Fate of North Korean Refugees in China Presents an Historic Opportunity for Moon

By Suzanne Scholte, Seoul Peace Prize Laureate

For these closing weeks of his Presidency, President Moon Jae-in has an unprecedented and historic opportunity before him: to literally save the lives of hundreds of North Korean refugees currently detained in the People’s Republic of China.  These unprecedented and historic factors have put Moon in a position to save the lives of innocent children, women and men who were simply seeking a better life.  Here’s why: first, North Korea’s border remains closed making it impossible over the last two years for China to forcefully repatriate any North Koreans back to North Korea.   In fact, terrified of the COVID pandemic, North Korea was one of the first nations to close its border.  Second, South Korean did not join the United States and other nations last month to boycott the Beijing Olympics.  Hence, South Korea is in a better position than most democratic nations who did to request humanitarian consideration for these refugees who face certain beatings, torture, imprisonment and even execution if they are forced back to North Korea.  Their repatriation is likely to happen as soon as the border reopens as China wants them gone.  An illustration of how much China wants to depopulate their detention centers is the fact that last year they released female North Korean refugees, who were victims of trafficking, back into the hands of their abusers because they could not force them back to North Korea.

Those North Koreans remaining in detention in China are in especially grave danger because they escaped in a time when escaping North Korea is more difficult than ever. This means they had to have resources, and to have resources, they must fall into two categories: they are elite Korean Worker’s Party members with access to resources OR they had family in the Republic of Korea that provided support to get them out of North Korea.  And what is the fate for members of the Korean Workers party when they are repatriated to North Korea: death by either public execution or slow death in a political prison camp.  And what does the DPRK do to North Koreans when it discovers they were trying to get to South Korea: death either by public execution or slow death in a political prison camp.

Thus, Moon is the one person in the world today who can save all these Korean children, women, and men from death by requesting that China allow them safe passage as a humanitarian gesture.  It is also an historic time because once again Kim Jong Un is relentlessly testing missiles, and it is an historic fact that China has shown a willingness to allow large numbers of North Korean refugees’ safe passage to the Republic of Korea to show its displeasure with the DPRK’s missile tests. Moon said during his last address before the United Nations that he would work to build “a Korean Peninsula that promotes shared prosperity and cooperation,” and that he would “make ceaseless efforts until my very last day in office.”

As long as Kim Jong Un denies human rights to the people of North Korea there can be no shared prosperity for Koreans living north of the DMZ, and thus those refugees currently held in China can only have prosperity and a future if Moon will act on their behalf.

It could be the greatest, most lasting impact of his Presidency as he could literally rescue refugees being led away to death.  Who knows if among these refugees is a future President of South Korea as it is important to remember that Moon’s own family were also once refugees? During the Korean War when U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine ships safely rescued nearly 100,000 North Korea civilians from Hungnam and safely relocated them to South Korea for resettlement, it was Moon’s own family that was among the rescued.  Because of that rescue Moon was given the opportunity of freedom and prosperity and a future in South Korea to become the President of the Republic of Korea.

Over 20 former U.S. Government officials recently wrote a bipartisan appeal to President Moon calling for his help for these specific refugees writing, “We hope that you will seize this opportunity as it would be an amazing legacy of your administration if you were to safely rescue these children, women and men before you leave office in May.”  The signatories were officials who served in every U.S. Presidential administration since the 1970s including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Please, President Moon, this an historic opportunity to act on their behalf!