Hong Kong needs a clear response to North Koreans seeking refuge

After what was believed to be the first defector to surface since 1996, human rights advocates say there needs to be more public education and discussion over how the city will react in future cases

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 8:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 10:38pm

It was a chance refuelling stop somewhere between the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and the border town of Sinuiju that gave four Hong Kong students a forbidden glimpse into the secretive state back in 2012.

When the train stopped, Owen Lau Kwun-hang said they were confronted by a group of beggars pleading for food.

“An elderly woman with her grandchildren came up to us. We gave them cakes,” Lau, now a secondary school liberal studies teacher, recalled.

Lau and his friends were leaving North Korea after travelling there for a few days. And like most tourists who venture into the country, Lau said their experience was a rather regulated one.

Travel tales from the country often consist of an organised visit to a local middle school to view “typical” North Korean students study or a tour of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun where the bodies of past leaders are preserved. But it was the train journey that stuck with Lau.

Following a trip to Seoul later in 2012, Lau and three friends founded the North Korean Defectors Concern (NKDC) in Hong Kong – a group focused on advocating for human rights and protesting Beijing’s repatriation of defectors from the secretive state.

Largely unknown to many, the NKDC has recently been thrust into limelight by media organisations seeking comment since a North Korean defector sought refuge in Hong Kong.

North Korean national Jong Yol Ri snuck away from his group at the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on July 16 and found refuge at the South Korean Consulate General .

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North Korean defectors have historically fled to countries such as Laos and Thailand, not Hong Kong, which has close ties to one of North Korea’s biggest allies, China. Beijing has a history of repatriating North Korean defectors to their home country.

It is believed it was the first time that a North Korean defector had been located in Hong Kong since 1996, before the United Kingdom handed the city back to China. It’s a situation that could test Beijing’s relations with Seoul and Pyongyang.

“It was fortunate that this time around, the defector successfully made his way to the consulate general,” he said.

“What if a defector got arrested before he was offered protection? What if someone randomly bumped into him on the street and had no idea what to do?”

Lau said the recent case of Jong Yol Ri should prompt widespread discussion among the community on how Hong Kong should be responding when defectors from North Korea surface.

“At least people would know what to do ... and when necessary, a well-informed society could apply pressure on relevant authorities if the status of a defector is at risk,” he said.

As part of the NKDC’s advocacy and education efforts, Lau will host the annual North Korea Human Rights Film Festival at the Chinese University from August 12 to 14. The group is hoping to have a number of other North Korean defectors attend the festival for sharing sessions.

Lau said he realised more local people were becoming concerned about North Korean affairs. And while the two are worlds apart, some have even compared the communist state with Hong Kong’s political landscape.

He said newspaper reporters often asked him how Hong Kong’s election system compared to North Korea’s system.

“Some people have also compared the disappearance of booksellers Lee Po and his associates to North Korea, which is also known for kidnapping foreign nationals.”

Steve Chung Lok-wai, an expert in Korean affairs at the Chinese University, said while Lau’s group held strong views on North Korea, it was important to acknowledge that others think the best way to change the country is through talks and from within.