REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– China's decision to repatriate 31 North Korean defectors caught on its soil this month unleashed a chorus of protest Thursday in South Korea and the U.S.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak this week called on Beijing to handle the defectors in accordance with international humanitarian protocol, rather than returning them to North Korea, where they face severe punishment and even death.
"As long as the defectors are not criminals, it would be right for China to deal with them according to international norms," Lee said during a nationally televised speech that marked the fourth anniversary of his inauguration in 2008. "In that regard, Seoul will cooperate with Beijing."
Earlier this week, South Korean officials hinted that they might raise the issue of China's forced repatriations of North Koreans at a U.N. Human Rights Council conference next week in Geneva. Seoul says Beijing should abide by two treaties signed in 1951 and 1987 that ban repatriating refugees or others to nations where their safety is at risk, and, as one South Korean official said this week, "stop turning a deaf ear to humanitarian concerns."
China –- which has also signed an agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate North Korean defectors -– claims that the refugees crossed the border illegally "for economic reasons" and do not merit protection under international refugee guidelines.
As North Korea's closest ally and neighbor, China has for years returned many of the defectors who stream north from Pyongyang's repressive regime. Defectors often have to live for months or even years underground in China before missionaries and others can spirit them to another Asian country from which they can secure passage to South Korea.
The unspoken rule along the escape route, known as the defector underground railroad, is that being spotted by the Chinese means a quick return to the waiting hands of North Korean state security.
The stakes for defectors were raised significantly in recent months after new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un –- successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December –- announced that all defectors faced having three generations of their families imprisoned, tortured or killed.
South Korean newspapers have reported that separate arrests of North Korean defectors in China over the last week have brought the number of detainees to as many as 31, but activists could not confirm those numbers.
The most recent arrests took place Feb. 15, when at least 10 defectors were apprehended at a bus terminal in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, according to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
The arrests were the first involving a large group of North Korean defectors since Kim Jong Un took control in Pyongyang.
On Thursday, in the latest of a series of anti-Chinese protests, more than 100 demonstrators rallied in downtown Seoul against Beijing's return of the refugees. Among the speakers was a defector who was caught in China several years ago and sent back to North Korea, where he was imprisoned. After a second escape, he finally made it to South Korea.
"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."
Demonstrators also read a letter from a teenager whose younger brother is one of the detained refugees. She begged Beijing to let her brother go.
"If you spare his life," the girl wrote in her letter, " ... I will carry even more affection for the Chinese people than before."
On Thursday in Chicago, activists from a group that calls itself Emancipate North Koreans plan to rally in front of China's consular office. The group hopes to gather 1 million signatures on a petition to send to Beijing.
-- John M. Glionna and Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: Human right activists rally in Seoul to show support for defectors captured in China. Credit: Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press