The Chinese government doesn’t take well to those who criticize its complicity in North Korea’s human-rights abuses. So it took some courage for native North Korean Hyeonseo Lee to take the stage at a recent public event in Beijing and blast China for sending thousands of refugees back into the grip of the Kim regime, where they face prison or worse.
Ms. Lee knows the risks well. After escaping North Korea in 1997, she spent 11 years on the run in China, hiding from authorities and using multiple aliases, before making it to freedom in South Korea.
“I want to tell the very basic things about what is happening to North Koreans here,” Ms. Lee told the Beijing audience. “China is the place we have to cross .. There are many evils living in China, human traffickers, but at the same time many good people. I’m grateful to those good people, but not the Chinese government.”
China has signed the international Refugee Convention banning “refoulement” of refugees to countries where they face persecution. Yet it denies North Korean refugees access to consulates and embassies, detains them in abusive conditions and repatriates them. Such conduct “could amount to aiding and abetting” North Korean “crimes against humanity,” a United Nations panel found in 2014.
Beijing tried to stymie the U.N. inquiry at every turn, but its report makes for bracing reading. Investigators found that when refugees “are apprehended or forcibly repatriated,” North Korean authorities “systematically subject them to persecution, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention and, in some cases, sexual violence.” Refugees “found to have been in contact with officials or nationals from [South Korea] or with Christian churches may be forcibly ‘disappeared’ into political prison camps, imprisoned in ordinary prisons or even summarily executed.”
Escape has been particularly perilous since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 and issued shoot-to-kill orders to border guards. Successful defections are down more than half from their peak in 2009. Brokers along the underground railroad demand up to $12,000 per passage, while Chinese authorities offer rewards for turning in North Koreans on the run.
Chinese policy toward North Korea clearly still prioritizes “stability” and repression above all, motivated especially by the fear of heavy refugee flows. But doing the Kim regime’s dirty work hurts Beijing’s reputation overseas and at home, where many young Chinese see ties with North Korea as a shameful relic of Maoism.
Part of Ms. Lee’s motivation to speak out in Beijing, she says, was knowing that an earlier speech of hers was viewed more than 110,000 times on Chinese video sites. Here’s hoping her latest message earns wide notice.
[Wall Street Journal]