The plight of North Korean refugees in China has come under the spotlight in recent weeks, as 10 asylum seekers sought refuge in foreign diplomatic compounds in China. Activists promise there will be more such incidents, placing Beijing at the center of a complex human rights dilemma.
Television news broadcasts around the world have repeatedly played video of Chinese police seizing two female North Korean defectors. The women were seeking asylum at a Japanese consulate in Shenyang along with three other family members.
The footage appears to confirm that the women made it past the compound's gate before police dragged them out - a violation of international law. The videotape set off a diplomatic firestorm and ignited a debate about the number of desperate North Koreans who are now in China, hoping to defect to a third country.
Beijing regards the North Koreans as illegal immigrants, and repatriates those it catches. It has refused to give them refugee status, even though the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said many of them would probably qualify for it.
Joseph Cheng is a politics professor at Hong Kong University. He said Beijing is reluctant to offend the North Korea. He also said China does not want to provide a haven for the refugees, fearing a massive flow of asylum seekers into the country.
"Chinese authorities are in a rather difficult situation; on one hand they want to maintain good relations with the Kim Jong Il regime in Pyongyang. And, on the other hand, because of China's integration with the global economy, China is very concerned with its image. To some extent, it has suffered because it has to been too eager to avoid embarrassing the Kim regime in Pyongyang," Mr. Cheng said.
Aid groups estimate that up to 300,000 North Koreans have fled to neighboring China to escape political repression and famine in their Stalinist homeland.
Human rights group Amnesty International has said most North Koreans fleeing to China swim or wade across the Tumen river, or walk across in winter when it is frozen. Others cross along the 1,300-kilometer land border.
Once in China, activists say, North Koreans are in a precarious situation. Some find shelter in farms and villages and receive help from China's ethnic-Korean community, but others resort to begging and stealing to survive. Human rights groups say many women turn to prostitution, while others are sold into marriage to Chinese nationals by so-called bride traffickers.
In the past, Beijing has avoided dealing with the North Koreans hiding in its northeastern provinces, though few have been repatriated. Activists worry that nearly 40 successful asylum bids in the past 18 months are pushing Chinese authorities to be more vigilant.
Reports received by Amnesty International indicate that Chinese security forces and North Korean agents are on the lookout for North Koreans. The reports also say local officials have raised fines for those who help asylum seekers, and have increased rewards for those turning them in.
Dr. Norbert Vollertsen is a German human rights activist based in Seoul who helps North Koreans defect. A physician who has practiced in North Korea, Dr. Vollertsen wants other countries to pressure Beijing into giving better treatment to North Korean defectors within its borders.
"Now China is a member of the World Trade Organization and host of the Olympics in 2008. This will create pressure on China. The international community has to create diplomatic pressure on China and we will exploit this attention. Therefore, we will try to make more trouble in China. We aim to get more defectors into Western embassies and the TV images shown in front of the whole world will create some pressure on China," Dr. Vollertsen said.
Dr. Vollertsen said he and other activists are hoping to use the coming soccer World Cup as the backdrop for a dramatic asylum bid. He hints that plans are in the works to send thousands of North Koreans from China to South Korea by boat while the country is co-hosting the tournament, which opens May 31.
"We actually now realize that there is more and more encouragement. More NGOs from foreign countries such as France, Belgium and America are joining and offering help and logistical support and some money. This is what we need for our international operations," Dr. Vollertsen said.
The international community is divided on whether such high-profile tactics will help the would-be asylum seekers' or hinder them. Diplomats from other countries have indicated that pushing China to clarify its position could worsen regional tensions. They also point out that the recent asylum bids show that China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States need a more coordinated effort toward North Korean refugees.