The recent defection of a teenage North Korean participant of the International Math Olympiad in Hong Kong has sparked public concern about how Beijing will handle this diplomatic challenge.
It might still be premature to predict the outcome of the incident, but China’s policy on North Korean asylum seekers over the years might provide us with some insights into how things will unfold.
For China, asylum seekers or defectors from North Korea are nothing new. For decades since the end of the Korean War, North Koreans have crossed the Yalu River to seek asylum in China.
However, their numbers remained small, even though Chinese border guards had been largely tolerant of the illegal entry into their territory. Since early 1990s, when the North Korean economy was on the brink of collapse and the country was struck by a widespread famine, the number of North Koreans seeking asylum in China showed a notable climb.
To halt their influx, Beijing began to adopt a much tougher stance on the defectors, and many of them were deported right back to North Korea rather than being transferred to South Korea or any other third country to help the people start a new life.
Yet, despite Beijing’s tough measures, the influx of North Korean defectors has continued over the past 20 years, as the economic and political climate in North Korea continued to deteriorate. It was estimated that as of the end of 2012, as many as 200,000 defectors from North Korea were hiding across China.
Before 2012, China had insisted that these defectors were economic refugees rather than asylum seekers, therefore it was entirely within China’s jurisdiction to decide how to handle them. Any attempt by inter-governmental organizations or humanitarian NGOs to intervene in the issue was considered by Beijing as a violation of its sovereignty.
And Beijing continued to come under fire from the West for deporting the asylum seekers back to North Korea. The critics argued that the deportees might face severe punishment, or even execution, after they are sent back to North Korea.
However, Beijing’s stance on North Korean asylum seekers began to change in 2012, and an increasing number of North Korean defectors have been granted the status of political refugees and transferred to South Korea.
The initiative gathered pace as relations improved between Beijing and Seoul after Park Geun-hye took office as South Korean president in 2013.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 10.
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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