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    Greater China
     Jan 26, 2008
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

of 10 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 humanitarian spirit."

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 country.

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?

It 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.

In short, 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 entering Beijing.

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 don't.

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 refugees."

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 international laws".

Sunny Lee 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 Studies University.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Defector deaths raising concern in S Korea (Sep 15, '07)

Two countries, two systems, one porous border (Aug 14, '07)

Ladies first: China opens to Korean refugees (Jul 20, '07)

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