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Huanqiu: South Korea Has No Right to Ask China to Do Anything for North Korean Refugees

[Editor’s Note: China has been regularly repatriating North Korean refugees who manage to cross the border into China. These people then face severe punishment at the hands of the North Korean regime. The international community has been asking China not to return the refugees. Chen Yan, who does research in the area of international relations, wrote an article published by Huanqiu, or Global Times, which Xinhua then republished, the purpose of which was to rebut the international criticism against China. The article claimed that, since South Korea hasn’t done enough to accept the North Korean refuges, it has no right to blame China. [1]

Contrary to Chen’s argument, South Korea has long been asking Beijing not to repatriate the North Koreans and stated that they are accepting these refugees in South Korea after they apply for asylum. In an attempt to apply more pressure to Beijing, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has stated that these refugees are South Korean nationals by law and that he will take their cases to the U.N. [2] “Although China is a state party to the U.N. Refugee Convention, it has prevented the U.N. refugee agency, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), from gaining access to the North Koreans in China.” [3]

Recently, Chinese repatriation of over thirty North Koreans, many of whom have family members in South Korea, has created a public outcry in South Korea and a comment from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “We believe that refugees should not be repatriated and subjected once again to the dangers that they fled from. . . we urge all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories.” [4]

The following is Chen Yan’s article:]

On the issue of handling North Korean refugees, people from South Korea, including selective politicians, the majority of the media, and foreign diplomats have strongly requested that international society (Ed: referring to China) not repatriate the North Korean refugees. However they have never mentioned any plans to accept tens of thousands of refugees into South Korea. If they are really willing to do something about the issue, they should express their sincerity by doing something concrete, i.e. developing a multi-year plan to settle those tens of thousands of North Korean Refugees who are stuck at the border of China and North Korea.

When a country is going through a major change, it may often result in a large number of refugees. After the Vietnam War, there were 1.2 million refugees left from South Vietnam. They were the famous “Vietnam Boat People.” The U.S. and Australia took in several hundred thousand between them. That number excludes several hundred thousand Vietnamese Chinese that the Chinese government admitted to China.

In the past few years, the U.S., South Korea, and other countries have exercised political sanctions against North Korea. The energy constraints that they imposed resulted in limited internal economic development. As a result, some North Koreans want to enter China through unconventional channels, and many wish to go to a third country such as South Korea.

According to the statistics that South Korea published, South Korea only accepted 9 North Korean refugees in 1990. The number grew to 312 in 2000 and 2,809 in 2008. However the number is far less than the real demand. Neither the South Korean consulate nor government agencies stationed in foreign countries have opened their doors to the North Korean refugees. Instead, they have implemented tight security to prevent the refugees from entering. Those refugees who managed to arrive in South Korea were treated very coldly, which led people to wonder whether the North and South belonged to the same ethnic group. Up until the 1980s, South Korea used torture when interrogating those refugees in an attempt to identify whether they were spies. But South Korean society as a whole has never accepted its own brothers and sisters from the north. According to a survey published in the South Korean media, only 20 percent of North Korean refugees in South Korea have formal jobs, and only 10 percent of their children have made it to high school. North Korean refugees have slowly become the lowest social class in South Korea.

South Korea has suddenly turned the North Korean refugee issue into a big deal. Aside from its political candidates’ agenda for the upcoming election, the general public’s ignorance, and the media’s speculation, the question to be asked is, “Is South Korea ready to re-settle tens of thousands of North Korean refugees?” In the past, the U.S. accepted hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat refugees and Japan took tens of thousands of them. Are the U.S. and Japan willing to do it again?

(China) should ask the rest of the world, especially South Korea, to start accepting tens of thousands refugees every year. As the Chinese idiom goes, “What you don’t want to be done to yourself, you should not do to others.” If even South Korea won’t take any reasonable action to help out, how can it demand other countries to step up to the plate?

1. Huanqiu, “Chen Yan: South Korea Didn’t Do It Well; How Can It Ask Others?” March 19, 2012.
2. Mercury News, “Robert Park: North Korean refugees face slaughter when China repatriates them,” February 28, 2012.
3. Radio Free Asia, “China Detains More Defectors,” February 26, 2012.
4. Council on Foreign Relations website, “China: North Korean Refugees a Hindrance to Denuclearization?” March 15, 2012.