Tension is growing between Seoul and Beijing over the impending repatriation from China of dozens of North Korean defectors. "We've urged China to send North Korean defectors to a third country of their choice from a humanitarian standpoint and are considering bringing the issue up at the UN Human Rights Council," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae told reporters Tuesday.
"If they're sent back to the North against their will, the defectors will face danger of punishment, and all signatories to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment must observe principles prohibiting forced repatriation," Cho added.
This was the first public announcement of plans to raise the matter with the UNHRC.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei the same day brushed aside Seoul's request, saying the North Koreans crossed the border for "economic reasons."
He said they therefore do not qualify as refugees and the issue "does not deserve to be discussed within the UN system." He then repeated the customary formula saying China "is handling the issue in accordance with its domestic law, international law, and humanitarian principles."
Human rights groups are pushing the South Korean government to stop China from sending defectors back, saying there has been a spate of repatriations of refugees arrested in the border areas recently.
Beijing has ignored Seoul's request to confirm how many were arrested. South Korean Ambassador to China Lee Kyu-hyung on Monday said, "We've asked China to confirm facts about North Korean defectors, but it hasn't responded to the request yet."