It has been more than 15 years since the flood of defections of North Koreans began after the death of nation founder Kim Il-sung. For the last 10 years, activist and reporters have been risking their own lives to cover the harrowing escapes of North Korean defectors, rescuing women who were being sold off into sexual slavery and letting the world know about China's repatriation of North Korean defectors.
I am grateful that the South Korean government and many people in the country and the international community have spoken out against the repatriations. But I am afraid it is too late. And while the Chinese government is getting a lot of criticism, are we really in any position to blame China?
During the great famine of the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of North Korean defectors swarmed across the border to Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province. At the time, the airport and markets in Yanji, the prefectural capital, were overflowing with North Koreans begging for food and money. Beijing was alarmed by the surge in the number of defectors and contacted the Kim Dae-jung administration to see whether Seoul was willing to take them in. But it failed to get a definite response from Seoul, so it repatriated them. As it bolstered its rule using aid money from South Korea, the first thing the North Korean regime did was to bring back people who had crossed the border into China.
When Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the Workers Party, defected to South Korea in 1997, China allowed him to come to the South despite threats and urgent pleas by North Korea to send him back to Pyongyang. In fact, it has let most South Korean abduction victims and prisoners of war return to the South if they were captured in China after escaping. This demonstrates that it would once have been willing to let all of them go if South Koreans had paid enough attention to them.
The South Korean Embassy and consulates in China should have been at the forefront of protecting North Korean defectors. But during the left-leaning administrations of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, South Korean diplomats did nothing even as North Korean defectors were dragged away by Chinese police right in front of the embassy in Beijing.
Today the trafficking of North Korean women is as serious a problem as the repatriation of defectors. North Korean women who cross the Duman and Apnok rivers into China have no choice but to seek the help of people smugglers. If a woman pays between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan to a broker, she can avoid being captured and sold off as a prostitute and find her way to South Korea.
Human rights groups and other activists helping North Korean defectors have turned to women's rights groups in South Korea for aid, but none of them have been willing to raise funds to prevent the trafficking of North Korean women. The Unification Ministry sets aside huge sums of money to aid the North Korean regime but considers it virtually impossible to use that money to help North Korean defectors.
If the South Korean government and the public had paid more attention to the plight of North Korean defectors and supported human rights groups, the forced repatriation of so many defectors by the Chinese government could have been prevented. It is easy to denounce the Chinese government now, but we must not forget the indifference we have shown. The chorus of criticism aimed at Beijing will be effective only if South Korea does all it can to help the defectors.
By Kang Chol-hwan at North Korea Strategy Center