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Monday, January 03, 2005

Uses and abuses of defectors

It definitely seems as though there has been a rise in the confidence of Washington's North Korea hawks since Bush's re-election in November. This may also have something to do with the recent passing of the North Korean Human Rights Act (modelled to some extent, it seems. on the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998). This act specifically allocates money ($80 million between 2005-2008 - see Section 203c) to assist North Korean defectors and refugees outside of the country. It does not actually say that this money is to be used to support political organisations or the formation a government in exile as the Iraq one did (Section 4a), but one wonders where all this money is going to go.

There are certainly quite a few NGO-type organisations who appear to have a very strong agenda for regime change alongside their much vaunted concern for the human rights of North Koreans - the North Korea Freedom Coalition for example (why does the use of a torch as a political symbol always make me suspicious - maybe a reminder of the Tories' crappy logo?) . Along with all the recent rumours about goings-on inside North Korea there has been a marked rise in talk about North Korean defectors / refugees and criticism from various quarters about China's supposed policy of repatriating them. The NK Freedom Coalition also organised an international day of protest against China's repatriation of defectors on December 22.

I've just come across this article from a month ago by David Wall of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (AKA Chatham House) in which the author presents a very different picture of Koreans living in the Chinese border region (both long term residents and new arrivals from North Korea) :
Many of the migrants stay near the border, for short or long periods, protected by these [Korean] communities. There is growing legal and even cross-border investment in which the Chinese Korean community is active. Every day hundreds, sometimes thousands, of traders and tourists cross the borders. They are not closed. It is easy for the migrants to move between the communities and send goods and money back.
He goes on to write:

Of the millions of permanent Korean residents in China and of the hundreds of thousands of more recent Korean migrants, only a tiny handful, a few score, accept the offers of the publicity seeking anti-North Korean nongovernmental organizations to help them storm foreign embassies with the hope of getting to South Korea eventually. Who knows what they were told to induce them to engage in this high-risk activity in the full glare of television cameras and lights.

Most of them would have been better off staying in their communities in China, or traveling along the well-worn routes to Vietnam or Mongolia.
There has been some debate on the Korean left over the issue of defectors, and the 'organised defections' that Wall mentions in particular. The generally pro-North Juch'eist section has been arguing that the South Korea government shouldn't be welcoming defectors or helping them to come to the country, thereby undermining the North. Kim Ha-yong of All Together, on the other hand, has argued that the US is only really interested in protecting or fostering high-level defectors which it thinks might be useful in forming a future pro-US government in North Korea (Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi suddenly come to mind for some reason...). She also argues that the vast majority of ordinary defectors escaping hardship should be welcomed in the South (the Korean article summarising her argument in the recent debate is here).

I think it is clear that there are a number of organisations, most likely with connections to US hawks and perhaps the US government, who are using the human rights issue and the defectors as a way of pushing their regime change agenda. It also seems that there is a certain amount of disinformation going on when it comes to the real situation of refugees and Korea migrants in China. David Wall claims that there is absolutely no witchhunt of North Korean defectors by the Chinese authorities. At the same time, there is no doubt that North Koreans have many legitimate reasons to leave their country and they should be welcomed elsewhere just as I think refugees and asylum seekers from any country should be welcomed. Let's hope they do not become pawns in a dangerous international geopolitical game.


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