Yesterday I mentioned that Beijing’s stance towards North Korean asylum seekers saw a positive change in 2012, thanks to the improved relations between China and South Korea.
Another factor that contributed to the sudden policy change was the rapid deterioration in the bilateral relations of Beijing and Pyongyang after Kim Jong-un took power that year.
Before Kim succeeded his father as North Korea’s paramount leader, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang had been stable and close.
As far as defectors were concerned, Beijing was glad to repatriate them back to North Korea at Pyongyang’s request even if such moves risked drawing criticism from the international community.
However, after Kim took power, he immediately ditched the pro-Beijing policy adopted by both his father and grandfather, and started giving China the cold shoulder.
In April 2012, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile without notifying Beijing beforehand, nor did Pyongyang notify Beijing of its subsequent nuclear tests and missile launches.
Outraged and humiliated, Beijing retaliated by calling a halt to the repatriation of North Korean defectors, and started to transfer them to South Korea in order to warn Kim and embarrass him.
Therefore, Beijing’s drastic policy change over North Korean defectors since 2012 was largely meant to punish Pyongyang, rather than a matter of humanitarian concern.
As North Korea under Kim Jong-un has been ignoring China and keeping its own counsel over the critical issue of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, Beijing has found it necessary to teach Kim a lesson and bring him back into line.
As far as the teenage North Korean defector who is still stranded in the South Korean Consulate General in Hong Kong is concerned, perhaps he would already have been put on a direct flight to Seoul a week ago had it not been for the sudden regression of China-South Korea relations as a result of Seoul’s recent decision to allow the US to deploy the THAAD missile system on it soil.
Despite the fact that the teenage defector still stands a pretty good chance of being granted permission to leave for South Korea eventually, as the diplomatic tension between Beijing and Seoul over the THAAD deployment is likely to be temporary, he might have to wait for weeks, months or even years before he can leave Hong Kong.
So for now, the South Korean Consulate General in Hong Kong is probably the only place on earth this poor little boy can call “home”.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 11.
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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