“Intentional murder.” That’s how one netizen, @飞天, described the Chinese government’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors. The issue has again risen to the fore after Chinese authorities recently conducted a mass arrest of 30 North Korean defectors and began the process of repatriating them to the harsh dictatorship. South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak promised to raise the issue with the United Nations this week, and protesters have amassed outside of the Chinese embassy in Seoul to press their case.
The Majority: Save Defectors From “Certain Death”
A strong majority of netizens on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, alternately begged and demanded that China’s government let the North Korean defectors stay, or at least not repatriate them to a “hell” that means “certain death.” @而而特退热 commented, “I saw a video of North Korea; how scary.” Voicing a common sentiment, @复活的愤怒小马 wrote, “These people will be shot as soon as they are repatriated; how can you take your disdain for human life to this level?”
In fact, death for the repatriated is not a certainty. Reports in South Korea indicate that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has promised to kill the paternal family, the maternal family and the in-laws of anyone who escaped during the “mourning period” of his father’s death [Korean], but require “only” six months in a labor camp of other defectors, provided they had not set their sights beyond China.
The Chinese have been moved by the plight of North Koreans before. A vivid photo essay on QQ News, a Chinese news portal, depicts the past ten years in the life of a defector family after it escaped to South Korea. The family was first repatriated from China back to North Korea, only to return and famously attempt to run into the (then) lightly-guarded Japanese consulate in Shenyang. The effort failed, but photographs of an adorable young girl crying as guards set upon her mother deeply moved many Chinese. The family was later granted safe passage to South Korea.
Most netizens did not seem persuaded by their government’s argument that North Korean defectors are not technically “refugees” because they have left for economic reasons and not due to political persecution. @自由思想的虫子 wrote, “Who cares whether or not they’re actually refugees, search your conscience!” @亚伯拉罕w added, “If [they] aren’t refugees, then what is a refugee?”
But @华英雄归来V cited realpolitik: “Don’t everyone argue about this, you aren’t policy makers. The standard for foreign relations is, you do what is beneficial for your own country; humanitarianism and human rights are all [just words]. The U.S. didn’t hesitate in the Iraq war when its interests were at stake.”
To many, China’s handling of the North Korean situation reveals deeper problems. @临渊之水 felt something had been lost in modern China: “[Through] successive dynasties, China’s always had the breadth of mind to accommodate communities from every corner of the earth. Why in these last decades has it stood for nothing, dared to do nothing? … A lack of mainstream values within the country is reflected in the foreign policy arena.” @飞天 complained, “This is the same attitude shown toward Syria, Libya and Iraq; cold-blooded and stubborn.” @四环素601 put it more simply: “[Two countries] doing evil, hand in glove.”
We Have Seen This (Horror) Movie Before
The question of North Korean repatriation has prompted many netizens to look inward at their own history. Many re-tweeted posts referring to the “Northern refugees of 50 years ago.” From 1950 to 1980, an estimated 2.5 million Chinese refugees arrived in Hong Kong, many who had slipped out of Shenzhen, then just a series of villages, and tried to swim to freedom. As @夏骏 relates, “Many drowned…one [former PLA regiment commander]…[describes] from shore often seeing waves pushing their corpses.”
Netizens also identified foreign cognates. @赵艳baby asked how China’s response could be acceptable given that the European Court of Human Rights had found illegal Berlusconi’s policy of turning away boats bearing refugees bound for Italy. @Charles小菜 pointed to the U.S. policy toward illegal immigrants from Mexico, writing that its government “keeps one eye open and the other shut, occasionally granting amnesty.” China, he implied, should at least do for North Koreans what America does for Mexicans. @徐小急 turned to an earlier analogy, writing, “In World War II, so many with a sense of justice risked their lives in order to protect Jewish people. I [would] hope our government has a little basic conscience.”
The Minority: South Korea’s Problem, Not China’s
Nonetheless, a sizeable minority of netizens wrote that they agreed with their government’s approach. Many supporters were angry that South Korea has condemned China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors when it could simply offer to take all defectors off of China’s hands. @冉小妹Right suspected that South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak is “hyping this for his own election.” @祺祺1982 wrote, “South Korea’s not willing to take them and then blames China? South Korea, if you’re willing to take them we will give them all to you.”
In reality, an offer to take all North Koreans off China’s hands may do little good. South Korea already grants refugee status to all North Koreans who arrive, whether from China or anywhere else. Were South Korea to declare that it would take all Northern defectors in China, well-known journalist Mr. Joo Seong-Ha speculates that those guarding North Korea’s border with China may be the first to flee [Korean]. A gigantic influx of North Koreans into China could result, potentially collapsing the Northern regime, a nightmare scenario for China.
For some supporters, the issue is one of sovereignty. As a sovereign nation, @追风的阳光 wrote, China need not kowtow to foreign pressure; “Do you need to keep them just because Americans say they are refugees? Why should we have to keep North Koreans whose identities are ambiguous?” @快口直言老人 implied that sovereignty is partly a numbers game, writing, “China’s population is huge, its land is limited, it’s hard to support even more people.”
Some netizens asserted that North Korean refugees posed not just a burden, but a danger. They pointed to crimes that North Korean refugees had previously committed while in China, while @又现流星 wrote, “In less than 100 of these refugees there might be 70 or 80 that are secret agents” (a huge exaggeration). @Cooper他爸的世界 complained that, “At first China tolerated [them], then [they] began to rush into Beijing’s foreign embassies like crazy. The beautiful embassy row now has steel nets everywhere. … Don’t harass us!”
A Long Road Ahead
The harassment, such as it is, will doubtless continue as long as the schism between Chinese and North Korean destinies remains vast. There are currently upwards of 10,000 North Korean defectors on Chinese soil, and countless millions more who would doubtless like to cross, if only to get food to bring back home.
Rumors of harsh Chinese measures circulate in South Korea. Some say they suspect that the Chinese government marks the passports of repatriated defectors who had sought to reach South Korea with a different color stamp [Korean], the better to assist the North in identifying (and thus likely killing) them. Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains unapologetic [Chinese], surely shuddering at the thought of becoming effectively responsible for over 20 million hungry North Koreans. Unless a miracle occurs in the near future, China and North Korea will remain as @lele酸辣汤 writes, “two helpless countries” in their own way, each locked in an awkward embrace from which there is no clear escape.