $3,000. Trafficking in persons is a serious crime against humanity.

South Koreans are sympathetic to North Korean defectors. Park Sun-young, a South Korean congresswoman, has staged a hunger strike in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. She represents South Korean people who are protesting the Chinese decision to repatriate North Korean defectors. As a result, China is delaying repatriation of the 33, waiting for the “proper” time.

There are 28,000 North Korean defectors who have settled in South Korea. They represent a political force, leading protest movements against China’s intent to repatriate friends and relatives who risk their lives for food and freedom.

North Korean refugees should be protected by the United Nations Charter. People of conscience must convince China to send defectors to South Korea or elsewhere in the free world.

Yearn Hong Choi is former assistant for environmental quality in the office of the Secretary of Defense.

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