North Korean Defectors' Plight Ignored in South

The campaign to do something about the desperate plight of 30 to 40 North Korean defectors crossing the border into China recently only to be detained to be sent back appears to be stalled for lack of consensus and urgency in the South.

The refugees, obvious victims of hunger and repression, were arrested while seeking a better life and face a likely death if repatriated. Thus far, however, the issue has failed to mobilize South Korea's population and politicians as other issues have.

The South Korean government has asked China to send the defectors to Seoul, where defectors are given citizenship and receive assistance in settling. But that is unlikely, as China has an agreement with North Korea to repatriate defectors to their land of origin.

Over the past several months, hot-button topics like social welfare and economic inequality have brought thousands out to protests all over the country and changed the national political discourse. But the daily rallies in support of defectors in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul have drawn only a few dozen protestors at a time.

The exact number of defectors now being held isn't known, but they are at special risk: the North Korean government announced that anyone caught defecting during the period of mourning for Kim Jong-il's death would have three generations of family members executed. This fate likely awaits the group currently held in China if they are repatriated.

The ruling Lee Myung-bak government in South Korea has been decisive in its pressure on China.

"We repeatedly stress that this issue must be dealt with from a humanitarian standpoint,” Lee Kyu-hyung, South Korean ambassador to China, told reporters in Seoul on Feb. 20.

China, however doesn't consider the North Koreans to be refugees fleeing a repressive regime, as Lee Kyu-hyung pointed out. Under the terms of a deal with North Korea, China deports defectors as economic migrants lacking official permission to enter China.

This stance is at odds with China's obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention states "No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion."

But liberal opposition parties haven't joined South Korea's ruling New Frontier Party in speaking out in support of the defectors either. The liberal opposition Democratic United Party chose not to send any representatives to a coming meeting at the United Nations Commission of Human Rights in Geneva. The meeting will be attended by lawmakers from the ruling New Frontier Party and the minor Liberty Forward Party. The meeting was proposed by lawmaker Park Sun-young, who went on a hunger strike to protests the defectors' expected repatriation.

South Korea's left is reluctant to antagonize North Korea. The argument goes that loud condemnation of China's handling of defectors will only damage relations between Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul and make cooperation on defectors more difficult. Progressives favor what they call 'quiet diplomacy' in this case. The liberal parties are following a standard set by former rulers Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who tended to avoid outright criticism of North Korea.

The leader of the main opposition Democratic Unity Party, Han Myeong-sook, told a Feb. 28 forum in Seoul that if victorious in South Korean elections this year, “The Democratic United Party will actively pursue normalization of South-North ties and their improvement." She added that her party would end sanctions against the North.

A sign of hope for the campaign came on March 5 when the highest-profile public figure in South Korea, software tycoon Ahn Chul-soo, turned up at a protest outside the Chinese embassy. Ahn was instrumental in mobilizing thousands during Seoul's mayoral election in October, which was won by the candidate he endorsed, then little-known Park Won-soon.

Cha In-pyo, a South Korean actor, is attempting to lend a bit of celebrity sheen to the issue. Along with other (not exactly A-list) Korean celebrities, he has taken up a publicity campaign to draw attention to defectors. Cha starred in the 2008 film Crossing as a North Korean father who sneaks across the Tumen River to buy medicine for his pregnant wife.

So far the efforts of Cha and other have generally not inspired the attention of South Korean human rights groups. Activists in the South generally pounce on human rights issues, such as free speech or labor infractions, while this issue is largely ignored, despite the severity of the suffering involved. A small but persistent group of protests continue to gather each day, while circulating emails and using social media to gain petition signatures.

Much of the campaign's support has come from abroad. Korean-Americans are leading online petitions to be presented to the Chinese authorities. In Seoul, protests have been organized by the refugees of international conflicts that have been granted residency in South Korea.

The defectors issue has trouble sustaining media attention. Most seem content to ignore the matter until it goes away. The Chinese government has remained mostly silent, apparently biding its time until public interest dissipates.

There will likely be more North Koreans attempting to defect in the near future due to hunger. The World Food Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have reported that North Korea faces a food shortage of 414,000 tons this year (that number doesn't include the 240,000 tons of food pledged by the U.S in return for a cessation of North Korea's nuclear activities).