A research organization in Seoul says it is hopeful of better treatment for North Korean defectors in China following signs that the Chinese policy of forcing them to return home has eased.
Kang Chul Hwan, a founding director of the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul, spoke Wednesday about media reports that a family of five has been permitted to travel to South Korea after almost three years in a South Korean consulate in Beijing.
South Korean government officials contacted by VOA confirmed the accuracy of the reports. Kung, who is himself a defector, said his group is still trying to obtain details about the Chinese action.
"Some media have reported about the arrival of the North Korean defectors [in South Korea] but it is not confirmed at the private organization's level. But president Hu Jintao of China reacted positively to [South Korea's] president Lee Myung-bak's worries and requests about the repatriation of North Korean defectors," said Kang.
But he noted that Chinese President Hu Jintao hinted at a policy shift during talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of last week's nuclear security summit in Seoul.
Several reports speculate that China decided to let the defectors travel to the South as a way of signaling its displeasure at North Korea. Pyongyang has announced plans to launch a ballistic rocket later this month, unraveling months of carefully orchestrated diplomacy involving the United States and Beijing.
The reports say the family of five, including the daughter and two grandchildren of a deceased South Korean soldier, arrived in Seoul on Sunday. It would be the first time North Koreans have been allowed to travel to the South from a diplomatic mission in China since Lee took office in Seoul five years ago.
China normally insists on returning defectors to North Korea despite widespread international criticism of the policy. Human rights groups say the defectors and their families face harsh treatment and even death when they return to the North.
Kang says this leads defectors to try to slip through China undetected and make their way to other Asian countries before declaring themselves.
“North Korean defectors have gone directly to [countries in] East Asia, not entering the [South Korean] embassy. Breaking this pattern can be a sign [from now on] that the Chinese government may immediately allow North Korean defectors to leave the country if they enter the South Korean embassy," said Kang. "This would be a serious blow for North Korea."
He said if China now begins to permit defectors who enter the South Korean embassy in Beijing to travel to Seoul, that would be a serious blow to North Korea.