China's 'Olympic approach' to
refugees By Sunny Lee
BEIJING - During Christmas last year,
foreign news outlets in Beijing were busy checking
on a possibly important scoop: whether China had
reversed its long-standing policy of repatriating
North Korean refugees. If true, it would have been
a dramatic milestone in one of the hottest spots
in the global human-rights advocacy movement.
The excited fuss was sparked when China
allowed 43 North Korean refugees, sheltered in the
South Korean Consulate and the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees compound in Beijing, to
leave the country for South Korea and the United
States - all of them.
It was an unusual
move because China normally gives a lag time
months to one year or even longer before it
finally grants an exit pass to the refugees and it
also does it on an individual basis. The sudden
decoupling from the past practice was received
with a cautious optimism by some , suspecting
whether China has changed its policy on North
Korean refugees who fled the starving country.
Expectedly, the question was raised during
a Foreign Ministry's press briefing and the
ministry's spokesman Qin Gang replied, "China has
been dealing with them properly in accordance with
the domestic law, the international law and
If you find the
words a little ambiguous, you are not alone.
Chinese press briefings need to be read between
the lines. But what Qin said to the reporter, who
had posed the question, before giving his answer
was more revealing: "I have to correct a term in
your question. These illegal immigrants from the
DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] are
neither 'defectors' nor 'refugees'. They came to
China for economic reasons." That means China's
fundamental policy on the issue stays unchanged.
Then, what was the new move? Many
observers expected that China would moderate its
policy of sending North Korean refugees back to
the Stalinist country where they would most likely
face severe punishment, even death. These people
all cite the Olympics factor. As the host of the
largest global event, China won't miss the
opportunity to launder its old image as a "human
rights abuser", they reasoned.
A few more
informed observers point out such a view is an
unlabored exercise in wishful thinking. They say
China knows so well that North Korean refugees
would try to use the international pressure on
China in conjunction with the Olympics and China
also knows that the refugees will try their luck
to enter foreign diplomatic compounds in Beijing -
the usual gateway for refugees to go to a third
China also knows that if left
unchecked, there will be a flood of North Korean
refugees crawling up the walls of the foreign
diplomatic compounds in Beijing, as seen in the
previously widely circulated TV footages, greatly
embarrassing China. So, they conclude that China
will actually take much harsher measures against
the North Korean refugees in the time leading up
to the Olympics.
Then, with the Olympics
just around the corner of the Forbidden City, what
is China's real stance on the refugees? Easing up
on them or getting harsher on them?
turns out that China is doing both. "China is
taking two approaches at the same time," said a
source knowledgeable about the issue. "On the one
hand, it's softening its repatriation policy. On
the other hand, it doesn't want the refugees to
become an international issue during the Olympics.
A way to do that is to preemptively remove them
from Beijing before the Games," he said.
That explains the sudden hurry of issuing
exit stamps to the refugees. By granting them
permission to leave the country, China wants to
make Beijing a "refugee-free" city. Foreign
journalists and guests who come to Beijing for the
Olympics won't see them in the host city.
Moreover, since they are "invisible", they are
also not likely to make international headlines.
At the same time, China is stepping up its
campaign of cracking down on North Korean refugees
in an ever-more proactive fashion. Some North
Korean shelters that posed as "Bed and Breakfast"
lodgings were raised recently. Eyewitnesses also
said they saw North Korean refugees being nabbed
in the street by state security agents. China has
also blocked all the "underground railroads"
leading to Beijing from outside that are usually
taken by North Korean refugees.
China is mopping up the North Korean refugees in
the Olympics venue by siphoning those who are
already in the city out of the country and by
shielding those who are outside Beijing from
At the same time, China
appears to have developed a more "coherent" stance
on dealing with North Korean refugees. That is, if
the refugees make their way into foreign
diplomatic compounds, China recognizes it.
However, if they are caught elsewhere, they are
repatriated. China has been following this
approach in a more consistent manner recently
because principled and coherent behavior projects
an air of deliberation, if not fairness.
The relevant case in point is that of the
four North Korean refugees who were caught in
October while trying to seek asylum at the Korea
International School in Beijing. Noting the wide
publicity given to the incident, some predicted
that these asylum seekers would be eventually
freed and allowed to go to South Korea. But
informed source described it as an "unhopeful
case" because they had been caught in premises not
protected by diplomatic privileges. Many North
Korean refugees wrongly believe that foreign
schools in Beijing have diplomatic immunity, just
like an embassy or United Nations buildings. They
Essentially, the international
community recognizes China as a player with prime
influence. The key solution therefore lies in
engaging in constructive dialogue with China and
helping it weigh in more on the humanitarian side
of the issue than on the political dimension.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokesperson Jiang Yu reiterated that China has
handled the North Korean refugee issue "according
to domestic and international laws as well as
humanitarian principles". Also this week, a group
of protesters, including German doctor and
human-rights activist Norbert Vollertsen, picketed
in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul in "a
rally for wishing a successful Beijing Olympics
and calling on China to stop repatriating North
Korean refugees". The placard they displayed read:
"We love China; please love North Korean
Sometimes, protesters' words
need to be read between the lines. The
well-wishers for the Olympics surely love China.
They also love to see China some day putting
"humanitarian principles" before "domestic and
is a writer based in Beijing, where he has lived
for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a
graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign