Chinese Nab North Korean Refugees, Harass Journalists

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In a weekend clampdown, China arrested two groups of North Koreans hoping to seek asylum in foreign embassies, and China also took action against foreign journalists who have been reporting on the refugees' attempts to make it to freedom.

Activists campaigning for North Korean human rights sent letters to Chinese embassies urging authorities not to repatriate the refugees, whose lives, they said, could be in danger because of their attempts to flee repression and hunger in their homeland.

South Korean political parties meanwhile protested strongly Tuesday over a midnight raid by Chinese police on the Beijing bureau of a leading South Korean daily. Seoul also lodged a formal protest.

The conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper has given considerable coverage to the freedom bids by desperate North Koreans, more than 80 of whom have slipped into foreign embassies in China this year to apply for protection.

After negotiations with the governments concerned, Chinese authorities allowed the refugees to fly out of the country, but simultaneously took steps to prevent the embassy invasions.

North Koreans living illegally in China have been arrested, and security around diplomatic missions has been tightened.

China has an agreement with its North Korean ally to return any of its citizens found illegally on its territory. It refuses to consider them refugees, instead describing them as "economic migrants."

On Saturday evening, 11 North Koreans were arrested at a railway station in northeastern China as they headed for Beijing, where they were planning to seek refugee status, according an activist based in South Korea.

Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who began to campaign in this field after working in North Korea, said Kim Hee Tae, a South Korean aid worker who had been with the 11, was also arrested.

The South Korean-based activists, some of them Christian missionaries, belong to a network of individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helping North Koreans to reach the South, via embassies in China or other routes.

Vollertsen said for some members of the arrested group, this had been the second time they had been arrested in China. The previous time they were repatriated to North Korea, where they were detained for months under "atrocious" conditions.

"If they were to meet the same fate again this time around, I have reasons to believe that their lives will be placed in the gravest jeopardy," he said in a statement, which was also sent in the form of an appeal to the Chinese government.

Following the arrests on Saturday, already tightened security at embassies in Beijing had been increased, Vollertsen said.

So when a group of about 12 men and women tried on Monday to get into a building in the capital housing the embassy of Ecuador and several other missions, a large number of police were there to stop them.

German journalists working in the same building were quoted as saying the North Koreans had been dragged out, some of them screaming, and taken away in vans.

Vollertsen said eight of them - including a 10-year-old girl - were arrested and another three may have managed to escape.

A German cameraman recorded some of the events, but was reportedly assaulted by police who confiscated the footage.

Midnight raid

China has accused South Korean and other foreign journalists of collaborating with activists planning to help North Koreans sneak into embassies.

After an incident last May in which Chinese police entered a Japanese consulate to drag out would-be defectors, Chinese state media noted the presence there of foreign journalists and said the episode was staged.

Activists have tipped off journalists before some of the freedom bids.

Against that background, the midnight raid of the Chosun Ilbo bureau was seen as part of the Chinese response to what has become an embarrassing campaign for Beijing.

Correspondent Yeo Si-dong said seven police officers arrived minutes after midnight Saturday at his home - which doubles as his office - and without showing any warrant searched the place and questioned him for two hours.

They confiscated his passport and papers relating to North Korean defections and he was also fined for violating a minor bureaucratic regulation, Yeo said.

The South Korean embassy said the action was "improper" and protested to China's foreign ministry. South Korean political parties also weighed in, accusing Beijing of trying to intimidate the media.

In an editorial, Chosun Ilbo denounced the police action, which it said occurred while members of Yeo's family "trembled in fear."

"If this is the treatment received by news media correspondents living legally in the legal areas with approval from the Chinese foreign ministry, one can only begin to imagine the sense of insecurity felt by ordinary foreigners living there," it said.

According to South Korean political analyst D.B. Lee, the South Korean government should take a firmer line on the issue of North Korean refugees - not just with China, but with North Korea itself.

"Because of fear that the North Koreans may react negatively, the government in Seoul continues to shy away from throwing this [issue] in front of the North Korean leadership," said Lee, who is connected to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Rather, they use it as an issue for China-bashing. This is in my view not very correct."

"We must take up this issue with the Chinese, but China is a secondary player. The primary player in North Korea, and the whole issue of human rights [violations] there [should be focused on]."

After a series of delays and reversals, a policy of reconciliation spearheaded by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has seen recent movement.

But critics say Seoul is too willing to make concessions while at the same time reluctant to criticize the North, in order not to jeopardize the policy.

See also:
Desperate North Korean Defectors Seek New Life In South (June 11, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow