Strained relations between Beijing and Seoul over the deployment of a US missile defense system have made it “more difficult” for North Korean refugees or defectors to pass through China before reaching South Korea, a former US special envoy said.
Robert King, former US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, told a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Beijing at times has allowed North Korean refugees to travel into the South via China when the Chinese capital has maintained good relations with Seoul. But after South Korea decided to install an American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system on the Korean Peninsula earlier this year, triggering a year-long diplomatic stand-off between Seoul and Beijing, North Korean refugees could hardly pass through China, King said.
King’s comments coincide with the beginning of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s official visit to China and his third meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two neighboring countries agreed to resume relations last month after tensions flared over THAAD.
“I am hopeful that the recent indications of better ties between Beijing and Seoul will lead to easier conditions for defectors to pass through China,” King said in his testimony to the foreign affairs panel. “Virtually all” North Korean refugees flee the North through China, the ex-special envoy said.
The number of refugees leaving the North annually has declined recently owing to tighter border control by Pyongyang, King said. After peaking at nearly 3,000 in 2011, the number fell to fewer than 1,500 in 2016. “Numbers thus far this year look to be even lower,” he said.
[South China Morning Post]