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Analysis: Seoul Under Fire Over Refugees

File photo of a demonstration in Seoul against the imprisonment of Koreans in China who have supported defected North Korean refugees. The South Korean government has sought a "silent" solution to the incident for fear strong action may upset a hard-won dialogue to defuse tensions sparked by North Korea's nuclear program.illustration only

Seoul (UPI) Oct 12, 2005
South Korea's position on human rights abuses in North Korea has again come under fire after a group of North Korean asylum-seekers in China were repatriated to their home country where they face severe punishment.

Human rights advocates and anti-communist activists in South Korea accused the Roh Moo-hyun government of ignoring the plight facing North Koreans asylum-seekers stranded in China and called for strong diplomatic measures to rescue them.

Some angry protesters gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul Wednesday to demonstrate against China's repatriation of the North Koreans. They shouted anti-China slogans, waving placards that read: "Stop repatriation!"

"We urge the Chinese government to immediately stop repatriating North Korean refugees back to North Korea and allow the transportation of all North Korean defectors in China to a third country in accordance with the international refugee convention," the groups said in a news conference.

Seoul's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon also expressed his "deep regret" over China's repatriation of the seven North Koreans who sought asylum at an international school in China last month.

The two men and five women entered the compound of the South Korean school in the northeastern Chinese city of Yentai on Aug. 29, but were immediately taken away by Chinese security forces.

The South Korean government has sought a "silent" solution to the incident for fear strong action may upset a hard-won dialogue to defuse tensions sparked by North Korea's nuclear program. The six-nation nuclear talks, which went into recess early August, resumed Sept. 13.

But the low-key approach failed to bear fruits as China repatriated the asylum-seekers Sept. 29. China informed South Korea of the repatriation on Oct. 6. It was made pubic this week.

The disclosure prompted criticism from the South Korean government and public that the repatriation infringed the North Koreans' human rights.

Seoul's Foreign Ministry issued a statement that South Korea "cannot but express a big disappointment" about China's deportation of the North Korean defectors.

The repatriation also raised questions about South Korea's cautious attitude toward China's policy on North Korean asylum-seekers.

China, a close ally of Pyongyang, considers the North Korean escapees to be illegal immigrants and is bound by treaty to send back those who flee across the common border.

But China usually allowed those involved in high-profile defection cases, mostly taking refuge at foreign diplomatic missions in China, to fly to South Korea via a third country to avoid international criticism.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, recently issued a formal warning that it will not tolerate attempts by North Koreans to seek asylum by intruding on foreign diplomatic missions and schools.

In the face of Seoul's strong protest, China handed over another group of North Korean defectors who entered a South Korean school in China on Tuesday to Seoul's authorities, indicating Beijing handles the refugee issue case by case.

The refugee-seekers, all women aged from the early teens to 50s, entered a South Korean school in Qingdao asking for safe passage to South Korea. Seoul immediately urged China to hand over the North Koreans.

Seoul's main opposition conservative Grand National Party criticized the government for its lack of policies to protect North Korean asylum-seekers in China.

Rep. Chung Mun-hun described the repatriation of North Korean defectors to Pyongyang as "diplomatic humiliation."

"It was such a frustrating moment for the country as it failed to protect North Korean refugee seekers," Chung said at a parliamentary audit of the foreign ministry, stressing the fates of many North Korean defectors are uncertain.

On Sept. 12, nine North Koreans who forced their way into a South Korean international school Tianjin, northeastern China, were taken away by Chinese police, and their whereabouts are still unknown. In October last year, 62 North Korean asylum-seekers hiding in China were arrested and repatriated.

Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean gulag escapee living in Seoul, said all of the North Koreans attempted to flee the communist country.

"What is the more urgent problem in North Korea than the nuclear issue is human rights abuse on North Korean people," he said at a recent conference.

The Seoul government has maintained a low-key stance toward human rights abuses in the North for fear of creating friction with the Pyongyang regime. South Korea has abstained from voting for a U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution calling for North Korea to improve its human rights record.

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Srinagar, India (AFP) Oct 12, 2005
Indian soldiers Wednesday crossed the de facto border dividing the Indian and Pakistani zones of disputed Kashmir to rebuild a quake-destroyed bunker, an Indian army spokesman said.

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