Anyone believing China had suddenly transformed itself into North Korea’s responsible older sister in the wake of this spring’s provocations is seriously abused of that hope, in the very tangible form of nine North Korean child refugees.
North Korea should immediately reveal the whereabouts and well-being of nine North Korean refugees who were forced back to Pyongyang from Beijing on May 28 according to media reports, Human Rights Watch said today, emphasizing that the government must ensure that they are not punished for having fled the country. Under international law, individuals have the right not to be forcibly returned to a place where they face persecution.
In returning the North Koreans, China once again violated its commitments as a state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1984 Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment. The 1951 Refugee Convention sets out in article 1 that a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Handbook makes clear, persecution that arises as a result of, or after, fleeing one’s country also fulfills this qualification. The Convention against Torture, article 3, provides, “No State Party shall expel, return (refouler) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” This protection is considered a norm of customary international law, binding on all nations, and is therefore incumbent on both China and North Korea to respect.
The Lao government is also culpable in the serious harm that these North Koreans will likely face in North Korea. While Laos has not ratified the Refugee Convention, it is still bound by customary international law to not return people to a situation where they will face certain torture.
“Laos and China again demonstrated their disregard for human rights by allowing the North Korean government to forcibly return these nine people without fulfilling their obligations to allow refugee status determination,” [Phil] Robertson [, deputy Asia director] said. “These three governments will share the blame if further harm comes to these people.”
The best outcome for these unfortunate pawns would be to become propaganda tools for Pyongyang. Maybe all nine will all live stultifying, yet arid, lives under the even more oppressive handlers in Pyongyang parroting the most asinine lines for official guests. Or, they are now dying slowly in a gulag. If that isn’t depressing enough, as Stephen Haggard relates, the alleged story of how the children made it to Laos, and then fell victim to their own government, is a cover story for opposing government as a default, reflexive attitude, no matter where you are.
The group of refugees was apprehended on May 10, at which point the story becomes a little more murky and puzzling. South Korea claimed that it asked Laos to send them to Seoul, which Laos had allowed following interrogation in the past. This time, however, Laos stalled and refused access. By the time Laotian officials got back to the South Korean embassy, it was to inform them that the nine had been deported. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se convened an emergency meeting on the issue, but it was too late; the group was on its way through Kunming and Beijing back to Pyongyang.
The couple who orchestrated the crossing, however, painted a less flattering portrait of the South Korean embassy’s response and a more sinister picture of what the North Koreans are doing in Laos. The North Korean embassy and security personnel jumped on the case as soon as they became aware of the detention and apparently persuaded Laotian officials—through some means or another—to release the refugees to their custody. The missionary involved in the crossing even suggested that North Koreans had posed as Laotian officials. While South Korea has asked China repeatedly not to repatriate North Koreans, Beijing claimed that Chinese involvement in the case was limited because the party—almost certainly including North Korean security personnel—had appropriate transit visas.
The official response by Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s childless female executive and self-professed maternal billboard, appears about as sterile and impotent as possible, considering how her North Korean rival swooped in and stole the refugees. Park advocated viewing the plight of the children as an international legal issue.
No, it’s a matter of government lethargy brought on by a lack of caring.