The COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity to save North Korean lives, if Moon Jae-In takes action

By Benedict Rogers

North Korea is ruled by the world’s most repressive, most brutal regime – one which does not allow any freedom whatsoever, one which violates every single article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights every day. It is also the world’s most closed nation – extremely difficult to get in or out of. Those who do visit – as I have done once – are tightly monitored and controlled, while those who try to leave the country without permission face imprisonment, torture and even execution if caught.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to tighten the restrictions on access even further. Like many countries dealing with coronavirus, North Korea has sealed its borders. Britain’s embassy in Pyongyang has been closed since 27 May, with Ambassador Colin Crooks stating on his Twitter page: “Working from London pending my return to Pyongyang.” And last week, the North Korean regime warned its citizens to stay indoors over fears that a “yellow dust” blowing in from China could bring coronavirus with it. The so-called “hermit kingdom” has become the “hermetically sealed” nation.

And yet this offers a rare opportunity to save lives, because due to its COVID-19 restrictions, North Korea has told China it will not receive repatriation of North Korean escapees. In normal times, China has a policy of forcibly returning North Koreans who escape across its border, sending them back to face certain torture, detention and in some cases execution – in flagrant breach of the international principle of ‘non-refoulement.’ Now, Kim Jong-Un’s regime says it does not want them.

China has a policy of forcibly returning North Koreans who escape across its border, sending them back to face certain torture, detention and in some cases execution.

Leading North Korea expert Suzanne Scholte, President of the Defense Forum Foundation in Washington, DC and a board member of CSW-USA, sees this as what she describes as a “golden opportunity to rescue the lives of North Korean defectors detained in China.” In an open letter published in the Seoul-based newspaper Chosun Ilbo, Ms Scholte urges South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to appeal to China’s President Xi Jinping to free all North Korean defectors now in China’s detention centres, and allow them to travel to South Korea.

At least 33,000 North Korean refugees have already resettled in South Korea over the past few decades after escaping from the north, but thousands remain in China. As Ms Scholte says: “Most of these refugees were trying to reach their families in the Republic of Korea, a crime which makes them subject to execution if forced back to North Korea. Some of these refugees have become Christians, which means they are also subjected to immediate execution. Among them are young children.”

In the past three years since he was elected, Moon Jae-in has pursued engagement and rapprochement with North Korea, leading not only to several symbolic meetings with Kim Jong-Un but also to a dramatic shift in South Korea’s attitude to North Korean human rights advocacy.

Pressure has increased on Seoul-based civil society groups working on documentation and reporting of North Korean human rights, and Moon’s government has consistently refused to talk publicly about human rights as part of its dialogue with the Kim regime.

That said, little progress appears to have been made even towards a meaningful peace over the past two years since the three summits between Moon and Kim, and with the forced closure inflicted as a result of COVID-19 it is unlikely that much will develop in coming months. So even if he won’t speak up for human rights in North Korea, even if he pressures civil society in Seoul to tone down their North Korea human rights advocacy, on purely humanitarian grounds – and given that North Korea won’t take them back, will President Moon do the right thing and urge the Chinese government to allow North Koreans in China safe passage to South Korea?

Ms Scholte ends her letter with a reminder to President Moon of his own roots, writing: “Because of similar action taken on behalf of your own family, you had the great opportunity to be able to choose your own path and thrive in the Republic of Korea to be elected to its most important political office, President. Now, you are the person with the most authority in the world to act to protect the lives of these refugees and make it possible for them to have the same opportunities.”

Let us pray that President Moon seizes the moment and throws North Koreans in China a much-needed lifeline while he has the chance.

Benedict Rogers is Senior Analyst, East Asia at CSW and co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK).