Page 1 of 2 Why was Blackwater in China?
By Peter Lee
James Risen's report in the New York Times on Blackwater's death threat against State Department investigators in Iraq (and the US embassy's craven decision to kick out the investigators for being "unsustainably disruptive to day-to-day operations" in response) also includes this interesting passage:
The company's gung-ho attitude and willingness to take on risky tasks were seductive to government officials in Washington. The State Department, for example, secretly sent Blackwater guards to Shenyang, China, to provide security for North Korean asylum seekers who had gone to the US Consulate there and refused to leave for fear the Chinese government would force them to go back to North Korea, according to company documents and interviews with former Blackwater personnel.
The backstory for the Shenyang job is presumably the flood of
economic and political refugees from North Korea during the famine years of the early 2000s. Some refugees tried to get into various consulates in Shenyang as well as embassies in Beijing, and hope that they could obtain some kind of asylum/entry into a sympathetic foreign country instead of facing repatriation to North Korea.
The attempt by the family of five North Koreans to enter the Japanese consulate in Shenyang is the latest in a string of cases. On the weekend, two North Koreans entered the Canadian embassy in Beijing to seek sanctuary. The swelling flow of North Korean asylum seekers in China comes following the daring and successful asylum bid of 25 refugees who rushed into the Spanish embassy in Beijing in March. They were later allowed to leave the country and gained passage to South Korea through the Philippines. More attempts have followed. Last month, a North Korean sought asylum in Beijing's German Embassy after scrambling over a two-meter wall into its compound, while two other North Koreans gained entry into the US mission. All three subsequently were sent on to South Korea.
The wave of asylum bids has been highly publicized in the foreign press as they offer a rare glimpse into the secretive society of poverty-wracked North Korea, which is plagued by a lack of food, heat and medicine. Between 250,000 and 300,000 refugees are believed to be in the hiding in the northern Chinese provinces bordering North Korea.
The PRC pushed back aggressively to control the influx of asylum seekers. The most troubling incident occurred at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang. Chinese police seized three family members as they tried to rush through a half-open gate at the consulate; two adults made it inside and police walked into the consulate and arrested them, without any apparent resistance from the consulate staff.
Per Bezlova, whether the Chinese had any tacit agreement from the Japanese government is a matter of dispute:
Japan and China agreed on Wednesday to release the five asylum seekers and send them to South Korea or the United States via the Philippines. The agreement was made during talks in Tokyo between China's ambassador to Tokyo and Japan's vice foreign minister. The incident in Shenyang was caught on videotape. At the time, China said that Japanese diplomats had given police permission to enter the compound to seize the asylum seekers. But on Monday, Japanese officials said that consent was not given and that Tokyo considered the incident a violation of its sovereign territory.
Maybe one of those "Officially, this is unacceptable, unofficially ... meh" things.
The most interesting question is why this family, apparently both determined and with access to significant support from the escapee support network (which I imagine, must be highly selective in its choice of people to champion), was not discretely waved into some consulate for eventual emigration. Did the DPRK pass the message to the PRC and Japan that asylum/emigration for these particular people was intolerable? Or was the cooperation of family members already overseas deemed unsatisfactory, perhaps even evidence that they were double agents?
In any event, the family quickly became an unwelcome media and political headache with no upside.
In talking to the Japanese government immediately prior to the incident, Lee Young Hwa of RENK (Rescue the North Korean People Urgent Action Network) had warned of the hardball tactics the asylum seekers might theoretically employ to make it into the consulate:
From my experience of helping asylum seekers in the past, there is the strong possibility that refugees might be carrying suicide poison with them just in case. Also, with this worst case scenario in mind, they are also likely be accompanied by reporters.
South Korean activists who help North Koreans seek asylum showed once again their talent for public relations. The Yonhap News Agency, tipped off in advance, filmed the struggle on May 8 from a window across the street in Shenyang.
The Japanese government apparently cared enough about the family of five, or at least for Japan's international reputation, to ensure that the group was allowed to journey onward to the ROK and/or the United States and not get repatriated to North Korea despite detention by Chinese police.
According to Lee, who was apparently the go-to guy at the time both for asylum seekers and foreign governments trying to get a grip on the asylum-seeking process, the response at the US consulate in Shenyang was somewhat more muscular:
In the case of the United States, however, the United States took refugees who rushed into the US Embassy in Beijing and its Consulate General in Shenyang into protective custody without making a fuss, not allowing armed Chinese police to enter into either of its diplomatic compounds.
This looks like the suitable context for the Blackwater revelation.
Given the still inexplicable willingness of the Japanese consulate to waive its sovereign immunity and allow Chinese police to arrest people on its grounds, maybe the State Department decided it was necessary to bring in Blackwater and demonstrate that, no matter what was going on with Japan, and no matter how high the value of the asylum seekers sheltering in the US consulate (and despite, I would think, the ability of US embassy and consulate guards to refuse entry to Chinese police), whatever happened at the Japanese consulate should not in any way be misconstrued as a precedent for the US.
The alternate possibility is that Blackwater was there to make sure that the consulate wasn't stormed by desperate asylum seekers. This is, however, unlikely. Asylum seekers would have to run a gauntlet of Chinese police to get to near the consulate. In any case, as Lee's account of the Japanese consulate fiasco indicates, asylum seekers were not crowds of starving Korean peasants bum-rushing consulates and embassies; those unfortunates were, by and large, still bottled up on the DPRK/PRC border.
Asylum seekers, on the other hand, were part of an "elite" subgroup of refugees who could reasonably expect a friendly reception, for instance escapees who were Japanese residents ("returnees" who went emigrated from Japan to North Korea and subsequently fled, and possibly had Japanese family members), ROK prisoners of war, people with relatives already overseas, or, it appears, attractive intelligence assets.
Their asylum gambits were choreographed and pre-arranged by NGOs acting as concierges on behalf of particular individuals and families.
Other members of the family that tried to rush the Japanese consulate had already made a successful bid for asylum in Beijing, according to the New York Times:
The five people who were detained by the Chinese police while trying to enter the Japanese Consulate are all members of a family that has angered North Korean authorities with previous efforts to escape to Seoul, a human rights group said. Last June, other family members walked into the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing demanding asylum and were subsequently resettled in Seoul.
The increased traffic in asylum seekers was definitely not welcome to the PRC - which installed barriers, heightened security to prevent approaches to embassies and consulates, and issued a notification laying out its disapproval. The foreign states were not terribly averse to the Chinese message.
Overall, it appears that the bottom line was that the "underground railroad" had the potential to deliver "elite" refugees in quantities that the foreign states as well as the PRC deemed unacceptably disruptive, and the message was passed to the NGOs that qualified escapees should not be put in the pipeline on the presumption that they would be welcome when it came time to negotiate the final passage into a consulate or embassy.