The South Korean government has asked China to hand over North Korean defectors being held in the northeastern city of Shenyang, following high-level diplomatic meetings in Vietnam between the two countries earlier this month. Beijing responded that it will consider the matter regarding a 24-year-old mother, Lee Su-jung, and her three-year-old son, along with eight others who fled North Korea. Those in detention were arrested on Oct. 4 by local authorities. Most of them are women. Some of those women are in their 60s, according to the South Korean consulate in Shenyang. However, the request from Seoul to turn them over is likely to become complicated.
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Beijing does not recognize North Koreans who cross the border as asylum seekers — but instead as economic migrants. Chinese policy is to then forcibly return those who cross the North Korean border. According to Human Rights Watch, China has forcibly returned at least 37 North Koreans out of an estimated 92 detained since July last year. Although China is party to the UN Refugee Convention, the government prohibits the UN refugee agency from accessing North Koreans fleeing their country. “China obviously has a variety of diplomatic and economic considerations in its relations with both South Korea and North Korea, but these factors should not play into the decision about whether or not to return individuals to North Korea, since the risk of torture and other ill-treatment is so obvious,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International. According to a report
released by Amnesty International on Nov. 15, Lee Su-jung’s husband, Lee Tae-won, is in South Korea. He received confirmation through intermediaries Nov. 12 that she and their son are in Shenyang’s Santaizi Detention Center. There are very few details about conditions in Chinese detention centers for North Korean refugees. Lee Tae-won said that his wife receives regular treatment for a weak heart, according to Amnesty International. Their son has asthma and particularly bad lung problems in the cold, Amnesty International cited him as saying. However, life in a Chinese detention center is still better than what may happen in the event of a forced return to North Korea. “Forcibly repatriated North Koreans are often subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, forced labor, torture or other ill-treatment, and possibly execution, so the Chinese government has an obligation under international law to ensure that no one is returned to North Korea,” Nee said. Lee Tae-won passed the BBC
a video of him begging Chinese leader Xi Jinping not to deport his wife. Lee Su-jung and Lee Tae-won are pseudonyms. The South Korean consulate in Shenyang said it contacted Beijing to verify the reports of those in detention and not to return them to North Korea. Beijing has so far responded that it has not received any official reports and that it needs to launch an independent investigation. China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she is unaware of the case during a news briefing on Nov. 14. “The South Korean government has always requested that the China government hand over the North Korean refugees when they are apprehended. However, this is usually done privately, and what is different this time is that the South Korean government is making a public call for China to hand over the group," said Maya Wang, Senior Researcher, Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
"What is unclear is if this is reflective of a larger change of approach by the ROK government, or an experimental or isolated case connected to this group. It’s also not clear what happens if Beijing refuses," Wang said. North Korean refugees tend use China as a crossing point to their final destination—the northeast is close to North Korea and often accessible by boat—and rarely stay in the country because of its forcible return policy. Many try and make their way down to the southwest of China and then find their way to either Thailand or Laos, where they then can be sent to South Korea as citizens. The journey from North Korea to Thailand or Laos is long, grueling, and difficult. Human Rights Watch reported
in September that security at the Chinese-North Korean has been heightening over the past five years, and that China is also expanding its CCTV presence there. Many North Korean escapees are held in a detention facility in Tumen, which is close to the border in Jilin province. China is believed to take a hardline on North Korean defectors in fear of a mass exodus of refugees over the border. Some 30,000 North Koreans have thus far fled the country since the 1990s, when the country was hit by a famine. Despite the obvious disagreement over the forcible return policy of North Korean escapees, diplomatic ties between China and South Korea seem to be improving. Earlier this month, Xi and Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to move forward in peacefully resolving North Korea’s nuclear threat. “Perhaps in this moment of slightly thawed relations between the two governments there maybe more room to work it out,” Wang said. Ties have been wrought between the two countries for months because of the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles in South Korea, which was designed to protect the country from a North Korean attack. Xi saw the deployment of THAAD as a disturbing threat to China, and put unofficial — but heavy — sanctions on major South Korean firms, like Lotte. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner.