Ten North Korean defectors who had been hiding in South Korean diplomatic missions in China arrived discreetly in South Korea on Sunday. They consisted of five who had been hiding in the Consulate in Beijing for three years, three of them family members of a South Korean prisoner of war, as well as defectors who were living at the Consulate in Shenyang.
It was the first time in the five-year tenure of President Lee Myung-bak that the Chinese government has allowed North Korean defectors hiding in South Korean diplomatic missions to come to South Korea. Remarks by Chinese President Hu Jintao in a meeting with Lee on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul on March 26 appear to have played a role in their release.
Hu told Lee that China "is taking a lot of interest and giving consideration to the issue of North Korean defectors and respects [South Korea's] position. It will strive to ensure that the issue is resolved smoothly."
Some say China's decision is a kind of warning to Pyongyang. China urged North Korea through diplomatic channels to halt the launch of what Pyongyang says is a space rocket but was rebuffed, and some experts believe that prompted Beijing to let the defectors go.
But China apparently stressed that their release was an exception. China's official stance regarding North Korean defectors remains the same, placing more importance on its pact with Pyongyang to repatriate them than the UN treaty on the treatment of refugees.
Other experts say the release of the defectors demonstrates Beijing's displeasure with Pyongyang over the missile launch. Beijing repeatedly allowed North Koreans who sought shelter in diplomatic missions in China to come to South Korea, but that stopped in the last three or four years, apparently due to pressure from Pyongyang.