Seoul considers citizenship for N.K. defectors in China

The government and ruling Saenuri Party on Thursday decided to consider issuing a certificate of South Korean citizenship to North Korean defectors as part of efforts to stop China from forcibly repatriating them.

The move comes as some defectors here have claimed that with such a certificate, chances are high that those caught by Chinese security police can be released considering that they are first regarded as "stateless" there.

They have reportedly pleaded with Seoul's Foreign Ministry, stressing that should security officers in China have justification for releasing defectors such as South Korean nationality, their loved ones could be more easily set free.

The South Korean Constitution stipulates South Korean territory covers the Korean Peninsula and the islands attached to it.

Thus, North Koreans should be seen as having South Korean nationality, legal experts have argued.

A 2000 ruling by the Constitutional Court and a 1996 ruling by the Supreme Court said that there is no problem with North Koreans being granted South Korean nationality as their hometowns are constitutionally part of South Korean territory.

The government and ruling party discussed the idea of issuing the certificates at a meeting in the National Assembly which Saenuri policy chief Lee Ju-young and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan attended.

"We will seek to secure cooperation from all political parties to send a parliamentary delegation to China (over the defectors' issue)," Lee said.

The party said that it will take some time to flesh out its idea, and that it will also check if there are any possible problems associated with it.

"We will have to discuss (with the government) whether to give a passport or a temporary traveler certificate to the defectors, and details concerning administrative procedures for it," said a Saenuri official, declining to be named.

"All concerned ministries such as ministries of unification, justice, and public administration and security should be involved in the process of developing it."

The official also listed possible problems such as a South Korean citizen in China with the same certificate as defectors being regarded as having North Korean nationality.

Minister Kim also pledged full-hearted efforts to address the issue of North Koreans at risk of repatriation and harsh punishment back in the repressive state.

"It is very sad that this many defectors were arrested in China. We will verify the facts through various diplomatic channels and seek to gain attention from international organizations to address the issue," he said during the meeting with Saenuri officials.

As it has been reported that around 80 defectors now face forcible repatriation in China, public criticism of Beijing has increased here.

Bilateral talks with Beijing have not been fruitful, therefore, Seoul has decided to appeal to the international community by raising it at a UN panel on human rights next week.

Saenuri floor leader Rep. Hwang Woo-yea reiterated that China should handle defectors in accordance with the international law and procedures.

"The legal issue of defectors does not only concern several countries, but is an issue for the entire world and our humanity," Hwang said during a party meeting.

Though a citizenship certification is better than doing nothing, some argue that it may not help fundamentally address the human rights issue facing the defectors.

"We may not be able to completely resolve the repatriation issue with the certificate. It can be one of the measures. But before that, we should reach an agreement with Beijing over how to handle defectors," an official told The Korea Herald on condition of anonymity.

Despite international entreaties and criticism, China, the staunch ally of North Korea, has maintained that it cannot regard the defectors as refugees protectable by international conventions as they are simple "illegal migrants" who crossed the border for economic reasons.

Kim Heung-kwang, head of the North Korean Intellectual Solidarity, said that in addition to the certificate, the government should devise other effective ways such as offering financial assistance to help the defectors arrive here safe and sound.

"There should be a law protecting the human rights of North Koreans. Financial support is also needed to ensure their safe arrival here," he said.