The current edition of KoreAm has a feature on DailyNK reporter Lee Sang-yong’s incarceration in China. It reminded us that we had not covered the strange case when it happened last year. But we should have, as it speaks volumes on Chinese sensitivities on human rights issues generally and on North Korea in particular.
Although Lee Sang-yong was one of four South Koreans arrested in China last March, the main target was human rights activist Kim Yong-hwan. (Brian Gleason at SinoNK offers a biographical profile. Choe Sang-Hun covered the issue for the NYT. NKNet offers up an interview with Kim.)
Kim Yong-hwan had been a central player in South Korea’s hard left in the early 1980s; a student at Seoul National University Law School, he had formed a pro-North Korean organization, was incarcerated for two years, and ultimately went to North Korea where he met Kim Il Sung. The experience, and contact with defector Hwang Jong Yop, produced one of those 180-degree conversions that occur when true believers are disillusioned. But better late than never; Kim went on to be a key player in the formation of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights or NKNet, one of the more active South Korean organizations on the issue.
There can be little doubt that he was in China working on the refugee issue, connecting with networks and/or even organizing North Koreans who were going back in or defecting. He remains cagy to this day on the precise operation, saying only that he and the other activists were in China because they were “first investigating the information regarding North Korean human rights violations, second… supporting North Korean defectors, and third… helping those individuals or groups that were pursuing democratization of North Korea.” The last of these three is particularly interesting.
The Chinese Ministry of State Security, which conducted the arrest, appears to have been tipped off to the presence of the South Koreans by North Korea’s National Security Agency or General Reconnaissance Bureau of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces; 7-10 people were initially rounded up. Although Kim was arrested in Dalian, he was not taken to the provincial headquarters of the MSS in Shenyang, but transferred to Dandong on the Sino-North Korean border.
Chinese later claimed to both Kim Yong-hwan and Lee Sang-yong that they were protecting them from North Korean agents. If the Chinese were protecting Kim and the others arrested, they had a strange way of doing it. Lee reported to KoreAm that South Korean journalists working the North Korean beat who are apprehended in China are typically deported in a few days. No such luck. Both Kim and Lee Sang-yong report being harassed and Kim reports being tortured outright—including with electric shocks–while in Chinese custody. Both reported threats to send them to North Korea. Later in their incarceration, the line shifted to trying to silence them. After 114 days, the four were released; no sooner had they reached South Korea before North Korea threatened to “hunt them down.”
Kim and the others have adamantly insisted that none of their actions had anything to do with espionage and subversion vis-à-vis China, the charges that were brought against them. But even if the four arrestees were operating in violation of Chinese law, the appropriate response would be to issue the charges and allow consular access so that the matter can be mediated.
The issue shows clearly the diplomatic constraints when dealing with China on human rights issues in general, and North Korea in particular. The problems are multiple. First, China appears to have mistreated four South Korean citizens with impunity. Seoul repeatedly demanded that China investigate the torture allegations. (The Foreign Ministry statement on the issue is reproduced in full below). The foreign ministry went so far as to interview an estimated 620 other South Koreans that had been detained to see if they had had similar experiences. The Chinese response—predictably—was to deny the allegations and all demands for redress. But that is not all; the case also shows—again predictably–that China is actively complicit in North Korean efforts to control the border. In effect, human rights activity vis-à-vis North Korea is a challenge to Chinese security as well. And finally there is the question of torturing anyone, let alone South Korean nationals. China is a signatory to the torture convention; if the MSS is abusing foreign nationals, it is hard to imagine that Chinese nationals are immune.
Is it inconceivable that Chinese interests might in fact be advanced by rule of law at home and pursuit of a more humane North Korea in the near abroad? Just asking.
DailyNK coverage of the case can be found here.
1. With regard to Mr. Kim’s claims of torture, immediately after learning about this matter, the Government of the Republic of Korea has firmly pressed China to verify relevant facts, offer an apology, punish those responsible, and prevent such cases from recurring. We have since raised and intend to continue raising the issue with China.
2. In addition, as China is a state party to the UN Convention against Torture, the Government of the Republic of Korea calls upon the country to conduct a thorough investigation in line with the spirit of the Convention.
3. Furthermore, if Mr. Kim decides to refer his case to the UN or other multilateral bodies through individual complaints established under the international human rights mechanism, the Government of the Republic of Korea will extend full support to him.
4. For all other ROK nationals currently detained in China, the Government of the Republic of Korea will investigate through further consular meetings whether or not they have been subjected to harsh treatment, and take all measures as necessary.
Spokesperson and Deputy Minister for Public Relations of MOFAT