No more repatriation!
Deputy Managing Editor
One day a decade ago when I was working for the Korean-invested Bumsei Leather Products Co. in Jiaozhou, Qingdao, in east China’s Shandong Province, a security guard of the company approached me. The Chinese employee said someone has come to the building and wanted to meet me. He was waiting for me at the entrance of the company. I asked who he was and he said he had no idea. I walked out of my office with the employee to find out what was going on.
The man, presumed to be in his late 30s or early 40s, was not tall, skinny and looked shabby. I first asked him where he was from and he answered that he came from “bukhan,” literally meaning North Korea.
He asked me to give him a chance to work at the company, adding that he would do anything. I paused and thought that he must have fled North Korea. He had escaped to northeastern China, was hiding and sneaked into Licha, a rural village in Jiaozhou.
He then said he only wanted me to allow him to sleep and eat at any place on the company premises. He said it was also OK for him to be poorly paid.
I felt sympathy for the predicament facing the fleeing fellow countryman. I thought he was seeking to find shelter, not a job. But I concluded that I could not hire him. I could not guarantee his safety. What also concerned me was that it could create trouble for a foreign-invested company. Even if he came in, he could be found and arrested by local police. I thought someone around me, anyone in or outside the company, could be a whistleblower.
I gave him the address of another company I knew with Korean investors. I thought that it would be safer for him to go there because it was located in an urban area crowded with more people. I could not help him anymore. He was discouraged and left.
According to unofficial accounts, since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War more than 21,700 North Koreans have fled their country, a society plagued by famine and illness, mostly in recent years. The North Korean case indicates that many more of its people are fleeing to China.
Human rights activists say that dozens of North Koreans, who recently crossed the border into China, have been caught by local authorities and face repatriation. China says they are illegal border crossers, not refugees, whereas South Korea has taken the issue to the United Nations as parts of efforts to rescue them.
The North Koreans detained in China should be considered political refugees because they, according to defectors already in South Korea, will face harsh punishment such as torture and public execution, if sent home. They can also be classified as economic refugees from the hardships of life in the impoverished North.
Activists say the North Korean regime has toughened punishment for fugitives since the power transfer from late leader Kim Jong-il to his son Jong-un late last year. They say they heard that the new leader ordered security forces to annihilate the whole family and relatives of those who fled during the mourning period for his father.
Kim Jong-un has no excuse for punishing them as the Pyongyang regime has long failed to save starving North Koreans. His late father, Kim Jong-il, promised to provide the people with boiled rice and beef soup during his 17-year rule, but it turns out to be a lie for life is still hard in the communist state.
China, as a responsible member of the international community, has obligations to honor the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The international law states that refugees are individuals who are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.
Beijing should change its inhumane policy of repatriating North Koreans as economic migrants against their will, and give the innocent an opportunity to live. Sending them back is a violation of their human rights.