SEOUL, South Korea — On a grey afternoon in Seoul, in the shadow of the mountains that surround the city, North Korean defectors stood behind a police cordon and struggled to raise their voices above the sound of late-afternoon traffic.
The defectors and their supporters have been gathering daily in front of the Chinese embassy in the South Korean capital in order to draw attention to a group of North Koreans currently being held in China.
While precise number of defectors being held in China is not known, there are believed to be between 30 and 40 of them. They are likely to be repatriated by the Chinese government and could face death or torture in their homeland. Reports last week said that a small group of them had already been deported.
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“We can’t storm the Chinese embassy and force them to do anything, so we’re left to raise our voices in this way," said Lee Seung Joo, one of the defectors attending the demonstration.
"We need to come together and let people in South Korea and around the world know about the tragic situation in North Korea,” he said.
While all defectors sent back from China are believed to face harsh punishment upon their return to North Korea, the group now in China is particularly at risk: the North Korean government has said that anyone caught defecting during the period of mourning for Kim Jong Il’s death would have three generations of family members executed.
International pressure on China not to repatriate the North Koreans is building, and defectors in South Korea are becoming increasingly involved.
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“We’re trying to make this like the Arab Spring,” said one teenage defector, who asked to be referred to only by his surname, Kang. While that goal may be ambitious, this case has brought what appears to be a new level of engagement by defectors.
One defector, writing on the popular web portal Daum, wrote, "How can we urge the world and the South Korean government to rescue North Korean defectors if we ourselves don’t take action?"
Defectors are typically intimidated by South Korea’s advanced technology when they arrive here, but they are now taking advantage of social-networking tools to draw attention to the plight of those being held in China and the general human-rights problem in the North. Organizing online, the movement’s SaveMyFriend campaign has gathered more than 130,000 signatures.
Pressure is also coming from the South Korean government. Seoul is asking Beijing, its second-largest trading partner, to send the defectors to South Korea.
On Feb. 28, South Korea’s parliament passed a resolution demanding that China not repatriate the North Koreans to their country of origin. South Korea also raised the issue through the United Nations Refugee Agency, who has called on a humanitarian solution to the issue from China.
"We repeatedly stress that this issue must be dealt with from a humanitarian standpoint. China holds onto the belief that the defectors are illegal economic migrants,” Lee Kyu Hyung, South Korean ambassador to China, told reporters in Seoul on Feb. 20.
China doesn’t consider the North Koreans to be refugees fleeing a repressive regime. Under the terms of a deal with North Korea, China deports defectors as economic migrants lacking official permission to enter China.
This stance is at odds with China’s obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention states: "No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion."
Cha In Pyo, a South Korean film star who starred in "Crossing," a 2008 film about defectors, is attempting to recruit South Korean celebrities to help him appeal to the Chinese government to show compassion towards the predicament of defectors.
“They defected because they had nothing to eat. Punishing them with the death penalty is something that no human being should do,” said Cha in an interview. “I know there are more people who are interested, it’s just a matter of bringing everyone together."
Kim Il Sim defected to South Korea via China in 2009. Her younger brother remained behind, and is now being held in China.
In an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, she wrote, “Everything, my life and school, becomes meaningless when I think of my brother, who faces death if he is sent back to North Korea. Do you, Mr. President, have beloved children? I beg you to spare my brother’s life with a heart of a parent.”
Defectors have regrouped since the summer of 2011 when the North Korean human-rights bill failed to pass in South Korea’s National Assembly. If it had been passed, the bill would have provided support to North Korean human-rights groups and established a body in South Korea to catalogue human-rights abuses in the North.
Opposition lawmakers blocked its passage for fear of antagonizing North Korea. It was being pushed by defector groups, who were stung by that failure but appear to have come back stronger to face this issue.
But those most active in this situation insist on leaving political concerns aside. “More people are realizing that this isn’t a political issue,” said Kim Eun Young, program officer with Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
“More defectors are paying attention because they understand what people in North Korea are going through," she said. "They can hear their relatives’ voices.”
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