Special to WorldTribune.com
SEOUL — Star power, political pressure and diplomacy may be forcing the Chinese into second thoughts about their much reviled policy of sending North Korean defectors back to uncertain fates in North Korea whenever they catch them.
In the face of pleas by well known performers and South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak, the Chinese seem to be wondering what to do about scores of North Koreans rounded up in China and awaiting “repatriation” back to the North.
China’s discomfiture is evident in continued delays in sending them back to North Korea. That would be in keeping with a deal with the North under which joint teams made up of Chinese and North Koreans root the defectors out of their hiding places and send them to local prisons on their way back across the Yalu or Tumen rivers into China.
The idea of joint Chinese-North Korean search teams resembles that of joint U.S.-South Korean patrols around U.S. bases rounding up miscreants and sending them U.S. or South Korean custody depending upon their nationality, whose army they’re in and what kind of trouble they’re making.
Only the joint Chinese-North Korean teams are a whole lot tougher, and they take the North Koreans deep into China looking for defectors holed up in the ghettoes of large cities as well as remote farms in the countryside. Most of the latest caught in the dragnet were scarfed up in the sprawling, crowded city of Shenyang where thousands of North Koreans have been hiding in plain sight for years, mingling with the Chinese, doing odd jobs and trying to stay out of trouble.
The Chinese rationale for sending defectors back to North Korea is they are “economic migrants” who just come to China for money and jobs. That’s true enough, but for tens of thousands, probably around 200,000, living in China, escape from North Korea is the only way out of a system where food is always scarce, never more so than in the harsh winter months as supplies run down.
South Koreans have been screaming for years about the injustice of a system that would seem to show no mercy for North Korean refugees while catering to the cruelty of a regime that executes some of them on return, consigns many more to the gulag — and lets some go after payment of enormous bribes.
The complaints for the most part have fallen on deaf ears, but this week the pleas of Korean film stars and singers across the street from the Chinese embassy in Seoul must have been heard by some of the diplomats inside.
The best known among them, Cha In-Pyo, star of the film “Crossing,” made a few years ago about the tragic fates of a North Korean family attempting to get out, read an appeal for China “to stop the repatriation and help preserve the lives of these people.”
North Korean refugees “who are currently detained in China are mostly weak and helpless, women, elderly and children who fled from starvation,” Cha shouted on a mega-loudspeaker. “If they are forcibly sent back, it is almost certain that they will face death.”
The appeal of performers well known to South Korean audiences gave a much needed psychological boost to demands by President Lee and diplomats in Geneva for China finally to listen to reason after having shrugged off such demands for years.
Lee at a news conference said his government would be negotiating with the Chinese to find a solution under which defectors could be sent to another country if China won’t have them. “It’s fair to deal with the defector issue based on international human rights,” he said.
Critics have complained that Lee has not been forceful enough in pressuring China on the defector issue, but his stance is far firmer than that of the two presidents who preceded him during the decade of the official Sunshine policy of peace and reconciliation.
The firebrand liberal Kim Dae-Jung, the president who introduced the policy after his election by a narrow margin over a staunchly conservative opponent in 1997, often said that he wanted first to bring about rapprochement with North Korea before getting around to the human rights issue. Both he and his successor, Roh Moo-Hyun, flew to Pyongyang for summits with Kim Jong-Il at which they never raised the issue.
South Korea during that decade was notoriously negligent in failing to back resolutions on North Korean human rights in the United Nations for fear of offending Pyongyang. Nor did Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun pursue the issue of China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors.
This week, however, South Korea’s foreign ministry has been saying it would raise the issue at the United Nations Human Right Council in Geneva. Diplomats are going to target China’s policy on repatriation when the council meets on Monday.
The Chinese are believed to be uncertain about what to do while North Korea revs up a drive for emergency food supplies in the run-up to enormous celebrations in April marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, who ruled for nearly half a century before dying in 1994. He passed on power to his son Kim Jong-Il, who died in December after designating his third son, Kim Jong-Un, as heir.
The North Koreans have been pleading for food in talks Thursday and Friday this week in Beijing between North Korea’s veteran negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan and the new U.S. envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies. The U.S. is reportedly holding out for concessions on North Korea’s nuclear program, which the North Korean state media has hailed as Kim Jong-Il’s “greatest legacy.”
The issue of repatriation of North Korean prisoners comes up tangentially during these negotiations since China is believed also to be holding out on food shipments to the North. The Chinese first want to see a deal between the U.S. and North Korea whereby the North returns to six-party talks hosted by China for the last time in December 2008.
The Chinese, according to that logic, can add pressure on North Korea to agree to concessions on its nukes, perhaps halting construction of a facility for enriching uranium, by holding on to defectors instead of returning them. China reportedly did send nine back to North Korea last weekend but scores more are held elsewhere while tens of thousands of North Koreans hide out quietly away from prying eyes.
The build-up of emotions here undoubtedly adds to the pressure. A National Assembly woman, Park Sun-Young, this week staged a hunger strike for several days at the entrance to a church across from the Chinese embassy, guarded by police buses. She sat cross-legged, covered by blankets, for several days under a sign saying, “Do Not Send Them back to North Korea.”
The protesters have banded together in a loose group called “SaveMyFamily” — the words all run together after a hash mark so people can read and enter comments via Twitter.
One great unanswered question is whether North Korea will lighten up — or get tougher — under Kim Jong-Un. No one thinks that Kim, not yet 30, is calling the shots, but the regime may want to go easy in coming months in the quest for food.
“We don’t know what the new leader is like,” said Ricky Kim, an actor whose father was an American GI. “We hope there can be a starting point,” said Kim, who took his mother’s surname after his father died while he was a small boy living in Kansas, “And we hope there’s action by the government of China.”
At this stage, as far as SaveMyFamily is concerned, the best action would be inaction — leaving the defectors in Chinese hands until South Korea and China can strike a deal for sending them to the South. So far more than 21,000 North Korean refugees are here, most of them having arrived in the past few years after getting through China to Thailand , Vietnam or Mongolia.
Right now, one solution may be to give them South Korean passports, or maybe travel certificates, while they’re still in China. If the Chinese go for it, thousands more North Koreans hiding out in China could apply to join them — a flood that could have unforeseen consequences on relations between China and both North and South Korea.