The fate of an 18-year-old North Korean defector who sought asylum inside South Korea’s consulate in Hong Kong last month is still up in the air, although human rights groups hope that China’s recent non-cooperative stance with Pyongyang may eventually facilitate his freedom.
It is also in their hope that China can find ways to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of North Korean migrants living illegally in China, who have become easy targets of exploitation.
The teenage defector is believed to be Jong-yol Ri — a three-time silver medalist of the International Mathematical Olympiad, the South China Morning Post reported.
Ri was one of six students from North Korea, accompanied by two teachers, who went to Hong Kong to attend this year’s international math competition.
He was allegedly last seen at the event’s closing ceremony on July 15 and believed to have successfully made it into the city’s South Korean consulate to take refuge.
The math whiz’s personal safety is temporarily guaranteed as consulates, considered foreign territories, are off-limit to authorities in Hong Kong or Beijing.
But given China’s past track record of cooperating with the authoritarian regime in North Korea, human rights groups are concerned Ri is still at risk of being sent back home.
Amnesty International is “quite concerned because just like what we know about North Koreans, who arrive in China. They always stand the risk of being forcefully repatriated,” its East Asia researcher Arnold Fang said.
“So, it’s important for us to state that everyone, including North Koreans, have the right to seek asylum,” Fang added.
As a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, China should never repatriate the teenage defector or anyone else seeking refugee status, especially those who, once repatriated, may suffer torture, death penalties or other forms of human rights violations, the Hong Kong-based activist argued.
But the reality is that, in lieu of a legal system to determine refugee status, China has often helped North Korea bring home financially-disadvantaged migrant workers unless they take refuge at foreign consulates or have valid passports or travel documents.
In Ri’s case, even if he has valid travel documents to exit Hong Kong, diplomatic negotiations are still required between the Chinese and South Korea governments to finalize if he will next be allowed to travel to Seoul via a third country as several past precedents have established.
As recently as this April, Beijing seemed to have adopted a neutral stance in the escape of 13 North Korean workers from a state-run restaurant in the Chinese coastal city of Ningbo.
Colleagues and family members of 12 North Korean waitresses are presented to local and foreign media in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 3, 2016.
“We believe that he will be safe. But the Chinese government has had experience in stalling the handling of such cases, where North Korean defectors sought asylum at foreign consulates in China,” said Owen Lau, co-founder of Hong Kong-based North Korean Defectors Concern.
Such negotiations may take up to two to three years, during which time, the teenage defector will be forced to stay inside the South Korean consulate, he said.
And even if Ri is eventually set free, Lau is concerned that his family may either be put behind bars or forced to work with Pyongyang authorities by making TV appearance to accuse the South of abducting their son so as not to embarrass the Kim Jong-un regime.
China, nevertheless, is once again caught in between the two Korean governments.
It has recently lashed out Seoul’s cooperation with the U.S. to deploy an advanced missile defense system in South Korea. That has worried some as they suspect if China may now use Ri’s release as a bargaining chip in its talks with Seoul.
But others rejected the possibility of political consideration in defection cases.
“There have established past examples, which were resolved on a case-by-case basis. So, I don’t think any diplomatic confrontation will be triggered,” said Lu Chao, a professor with Liaoning Social Science Academy.
Official statistics show that nearly 30,000 defectors now live freely in South Korea although most have a difficult time making a living there with the number of defectors picking up since early this year.
But what is equally concerning is the plight of North Korea migrant workers living illegally in China, who are estimated to have a population of 100,000 to 200,000 people and often forced into slavery, prostitution or exploitation, both Lau and Fang said.
Migrant workers’ plight
In most cases, China is considered both a land of opportunities and a transit country where North Koreans make their escape into a third country or South Korea.
“Some North Koreans actually make use of the human trafficking system in order to leave their country. So, I think there must be some element of exploitation even though it may not happen to everyone,” Fang said.
Fang urged China to either recognize the refugee status of some migrant workers, or legalize their working status, in order to end rampant human trafficking and to minimize the exploitation on socially- and financially-disadvantage North Koreans.