South Korea

Up to world community to solve asylum seeker crisis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 June, 2002, 12:00am

The latest dispute between South Korea and China over North Koreans seeking asylum in Seoul's embassy does no credit to either country.

Fortunately, the meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and his South Korean counterpart, Choi Sung-hong, on Wednesday appears to have paved the way for a resolution of the dispute.

But such incidents are sure to continue arising. What is needed is an international consensus on how such asylum seekers should be handled in future.

The first Asia Co-operation Dialogue, sponsored by Thailand, also provided an opportunity for the Chinese minister to meet his Japanese counterpart, Yoriko Kawaguchi. The Chinese official proposed that the two countries sign a bilateral consular treaty to avoid conflicts such as the one last month, when Chinese police entered the Japanese consulate in Shenyang to remove North Korean asylum seekers.

The Chinese may well see such consular treaties as a way to halt the spate of incidents in which dozens of North Korean asylum seekers have sought refuge in diplomatic compounds in China. They wish Japan and South Korea, and indeed all other countries, would agree not to give shelter to such ?intruders'', but it is doubtful if such a proposal will be acceptable to the international community at large.

For now, however, talks between China and South Korea about such a treaty would, at the very least, lower the temperature in the dispute over an incident on June 13, when two North Koreans, a father and son, sought asylum in the South Korean embassy.

According to Seoul, Chinese policemen punched and kicked diplomats who sought to prevent the removal of the father, whose son had succeeded in entering the visa office. Beijing, however, insists the South Korean diplomats ?abused their privilege'' and ?brazenly prevented the Chinese public security staff from implementing their duties''.

The Chinese claim they were acting to protect the South Korean mission from intruders. However, once the South Koreans in effect put out the welcome mat, these people can no longer be considered intruders.

It is grotesque for China to argue that the South Korean diplomats had to be punched and kicked because they were preventing Chinese policemen from carrying out their duties'' when those duties, presumably, were to protect the diplomats, not beat them up. The Chinese do seem to have a point when they say South Korea is being inconsistent. On May 23, several people broke into the embassy's visa office. According to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, ?the South Korean side made it clear that it doesn't want persons of that kind to enter the visa office. It has asked on various occasions for Chinese assistance in preventing them from entering the embassy''.

This is a credible account, given South Korea's previous reluctance to offer asylum to North Koreans in its diplomatic missions. If Seoul's policy has since changed, it should make this known. In fact, South Korea should conduct an investigation into the incident to determine whether, as China claims, the embassy's own guards had called on Chinese guards for help to keep the North Koreans out. Of course, even if this had happened, it would not justify the manhandling of the Korean diplomats by Chinese police.

Privately, Chinese say that if South Korea is willing to accept all North Korean asylum seekers, it should open up its border. Of course, given President Kim Dae-jung's ?sunshine policy'', Seoul is not about to do that. But when individual asylum seekers are in the public eye, it has little choice but to offer them refuge.

This is a situation that needs to be handled deftly by both China and the international community, perhaps through the L United Nations. China has so far allowed dozens of North Korean asylum seekers to leave for South Korea via a third country, but this is clearly straining Beijing's relations with Pyongyang.

The United States Senate on Thursday passed a resolution urging China to allow safe passage for asylum seekers and to cease repatriating them to North Korea. China has already rejected such advice, deeming it interference. However, it would be much harder for China to reject a resolution adopted by a United Nations body, such as the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, which is under the L Commission on Human Rights.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has contacted all embassies in the country asking them not to give shelter to North Korean asylum seekers. This provides an opportunity for these countries to forge a common position acceptable to the international community. If that community does not come up with a solution, it would be difficult to blame China for any action it may take on its own.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.