There are 100,000 North Korean defectors hiding in China, according to South Korea’s Unification Minister Hyun In-taek, the Joong Ang Daily, a South Korean newspaper, reports. Some agencies that aid North Korean defectors put the number at twice that.
Beijing does not recognize North Koreans who enter the country as refugees. It considers them illegal economic refugees to be repatriated (retribution is severe for those so returned). But slipping across the border into Jilin and Liaoning is the most direct way for North Koreans to flee their homeland. From there many make their way to South Korea via a third country such as Mongolia or Thailand, arriving in Seoul at at rate of 200 a year — a measure of how perilous the journey is.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry says that more than three out of four North Korean defectors are now women, adding that they “have better means of earning a living when hiding in China” than the men — a euphemism for human trafficking as sex slaves.
Tuesday’s crash of a North Korean military plane in Liaoning is a messy business all round. The assumption is that the pilot, who was killed when the plane ploughed into a house in rural Fushun county, was a defector. If so, Pyongyang won’t be happy that one of its pilots took flight in this way (the last one was in 1996), or that the picture now doing the rounds of the Internet shows an antiquated Soviet-era plane from its air force, an old MIG fighter jet or possibly a trainer, that apparently ran out of fuel while flying over China assumedly en route to Russia (all these assumptions coming out of unnamed South Korean intelligence sources). China has a repatriation agreement with North Korea, albeit one that is loosely enforced, whereas Russia does not, though in the circumstances that is now moot.
The nearest North Korean military base from which the plane could have taken off would be at Sinuiju, just inside North Korea’s border with China and 200 kms (125 miles) from the crash site. Flying north over Fushun would not have been the most direct route to the nearest Russian soil, though taking that would have meant heading north-east and flying parallel to the length of the North Korean border.
Beijing is now in contact with Pyongyang about the incident. Chinese state media have mentioned the crash only circumspectly. And questions are to be raised about how a foreign fighter jet made it 200 kms into Chinese airspace seemingly unchallenged. With the strained relations between the two putative allies not noticeably eased since Kim Jong Il’s visit to Beijing in May, both sides will want this latest incident to fade from view quickly.
Our eye was caught by a report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo that increasing numbers of North Korean defectors are turning up in Thailand after fleeing the Stalinist state and making a dangerous clandestine journey across China and Laos. The paper quotes Thai immigration authorities as saying that they took more than 1,000 North Korean asylum seekers into custody last year, compared to fewer than 400 the year before, and expect the numbers to grow this year. Unlike China and Laos, Thailand does not repatriate North Korean refugees but seeks to settle them in a third-country. To put that number in to context, a new book on North Korean defectors estimates that some 15,000 have left the country since the end of the Korean War (1953), with the majority leaving in the past 10 years.
China has been taking a harder line on returning North Korean defectors since late 2008. After the arrests in North Korea last year of two American TV journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, authorities raided safe houses in China used by North Korean defectors and deported a South Korean Christian activist who helped them, part of a network that is said to have smuggled hundreds of defectors out of North Korea. We have also heard reports from Japan of several asylum seekers who have taken sanctuary in Japanese and South Korean diplomatic missions in China being prevented from leaving the country as they once would have been allowed to do.