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Hither and Yon

Where’s the international pressure on China to accept refugees . . . from N. Korea?

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
The spectacle of mass migrations is a permanent phenomenon of our times. Images of refugees risking lives to escape oppressive regimes, starvation, war and mayhem are embedded in our subconscious.
Think of the thousands who escaped from Vietnam after the defeat of the American-backed Saigon regime, fleeing across dangerous seas, many of them drowning, falling into the clutches of pirates, washing up on lonely shores.
For years now we’ve seen the same suffering inflicted on refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East as war and revolution sweep a region dominated by dictators and terrorists. Lately we’ve watched, vicariously, television images of refugees pounding at the gateways to European countries, traversing unwelcoming lands in search of homes where they might survive without having to move again. Similarly, migrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries place their lives in jeopardy as they cross the southern borders of the United States, looking for often menial jobs in a society that’s hostile toward them.
In these troubled times in which millions are on the move, we hear little about current attitudes of Asian countries.
The world seems to have forgotten that China has rejected those fleeing North Korea for decades, sending them back to the North, forcing them to face beatings, torture, imprisonment and execution. China’s rationale for rejecting them is they are economic migrants looking for jobs and money, not defectors from a dictatorial society.
China’s real fear is that refugees from North Korea add to the difficulty of governing a region dominated by Koreans whose ancestors fled from the old Joseon Kingdom while Japan defeated the Chinese, then the Russians, and finally seized all Korea more than a century ago.
Like other minorities within China, the Koreans challenge the security of a communist regime that represents Chinese power perpetuating the legacy of “the Middle Kingdom” as the center of a Chinese universe.
Call them refugees, defectors or economic migrants, Koreans fleeing to China are every bit as desperate as those arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
The Chinese have to be aware of the possible fate of everyone whom it turns away. Somehow, though, there’s no sign of intense international pressure for the Chinese to accept North Koreans.
No one is suggesting that China follow the example of some European countries committed to accepting refugees from Syria and elsewhere in limited numbers once they get through Hungary, which would like to close its borders to all of them.
China, moreover, is by no means the only Asian power resentful of refugees. What about Japan, in ways Asia’s most closed society? While Japan’s population declines slowly but surely, North Korean refugees might assimilate within a sizeable Korean minority. Rarely, however, does one hear of Japan accepting refugees. Almost all those who escape North Korea, if they fall into the merciful hands of missionaries and organizers in China, wind up in South Korea via circuitous routes through Mongolia, Hong Kong or Southeast Asia.
There is, however, a precedent for Japan accepting refugees. Years ago, I interviewed a few Vietnamese “boat people” whom Japan had reluctantly admitted. They complained about the difficulties of overcoming extraordinary social and bureaucratic pressures, but some of them found new homes and lives.
South Koreans, like the Japanese, would rather not admit foreigners in significant numbers. North Korean refugees may all be Korean but aren’t necessarily welcome. Some of those who make it to the South yearn to return to their homes in the North. Like Japan, however, South Korea needs foreign workers in an era of decreasing birth rates and a declining population. The transition to life and work in South Korea can be traumatic. But North Korean refugees provide a resource even if South Koreans are not always enthusiastic about welcoming them.
China, however, has the most forbidding “rejectionist” policy of all. Workers from foreign countries do not ordinarily find jobs in factories or farms in China. North Koreans in particular are exploited, the women forced into prostitution or unwanted marriages, the men overworked, underpaid, all living furtively, fearful of arrest, dreaming of new lives elsewhere. At the least China should legitimize safe passage for North Koreans on the way to other countries.
China prefers to show its friendship toward North Korea by “repatriation” of those unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the police. For the Chinese to go on turning a cold shoulder to North Koreans in search of relief from hunger and abuse at home is a cruel abuse of human rights. If anything, those images of floods of refugees worldwide have hardened Chinese attitudes.
Other countries and societies may set up barriers, but the worst culprit is China for sacrificing the lives of North Koreans driven across its borders by the will to live.

Columnist Donald Kirk over the years has interviewed dozens of North Korean refugees in South Korea and along the Tumen River border in China. He’s atkirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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