South Korea's National Assembly has adopted a resolution urging China to refrain from repatriating some 30 detained North Korean refugees to their Communist homeland, the official Yonhap news agency reported late on Monday.
According to the report, 154 lawmakers backed the resolution, while two abstained from voting on the measure.
The resolution, tabled by Representative Park Sun-young of the conservative minor Liberty Forward Party and signed by 29 lawmakers, condemns China's plans to repatriate the North Koreans forcefully.
The measure also calls on China to follow standing international laws on repatriation of the North Korean refugees as they risk facing harsh punishments and even execution upon return to their home country. It also urged the U.N. and other global institutions to pressure China to adhere to international laws on the issue.
International law on refugees prohibits forcible repatriation, either directly or indirectly, of any individuals to a country where they face the risk of persecution, torture or death.
It is believed that at least 30 North Korean refugees are being held in the north-eastern Chinese city of Changchun for entering the country illegally while on their way to South Korea. Although it was reported earlier that nine of them have already been sent back to North Korea, those reports are yet to be confirmed.
The North Koreans were picked up by Chinese police on February 8 from separate locations in the city of Shenyang. Some of them are believed to have had contact with members of a South Korean organization, who are trying to help them complete their journey to South Korea.
North Korean nationals known to have had contact with South Koreans or caught attempting to travel to that country risk facing harsh punishment, including execution, if caught and returned home. North Koreans are banned from traveling abroad without state permission.
China considers all undocumented North Koreans as economic migrants, rather than as asylum-seekers. Although China is a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention, it has so far denied the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR access to the detained North Koreans.
South Korea brought up the issue at the United Nations on Monday, insisting that the North Koreans fled their country "in pursuit of freedom and the right to live," and argued that their repatriation amounted to a "grave infringement of human rights."
Later, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR urged all parties concerned to find a viable humanitarian solution in the case of the North Koreans detained in China. It also appealed for ensuring their safety, and reaffirmed its commitment to continue to work with all parties on this issue.
In a statement posted on its website, the UNHCR "called upon the Chinese government to uphold the non-refoulement principle," referring to a principle in international law that prohibits the return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened.
The developments come at a time when the international community is keenly watching the new North Korean leader Kim Jong un, who took over the Communist regime after the death of his father Kim Jong-il. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the new leader has issued a decree threatening to exterminate the families of those attempting to flee the impoverished country.
The two Koreas technically remain at war even now, as the Korean war ended in an armistice in 1953, and not a peace treaty. The war ended after the U.N. command, fighting on behalf of South Korea, signed the armistice with North Korea and China.
ension in the Korean peninsula has been high in recent months over the alleged sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by the North in March 2010 and the "unprovoked" shelling of the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong in November that year. Since then, the peninsula has witnessed several joint military exercises involving the U.S. and South Korea as part of their efforts to deter the North from committing any further provocative actions.
by RTT Staff Writer
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