How HK is grappling with a North Korean defector crisis

July 29, 2016 18:01
South Korean leader Park Geun-hye (L) and her counterpart in the north, Kim Jong-un (R), are said to have been informed about a North Korean defector taking refuge in Seoul's consulate in Hong Kong. Photos:, HKEJ, Reuters

It seems to be a case of life imitating art.

The main thread of Helios (赤道), a 2015 Hong Kong crime thriller that received critical acclaim and grossed more than HK$260 million in the Greater China region, was espionage rivalry and diplomatic tug-of-war between the two Koreas in Hong Kong.

Back then some critics felt the movie's plot was bit of an exaggeration. One wonders what those people would say now given the reports surrounding a North Korean asylum seeker in the city. 

According to local media, a North Korean has defected and sought refuge at the South Korean Consulate-General here.

While there has been no official word from anyone, all evidence points to something major brewing in the city in relation to the two Koreas which remain technically at war since a 1953 armistice.  

One can see uniformed as well as plainclothes policemen and members of the city's elite Counter Terrorism Response Unit deployed in and around the South Korean diplomatic mission.

That is not surprising as North Korean agents are known to try to abduct or kill any Talbukja (脫北者), the Korean word for defectors fleeing the Communist regime.

It is believed that Seoul is also worried about the safety of its diplomats in Hong Kong and has asked authorities to provide round-the-clock protection.

The Far East Finance Centre, a glass-curtained, 41-storey tower in Harcourt Road, Admiralty that houses the South Korean consulate, is a stone’s throw away from the chief executive’s office, government headquarters and the PLA’s central barracks.

At the moment, the defector's identity remains a mystery.

It's rumored that he is an 18-year-old student who came to the city two weeks ago as a member of a North Korean delegation to the International Mathematical Olympiad that was held from July 6-16 at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

There is speculation that the young man is from a family in Pyongyang with close military connections.

Other rumors have it that the defector is a forty-something man from the military, while some reports suggest that there could, in fact, be more than one defector.

The defector probably chose to seek refuge in Hong Kong on the belief that he is less likely to be deported back to the north.

In 1996, a North Korean family sought asylum after going to Seoul's consulate in the city. 

A lot must be going on behind the scenes now as multiple parties would be conducting negotiations. That is because Hong Kong has little say on its own, as the territory's diplomatic issues fall under the purview of Beijing -- specifically, the Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the city.

But Hong Kong does have the responsibility to ensure the defector's safety as it did in the case of Edward Snowden, a United States spy agency contractor-turned-whistleblower who leaked details of Washington's mass surveillance programs, when he fled to the city in June 2013.

So far the Security Bureau, the police and the South Korean consulate remain tight-lipped despite media inquiries, fuelling further speculation.

One HK, two Koreas, multiple players

Hong Kong has been a hotly contested arena for the two feuding governments on the Korean Peninsula.

Declassified files show Pyongyang started to station agents in the city when visits by actors and senior officials from Seoul became frequent.

In 1978, veteran South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee was abducted in Hong Kong's Repulse Bay, escorted to the North and made a propagandist under the orders of the late Kim Jong-il, father of the North's current leader Kim Jong-un.

And, in 2012, a close ally of then South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was found hanging in the closet of a serviced apartment in Hung Hom. The man was involved in a sex scandal and faced a police investigation back home.

The North Korean consulate in Hong Kong is located in the China Resources Building in Wan Chai. Interestingly, Pyongyang’s top diplomat occupies a top spot in terms of courtesy precedence on the SAR government’s precedence list (p. 11). Still, along with visitors from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Congo, Cuba, etc, North Korean nationals need a visa to visit the city.

The New York Times once revealed that Beijing sells, through Hong Kong, arms worth US$500 million to Pyongyang every year.

Hong Kong maintains far closer economic and trade ties with the south, and the city now has a growing South Korean community of about 15,000 who live chiefly in Taikoo, Whampoa, East Tsim Sha Tsui and Kennedy Town. The Korean International School, founded in 1988, is located in Sai Wan Ho.

The Hong Kong government is preparing to set up an economic and trade office, a quasi-embassy, in Seoul. That follows a trip by Hong Kong's leader, Leung Chun-ying, to South Korea in 2014 and a meeting with the country's president, Park Geun-hye.

Hong Kong is Seoul’s sixth largest trading partner and the fourth largest export market.

South Korea's consulate-general in Hong Kong was opened in May 1949, making it one the nation’s earliest overseas diplomatic missions.

In 1980s, a hotline between the consulate and the local branch of Xinhua News Agency became a key communication channel as China and South Korea established formal diplomatic ties only in 1992.

There were frictions between the two countries, particularly after a Chinese civilian plane was hijacked to South Korea in 1983.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong-Seoul ties have also seen their rough patches.

In December 2005, some 4,000 South Korean farmers laid siege at the Wai Chai exhibition center as Hong Kong was hosting a World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference.

The protesters confronted the police, paralyzing traffic in the entire area as well as in Admiralty and parts of Central, causing disturbances on a scale unseen in the city since 1967.

Police fired tear gas and use water canon to regain control of the streets after a week-long anti-globalization mass protest that almost brought Hong Kong to a standstill.

In the wake of the unrest, Seoul sent a deputy foreign minister to Hong Kong for emergency discussions and officially apologized for the farmers' rowdy behavior in the city.

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A security staffer and two plain-clothed policemen are seen at the entrance of the South Korean consulate in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ
Seoul is worried about the safety of its diplomats in Hong Kong who are handling the defector crisis. Photo: HKEJ
The Far East Finance Centre (left) that houses the South Korean consulate is merely a stone's throw away from the government headquarters and offices of other foreign diplomatic missions. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer