South Korea’s political crisis and the nation’s worsening ties with China will only help the North Korean regime, said North Korean defector and activist Hyeonseo Lee.
The country is in political turmoil following recent revelations that President Park Geun-hye has been taking secret advice from Choi Soon-sil, a confidante with no policy background and who holds no public office. Tens of thousands of South Koreans protested in Seoul last weekend to demand the resignation of Park, who is facing a corruption investigation into whether Choi manipulated state decisions.
North Korean media is playing up the scandal, said Lee, who said it was the “perfect chance” for the regime to further stoke anti-South Korean sentiment.
In 1997, aged 17, Lee crossed the frozen Yalu River into China on what was meant to be a short trip. She ended up staying in the country, hiding her identity for a decade before escaping in 2008 to South Korea, which gave her asylum.
“I’m very sad and disappointed about the situation we have right now in South Korea. But it happened, and we have to cope with it,” said Lee, before a talk at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival promoting her memoir The Girl with Seven Names. “Who is the most happy in this situation? Of course, it’s the North Korean regime.”
Tension between South Korea and China has been exacerbated by South Korea’s recent decision to put an advanced United States missile defence system called THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence) on its soil. And last week Beijing responded sternly to reports that South Korean coastguards fired machine guns for the first time against Chinese boats illegally fishing in Korean waters, AFP reported.
Deteriorating Sino-South Korean relations may also lead to more severe crackdowns on North Korean defectors in China, Lee said. For more than 20 years, China has sent defectors back to North Korea, where they are locked up, tortured and, potentially, publicly executed. There are about 200,000 defectors hiding in China, many of them vulnerable to human-trafficking, sexual violence and other abuses, she said.
Even those who escape into neighbouring countries like Laos or Vietnam are often sent back to China at the nation’s request, before being repatriated to North Korea, Lee said.
“I hate the Chinese government,” Lee said. “If you do not want to embrace North Korean defectors in your country, I understand. But we have a country where we can seek asylum. So please, let us freely pass through. Why are you doing your best to try and catch defectors?
“When many Chinese escaped to North Korea during the Cultural Revolution … we embraced them. People in China have forgotten about this.”
Dr Inwook Kim, a politics lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said China is vital to North Korea’s economy, providing much-needed oil and serving as its dominant trading partner. China also accounts for nearly 90 per cent of North Korea’s total exports.
And China is compelled to support the North Korean regime because the country acts as a buffer dividing China from South Korea, a US ally. The collapse of the North Korean regime would most likely lead to the unification of the peninsula under Seoul’s leadership, and may also result in other problems such as an influx of refugees into China, Kim said.
“The US and South Korean governments want to continue or even ratchet up the current sanction measures against Pyongyang. Without China’s cooperation, however, the sanctions simply can’t work,” Kim said. “The worsening relations with South Korea are likely to reduce China’s already mediocre incentives to cooperate. From Pyongyang’s point of view, this is good news.”
Since the scandal surrounding Park is an “exception, not a rule” in South Korean leadership and North Korea routinely delegitimises the South, the crisis is unlikely to strengthen the North Korean regime in any meaningful way, Kim said. But Kim Jong-un could exploit the situation by using this time to tackle North Korea’s domestic problems and cementing his leadership while South Korea is distracted, he added.
“North Korea has been pretty quiet. The political scandal in South Korea means that South Korea may overreact to North Korea’s provocations,” Kim said, adding that North Korea already conducted its fifth nuclear test in September and probably won’t conduct the next one soon. “If this is a possibility that North Korea sees, then North Korea may want to refrain from escalating the tension for now.”