North Korea

THAAD tensions impede China passage for North Korean defectors: ex-US special envoy

‘Virtually all’ North Korean refugees flee the North through China, Robert King told a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 8:22am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 10:56am

Strained relations between Beijing and Seoul over the deployment of a US missile defence system have made it “more difficult” for North Korean refugees or defectors to pass through China before reaching South Korea, a former US special envoy said.

Robert King, former US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, told a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday that Beijing at times has allowed North Korean refugees to travel into the South via China when the Chinese capital has maintained good relations with Seoul.

But after South Korea decided to install an American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, system on the Korean Peninsula earlier this year, triggering a year-long diplomatic stand-off between Seoul and Beijing, North Korean refugees could hardly pass through China, King said.

Beijing, viewing the deployment as a threat to its own security, reacted furiously, hitting South Korean businesses with a host of punitive measures and banning group tours to the South, in moves seen as economic retaliation.

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King’s comments coincide with the beginning of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s official visit to China on Wednesday and his third meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the following day. The two neighbouring countries agreed to resume relations last month after tensions flared over THAAD.

“I am hopeful that the recent indications of better ties between Beijing and Seoul will lead to easier conditions for defectors to pass through China,” King said in his testimony to the foreign affairs panel.

“Virtually all” North Korean refugees flee the North through China, the ex-special envoy said. Most choose to settle in South Korea because of the familiar language and culture and family members already living there, he said.

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The number of refugees leaving the North annually has declined recently owing to tighter border control by Pyongyang, King said. After peaking at nearly 3,000 in 2011, the number fell to fewer than 1,500 in 2016. “Numbers thus far this year look to be even lower,” he said.

The past two decades have seen about 30,000 North Koreans flee the reclusive country and resettle in the South, according to King’s testimony.