The movement against the forced repatriation of defectors that started in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul marked its 100th day yesterday. Since Daily NK first reported the arrest of eleven defectors in Shenyang on February 8th, Okin Church across the street from the embassy has been at its core.
Liberty Forward Party lawmaker Park Sun Young going on hunger strike ignited the movement. Famous domestic stars like Cha In Pyo, Lee Sung Mi, Ahn Chul Soo and even Boney M visited to show their support. Thanks to all their efforts, the previously indifferent South Korean people were drawn for a spell to the cause.
However, North Korea, China and the South Korean government remain indifferent. The Chinese and North Korean stances can be understood, for their interests lie in stability and power respectively, but the South Korean government’s behavior has been simply pathetic.
Both sides of South Korean politics are still obsessed with so-called ‘quiet diplomacy’. Senior officials point towards the ‘separate roles of different ministries’ and refuse to take responsibility for anything. They are seeking votes, and remain resolutely unwilling to discuss the problem of North Korean defectors in China with the seriousness it merits.
Many South Koreans naturally think that defector problems lie entirely within the remit of the Ministry of Unification; however, they are only responsible for settlement funds. North Korean defectors living in China and various other places actually come under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT). Lamentably, the Blue House does not seem to see the issue as a priority, and keeps quiet.
In the end, protecting North Korean defectors from the Chinese security forces and negotiating with the Chinese authorities so that they are not forcibly repatriated is the responsibility of MOFAT. However, due to budgetary constraints there is no dedicated MOFAT department to deal with this.
This year, the government budget for North Korean defectors inside South Korea is KRW123 billion, while conversely just a few billion is allocated to the process of getting them here. Much of this is spent on transporting defectors, who are already safe, to Incheon from places like Bangkok.
Asking the South Korean government to employ ‘active diplomacy’ in place of this ineffective quiet version that predominates seems like talking to a wall. Yet the reason why the Chinese government does not listen sincerely to the concerns of Seoul and her overseas representatives is this very ‘passivity’. Obviously, diplomacy is all relative. If we are recklessly aggressive then the opponent becomes recklessly aggressive in turn, but if we propose intelligent, peaceful incentives then they are bound to react positively.
The fact is that stopping the Chinese government from forcibly repatriating North Korean defectors is a remote possibility for private organizations alone. The Blue House should consider this fact seriously. Every day North Koreans are crossing the Tumen River then being returned and disappearing into the fog, so there is no time to waste.