Korea plans to raise the issue of North Korean defectors detained in China at a meeting of the U.N. refugee agency next week, the foreign ministry said Tuesday, the latest effort to ratchet up pressure on Beijing to avoid forced repatriation of North Koreans.
Seoul has repeatedly called on Beijing not to send back North Korean defectors held in China to their communist homeland, but it has grown frustrated with Beijing's longstanding policy of turning a blind eye to its calls. About 30 North Korean defectors were reportedly caught by Chinese authorities this month and awaiting repatriation to the North.
"We plan to bring the issue of North Korean defectors held in China to the attention of the U.N. Human Rights Council," foreign ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said.
South Korea has urged China to deal with the plight of North Koreans "from a humanitarian perspective and that the defectors shouldn't be deported by force against their will," Cho said.
"Along with our efforts through the bilateral diplomatic channel with China, I think that seeking support at the U.N. Human Rights Council would help the defectors to not be sent to North Korea against their will," Cho said.
Ambassador Kim Bong-hyun, deputy minister for multilateral and global affairs, plans to attend the meeting of the U.N. refugee agency set for next week, officials said.
In what appears to be a policy shift to step up efforts to avoid repatriation of North Korean defectors detained in China, South Korean officials said they will urge Beijing to comply with an international refugee law.
South Korea plans to convey its new call to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who is scheduled to visit Seoul early next month, Seoul officials said.
The issue seems to have caught the attention of the usually indifferent citizens of Seoul:
Since last week, scores of protesters have rallied outside the Chinese embassy, calling on China not to send back the newly arrested North Koreans. Officials at the Chinese embassy were not immediately available for comment.
Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, home to more than 23,000 North Korean defectors.
North Korean defectors face harsh punishments and even execution after being repatriated from China, which does not recognize them as asylum-seekers, according to defectors in South Korea and human rights activists.
Activists in Seoul said North Korea has toughened punishments for defectors since its new leader, Kim Jong-un, took the helm of Pyongyang following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
South Korean National Assemblywoman Park Sun-young has launched an "indefinite" hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul. Pictures and details here.
If China were to bow to pressure, and take its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention seriously - a very big if, of course - it would be a huge blow to the regime in Pyongyang. The risks of defecting would be dramatically reduced; the chance of escape to freedom suddenly that much more enticing.