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China unlikely to cave under pressure to stop sending North Korean defectors back: Observers

By Wendy Teo

South Korea Correspondent

January 01, 2024

SEOUL – China has come under pressure for repatriating hundreds of North Korean defectors since the reopening of the North Korean border following the Covid-19 pandemic, with a United Nations agency recently calling for “humanitarian space” for these refugees.  

But observers said China is likely to continue its decades-long practice of sending back defectors instead of recognising them as refugees and allowing them to stay in the country.

Any change in stance might spark a mass exodus and possible collapse of the Kim regime in North Korea, they said.

Three generations of Kims have ruled North Korea since 1948 – from founder Il Sung to his son Jong Il and grandson Jong Un, the current leader.

Life is hard for the ordinary people, and some cross the border shared with China in hopes of finding their way to South Korea.

Mr Kang Chol-hwan, a well-known defector who fled to South Korea in 1992, said Chinese leaders are aware that an exodus to China would be “massive and unstoppable once they realise China is safe to go to”.

“Border guards would be among the first to flee,” Mr Kang, 55, who is also president of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) North Korea Strategy Centre in Seoul, told The Korea Times recently.

“That means the collapse of the border and the beginning of the end of the Kim Jong Un regime.”

In a separate interview with The Straits Times on Dec 22, Mr Kang said Chinese leaders are unlikely to change their position even in the face of mounting pressure as “they are not yet sure what benefits they would gain from North Korea’s collapse”.

“It doesn’t mean that China will stay this way forever, but I think this is why China is currently acting this way,” he added.

About 10,000 North Koreans are said to be hiding in China. It is believed that some 2,000 of them were detained in China during the Covid-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2023 when the border with North Korea was closed.

The North reopened its borders in late September.

China deported the first batch of 600 North Koreans in October, after the Asian Games ended in Hangzhou, South Korea’s Unification Ministry confirmed.

This was despite Prime Minister Han Duck-soo raising concerns about the repatriations with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Games’ opening ceremony.

Mr Kim Tae-hoon, honorary chairman of Lawyers for Human Rights and Unification of Korea, told ST: “China knows well that when they repatriate the defectors, North Korea will torture them or even execute them.

“Yes, China knows these facts, but yet they repatriate. They are just like the accomplices of the North Korean regime that commits crimes against humanity.”

In a recent report, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees urged China to “acknowledge the severity of treatment” of those returnees deemed to have left North Korea illegally and to ensure “viable and effective humanitarian space” for these escapees, South Korean media reported last week.

This comes as China is set to undergo the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, a peer review of UN member states’ human rights records, come January 2024. The process takes place every 4½ years.

Despite calls for China, as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, to recognise North Korean defectors as refugees under international law, Beijing has long maintained its policy of treating undocumented North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” who should be deported.

Mr Kim of the lawyers’ group agrees that China is unlikely to want to see North Korea fall.

Using the Chinese proverb of “if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold” to describe the symbiotic relationship between the two sides, he said: “North Korea is an effective buffer for China. China fears that a collapsed North Korea with the freed people and a unified Korean peninsula will lead to the wind of democracy blowing over to China as well.” 

Another observer, Chinese studies professor Kang Jun-young, believes that the least China could do as a responsible member of the international community is to take the first step of assessing North Koreans who cross the border for their eligibility as refugees. 

But he acknowledges that even such a step would be a tall order, given that the stakes for China are simply too high.

Recognising North Korean defectors as refugees would mean acknowledging the human rights issue in North Korea, which puts China in a dicey position given its own human rights record. 

“It would be problematic for China, coming from the perspective of their dealings with the ethnic minority groups in Tibet and Xinjiang,” said Professor Kang, who teaches at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

“China therefore cannot recognise this as a refugee situation nor a human rights issue under international conventions. They have to insist that it is an illegal immigration issue to be handled bilaterally with North Korea under their 1986 bilateral border protocol,” he added.

Then there is the Russia factor.

Beijing is mindful that Pyongyang has grown closer to Moscow, with the display of warm friendship during North Korean leader Kim’s visit to Russia in September, according to Dr Park Won-gon, a professor in the department of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University.

He said that North Korea is adept at balancing relations with China and Russia, adding that “by sending back the defectors, China is showing their friendly gesture to bring North Korea into their orbit again”.

What all the observers agreed on was that Seoul can do more to push the issue of North Korean defections with China.

One obstacle is that the different South Korean administrations over the years have had different approaches, without a consistent or concerted push to resolve matters.

“North Korean defector issues are now led by the NGOs rather than the South Korean government. Without a mature and consistent policy, how would South Korea be able to convince China not to repatriate the North Koreans? The burden of responsibility should not just be on China, as the defectors are after all not Chinese,” said Prof Kang. 

Mr Kang, the North Korean defector, agreed, saying: “So long as they continue to prioritise the nuclear problem and leave these other issues on the back burner, the problem will persist.”

“It might be a bit embarrassing for us to completely shift this responsibility solely to China. Some reflection is needed on whether we also bear some responsibility for what is happening.”


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