According to several media sources [1-English] [2 - Korean] [3 -Korean], a South Korean court has granted refugee status to Mr. Kim, a Korean-Chinese who has assisted North Korean defectors in China. The South Korean justice ministry had initially denied his application on the grounds that he didn’t play a leading role in assisting the defectors and such help was not in any case based on his political beliefs. Even were Mr. Kim to return to China, he would not have faced persecution, but at most, fines for his role in providing transit and lodging.
A South Korean administrative court, however, has overturned this ruling, arguing that anyone in China who assists North Korean defectors could face up to a life imprisonment. The court also stated that regardless of Mr. Kim’s motives, the Chinese authorities could view his actions as politically-motivated. Assisting refugees defies current government policy, which appears intent on halting the flow.
This ruling is unprecedented; due to the importance of the diplomatic relationship with China, South Korea has tip-toed around the issue even though Chinese complicity in repatriating North Korean defectors is undeniable. Moreover, as we have pointed out repeatedly (including in Chapter 6 of our book), Chinese actions are in direct contravention of its obligations under the Refugee Convention, particularly given the evidence that refugees are being sent to labor camps, tortured and even executed upon their return. Worse, there is news that the refugees are being actively pursued by Chinese authorities, at times with fatal consequences. In fact, what triggered Mr. Kim to apply for refugee status in South Korea was the news that a former associate had been executed in China for helping defectors. If that isn’t political persecution, then what is?