Away from the back and forth in U.S.-DPRK negotiations on security concerns, South Korea has been battling with the Chinese government over its forced repatriations of North Korean refugees. China is hemorrhaging soft-power on this issue, alienating the South Korean people and government and damaging its reputation before the international community. In the long run this is a strategic mistake.
Every year thousands of North Koreans risk their lives to escape their country. Even in China they live in fear, because the Chinese government’s official policy is to send back North Koreans that have left the country without state permission. The North Korean regime takes the issue of defection very seriously and countless refugee testimonies confirm that repatriated refugees are at risk of imprisonment, forced labor, torture and even execution.
It seems that many North Koreans do not even see hope for improvements under the new Kim Jong-un leadership. Refugees that I spoke with both before and after Kim Jong-il’s death thought that Kim Jong-un would rule in the same mold as his father, and that life in North Korea might even get more difficult as the leadership moves to impose more restrictions during the transitional period. Recent reports coming out of the country sadly confirm that this is the case, with market activities in particular being curtailed since Kim Jong-il’s death.
To make matters worse, since the beginning of 2012 the Chinese government has been cooperating with the new North Korean leadership to crack down on people fleeing from the North. In February and March these crackdowns came under the spotlight after the Chinese authorities arrested dozens of refugees at different locations in northeast China.
Relatives of the refugees, activists and South Korean diplomats first tried to secure their release through quiet diplomacy while purposefully keeping the issue out of the media. But when it became apparent that the Chinese authorities would not show any flexibility and repatriation was imminent, the issue was publicized in a last-ditch effort to save the refugees.
The public campaign, using the slogan “Save My Friend” and utilizing social media as well as South Korean celebrity advocates, gained unprecedented attention. The South Korean government was pushed to make their strongest ever public statements on the issue and President Lee Myung-bak and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan both brought up the issue in their discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Seoul. In addition over 175,000 people from around the world added their voice to an online petition, and the U.S. government and congressmen, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the U.N. secretary-general all expressed concern for the refugees and called on China to comply with their responsibilities under international law.
Despite this, the Chinese authorities forcibly repatriated all of the North Korean refugees. The Chinese government claims that they deal with people fleeing North Korea “in accordance with domestic and international laws, and humanitarian principles.” But by cracking down on refugees and sending them back to face harsh punishments in the North, it is clear to any of the growing number of people watching this issue that Beijing is acting only in accordance with the wishes of Pyongyang. By choosing to promote its political relationship with the Kim regime over the human rights of the North Korean people and the expressed wishes of other governments in the region, China is damaging its reputation in the eyes of South Korea, the U.S. and the rest of the international community.
Even domestically, young Chinese people are increasingly recognizing North Korea as China’s most embarrassing ally. The respect paid to Kim Jong-il when he died last December ― “A Friend’s Departure” being the headline in the China Daily ― seemed ridiculous to them. There were even calls on Chinese micro-blogging site Sina Weibo for the Chinese government to consider the North Korean refugees’ human rights. My North Korean refugee contacts are encouraged by this and hope that increasing numbers of Chinese people will become aware of and feel sympathy for the plight of the refugees.
Chinese officials have recently complained that there is a “trust deficit” in their relations with the West. But they should recognize that rounding up and forcibly repatriating refugees to North Korea, in clear contravention of international refugee law that the Chinese government has itself signed up to, is counterproductive to any goal of improving China’s international image.
The treatment of North Korean refugees, along with China’s attitude in the South China Sea disputes, can be seen as test cases for the Chinese government’s sincere commitment to their “peaceful rise.” If the Chinese government continues to disregard international law and the rights of neighboring countries’ citizens as well as public opinion in the region, and instead pursues narrow strategic interests in alignment with the North Korean leadership, their neighbors will view them as a belligerent threat instead of a trustworthy cooperative partner. As governments and people in the region increasingly question the Chinese government’s desire to play by the rules and act as a responsible stakeholder, they will seek closer ties with the U.S. and in the end this will undermine China’s own goal of reducing American influence in Asia.
China is even interested in pursuing a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea. Beijing should therefore take note of the amount of beef that the South Korean public had during their government’s FTA negotiations with the U.S. If China wants to go where the EU and U.S. have already gone and benefit from an enhanced economic relationship with South Korea, then they are going to have to think carefully about addressing negative South Korean public sentiment toward China.
The Chinese government fears that if they changed their policy toward North Korean defectors, it would be too much of a slap in the face for the North Korean regime. There is a face-saving way around this: they do not need to change their official policy, all they need to do is not to actively implement it by not instructing local police forces and security agencies to crack down on refugees.
The Chinese authorities can quietly turn a blind eye to refugees that leave North Korea and travel through China on their way to South Korea, as they have done at times in the past. This would protect their relationship with South Korea and prevent their international reputation from being tarnished. Even the Chinese government’s fears that more lax security would encourage a destabilizing flood of refugees are no longer valid since the North Korean regime has significantly tightened border security on their side since last summer.
If the North Korean leadership demands China’s cooperation in cracking down on refugees, China should put more weight on its international reputation and realize who holds the cards in that relationship. It should ask Pyongyang what they would prefer out of food aid, energy assistance, investment and infrastructure development, diplomatic cover, and complicity in human rights abuses through the repatriation of refugees. The North Korean regime will soon realize where their priorities lie.
China’s long-term interests are better served by building trust and better relationships with the Korean people and the rest of the international community by demonstrating its commitment to developing as a responsible global power that treats the people of its neighbors with dignity. Ceasing their crackdowns on North Korean refugees is not just the right thing to do, it is also in China’s national interest.