GENEVA, Switzerland — South Korea has long argued that the North Korean defectors should be treated as refugees and not be returned to North Korea where they often face severe punishment and even death. China, on the other hand, does not agree.
The Chinese government, which has repatriated large numbers of defectors over the years, claims they do so because those that cross are entering China for economic reasons and do not merit protection as ‘refugees.’
In effect, China is either in complete denial that repatriated North Koreans are exposed to extreme punitive actions upon their return, or simply place no value on the lives of those they send back across their border.
In response to China recently returning 31 North Koreans, four South Korean lawmakers waited outside a UN meeting in Geneva on Tuesday to have their say not with Chinese diplomats, but with those from North Korea. And the exchange didn’t take place on the chamber floors, but outside in the halls.
The South Korean legislators pushed towards the NK diplomat chanting slogans urging both sides to stop repatriation, which South Korea and most of the world believes is a breach of international obligations.
"Repatriation of North Korean defectors is not just a matter concerning Korean people, but it's a matter of infringement of universal human values," said Rep. Kim Hyung-oh, a former parliamentary speaker who led the delegation. "It is regrettable that Chinese authorities have not changed their attitude even though they know what kind of situations North Korean defectors could face when they are sent back to the North."
The North Korean Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that South Korea was "foolish" to bring up the issue of sending back defectors on the international stage at the UN. China offered no comment on the altercation.
U.N. spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian told the Associated Press that the South Korean legislators “behaved aggressively,” calling it “obviously a regrettable incident … unacceptable behavior.”
While Mormal-Vanian has a point that civil discourse is the ideal, sometimes you've just gotta step up. Who can blame the four SK lawmakers for their behavior when considering the circumstances?
At a recent protest in Seoul, a defector who was caught by China and sent back, but eventually made it into South Korea, told media covering the demonstration: "In North Korea, I was forced into labor, and I can’t even begin to describe how harsh it was," the defector said, her voice breaking. "When I recall the memory of repatriation, I get chills down my spine. The detainees' crime is only their desperate hunger and wishes to be reunited with their family."