SEOUL — A new kind of high-profile demonstrator gathered in Seoul on Tuesday to protest China’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors: South Korean film, TV and music stars who enjoy massive popularity in China.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced it would place Beijing’s repatriation of North Koreans - who face poverty, malnutrition and repression at home - before the U.N. High Commission for Refugees during a meeting next week in Geneva.
A ministry spokeswoman said South Korean envoys will address the larger issue of the North Korean refugees’ safety but will not single out China for criticism.
What’s more, the spokeswoman confirmed a news report that 11 North Korean defectors have been trapped in two South Korean consulates in China for nearly three years because Beijing has refused to let them travel to the South.
“They came in to seek help [from the South]. For now, there is no way for them to get out of there,” she said, according to Agence France-Presse.
China is believed to be holding 31 North Korean refugees who were arrested earlier this month. According to unconfirmed reports, several are about to be deported to their totalitarian home country.
Some 200 demonstrators, including several Northern defectors, gathered Tuesday across the street from the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. The crowd sang and waved placards and balloons emblazoned with “Save My Family” and “Save My Friend” in English and Chinese.
“We are here because we want to see the defectors walk out alive,” said Cha In-pyo, a South Korean film and TV actor. “We are not here because of political gain. We are here because we are sincerely concerned about those 31 people.”
Mr. Cha said he had contacted about 50 fellow performers; about 20 showed up at the protest. They included sitcom star Ricky Kim, who called the situation facing North Korean defectors in China “devastating.”
Rally organizers also said Choi Si-won of the boy band Super Junior, which has hundreds of thousands of fervent fans across Asia, had tweeted their message.
South Korean movies, pop music and TV shows are immensely popular in China, where the term “Hallyu” (“Korean Wave”) was coined to describe the phenomena among Chinese fans. It is those fans the performers were trying to reach Tuesday.
“I am counting on the Chinese people, not the Chinese government,” a grim-faced Mr. Cha said. “I expect good Chinese people to have good hearts.”
Not all of the protesters were entertainers.
“Our children don’t have big dreams,” said a weeping Choi Myung-sook, the principal of a South Korean school for young North Korean defectors. “They just want to be with their parents.”
Some of her students who had escaped to the South had been separated from their parents in the North.
Officials at the Chinese Embassy, walled off from the protest by a line of tightly parked riot police buses, made no response. An embassy staffer said he did not know anyone in the building who could answer media questions.
In Beijing, China rebuffed South Korean calls for leniency.
“The relevant people entered China illegally due to economic reasons,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman told AFP. “They are not within the category of refugees.”
He added that the issue does not fall under the relevant U.N. mechanism.
There is fear in South Korea that those returned to North Korea will face severe punishment.
“We cannot say with absolute certainty what their fate will be, but definitely, since the death of Kim Jong-il, the message is that punishment for defectors is extremely harsh,” said Tim Peters, a U.S. human rights activist who operates along the China-North Korea border.
“I don’t want to say all will be shot, but the consequences are graver now than they were three or four years ago.”