globe Asia Times Online
  May 16, 2002  

Search button Letters button Editorials button Media/IT button Asian Crisis button Global Economy button Business Briefs button Oceania button Central Asia/Russia button India/Pakistan button Koreas button Japan button Southeast Asia button China button Front button


Refugees leave China with no place to hide

By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Buildings festooned with barbed wire, sealed-off roads, somber-looking armed police guards every couple of meters, hordes of policemen checking people's identities - these are the sights of today's Beijing. The Chinese capital is a city besieged in the face of desperate asylum seekers from neighboring North Korea.

Even though China and Japan appear to have resolved what was turning into a bitter row over the fate of five North Korean asylum seekers, arrested by the Chinese police inside a Japanese consulate in Shenyang in northeast China last week, few Beijing residents know why Beijing's downtown has been transformed into a military zone. "I thought the war with Afghanistan was over. Why do they continue to block all the roads and not let anyone near the embassy area?" asked one middle-aged woman. "Do they fear a bomb attack from Uighur terrorists?" suggested another passerby, referring to the Muslim minority in China's northwestern province of Xinjiang.

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.

A rash of defections has put Beijing in a tough position, forcing it to choose between an obligation to its impoverished ally North Korea to repatriate escapees, or risk damaging its international image. China refuses to recognize as refugees the tens of thousands of North Koreans hiding along its border. China views them as illegal immigrants and often sends back those that get caught. But it has relented in several cases of North Koreans who have made it into diplomatic missions, allowing them passage abroad. More than two dozen who barged past guards and climbed walls to get into embassies in Beijing in the past two months went sent on to South Korea.

While state-run Chinese media did mention the Shenyang incident, nothing has been said about the growing problem with North Korean refugees. The media has also said little about the reasons that cause tens of thousands of desperate North Korean people to flee their country and cross the Chinese border.

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 fact that Korean refugees see the impoverished countryside of China's depressed north as a land of opportunities graphically illustrates the misery of their existence back home.

Little of this, however, has been highlighted by the Chinese media, leaving Chinese people unaware of the dimensions of the human tragedy unfolding next door. Aid organizations believe that famine and hardship have killed as many as 2 million North Koreans since the mid-1990s. China's state media regularly trumpets warm relations between Beijing and Pyongyang - two communist allies who fought "American imperialism" alongside each other in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Even as the capital was bracing for more asylum attempts during the May Day holiday, the state-run Xinhua news agency announced that Beijing Communist Party boss Jia Qinglin was paying a goodwill visit to North Korea. Despite the pomp and hospitality displayed at such visits, Beijing is hard pressed to choose between its traditional links with Pyongyang and increasingly assertive international opinion in support of the refugees from North Korea.

China does not welcome the cross-border rush and has a treaty with Pyongyang obliging it to return all asylum seekers. But its forcible deportation of people seeking food and freedom is not only inhumane, but also against the spirit of international law, many activists say. And keeping silent on the fate of tens of thousands of North Korean refugees hiding in China (and their fellow countrymen back home) is held up as a "stabilizing" factor in relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.

(Inter Press Service)

Front | China | Southeast Asia | Japan | Koreas | India/Pakistan | Central Asia/Russia | Oceania

Business Briefs | Global Economy | Asian Crisis | Media/IT | Editorials | Letters | Search/Archive

back to the top

©2001 Asia Times Online Co., Ltd.

Room 6301, The Center, 99 Queen's Road, Central, Hong Kong