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S Korean PM protests to Xi over N Korean repatriation in Sep: report

South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo had raised his opposition to the forced repatriation of North Koreans when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China last month, Yonhap News Agency reported on Friday, citing South Korea’s ambassador to China Chung Jae-ho.

In response to a question from lawmaker Park Hong-keun during a parliament hearing on Oct. 13, as to whether Han mentioned [the issue of repatriation] to Xi, Chung said he believed Han did. Chung was with the prime minister, who attended the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, when he met Xi in Hangzhou. 

Radio Free Asia was not able to independently confirm Chung’s comment.

When asked what was Xi’s exact response, Chung indicated that the Chinese President’s position mirrored Beijing’s existing stance: they would “deal with illegal entrants in accordance with domestic law, international law, and humanitarian principles,” according to the Yonhap report.

The reported exchange between the leaders comes in the wake of recent media reports alleging that China forcibly repatriated over 500 North Koreans following the Hangzhou Asian Games. 

According to sources working to rescue North Koreans in China, the majority of these individuals were civilians and religious figures. They were apprehended while trying to make their way from China to South Korea. These repatriations reportedly occurred in several areas, including Tumen, Hunchun, Changbai, Dandong, and Nanping.

On Friday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry also voiced its concern, stating: “It appears to be true that many North Korean residents in three northeastern Chinese provinces have been repatriated.” The ministry spokesperson emphasized that North Korean defectors abroad should not be forcibly returned under any circumstances.

But China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin reiterated during a regular briefing that China adheres to a principle that combines domestic and international law, as well as humanitarian considerations, when dealing with North Koreans who enter China illegally for economic reasons.

Ambassador Chung also mentioned that he has been in touch with Chinese authorities to confirm the repatriation of North Koreans, but he has yet to receive any official notification or explanation.

Since North Korea lifted its border restrictions in August, after over three years of COVID lockdowns, there have been increasing concerns about the potential human rights violations and severe penalties that defectors might face upon return. 

Elizabeth Salmon, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, estimates that more than 2,000 North Korean defectors are currently detained in China.

Edited by Elaine Chan