Is Beijing Serious About Restraining Kim Regime?

On Monday, Human Rights Watch asked China to immediately reveal the location of where it is holding eight North Korean defectors.

The group of defectors was stopped after a random traffic check in the northeastern city of Shenyang in mid-March.

“There is no way to sugar coat this: if this group is forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. North Korea, now and in the past, has subjected returned defectors to “torture, sexual violence, forced labor—and even worse,” he said in a statement. That is especially true for those returned more than once.

At least four of those detained are females. “President Trump and Chinese President, please save us,” one of the women said in a video. “If we go back to North Korea, we will be dead.”

China does not care. “Some North Korean citizens, due to economic reasons, illegally crossed China’s border,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, at a regular news briefing. “This violates Chinese law.” 

These defectors are not the only ones violating the law. China violates international law when it automatically classifies North Koreans caught on Chinese soil as “economic migrants” and repatriates them. By not protecting refugees fleeing persecution, China ignores its obligations under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, more commonly known as the 1951 Refugee Convention. Moreover, without justification Beijing restricts access of the UN High Commission for Refugees to North Korean defectors held by Chinese authorities.

Geng says “China consistently handles this kind of issue prudently and appropriately according to domestic and international law, and humanitarian principles.”

On occasion, Beijing will conform to accepted humanitarian norms and does not return defectors to the authorities in Pyongyang, and, indeed, allows defectors to travel to South Korea, where all those fleeing the North are welcome.

So how does Beijing decide which defectors to release to the South? International pressure certainly affects decision-making in the Chinese capital. Another factor is how China’s policymakers view North Korea. In the past, when relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have been particularly tense, China has signaled its displeasure by allowing detained defectors to go to the other Korea.

If China follows its routine, the group detained in Shenyang will be returned to North Korea in about two weeks. If not, the refugees will find freedom and shelter in South Korea. Wherever Beijing sends the refugees—to freedom or imprisonment—will reveal much regarding Beijing’s true relationship with the Kim regime and the seriousness of its efforts to tame it.

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