Human rights activists supporting North Korean defectors criticize China near a Beijing Olympic torch relay venue in central Seoul.

© 2008 Reuters

(Seoul) - South Korean President Lee Myung-bak should use the occasion of the Olympic torch’s passage in Seoul on April 27 to urge Beijing to stop arresting and repatriating North Korean refugees in China, Human Rights Watch said today. The torch relay, which up to now has been dogged by protests over China’s human rights abuses at home and in Tibet, will also pass through the North Korean capital Pyongyang on April 28, one place where protests are not expected.

China is likely to welcome the torch’s protest-free leg in North Korea, where basic freedoms have been restricted for so long and on such a scale, that there is no known record in the past 50 years of any major public demonstration calling for political freedoms or human rights.

Members of Lee Myung-bak’s new administration have repeatedly vowed to speak out about human rights violations in North Korea, unlike the two previous South Korean governments that maintained a policy of “engaging” North Korea, while keeping silent on human rights issues.

“President Lee’s commitment to speak out for North Koreans who suffer human rights abuses should not be limited to those inside North Korea,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “He should speak out for all North Koreans suffering human rights abuses, including those living in China.”

In an April 2008 report, “Denied Status, Denied Education: Children of North Korean Women in China”, Human Rights Watch documented how children of North Korean women living in northeast China (some born in North Korea, and others born in China to Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers), are denied legal identity and access to education. It also described how China summarily arrests and deports North Korean women back to North Korea, often separating them from their children.

“South Korea should call on China to ensure that all children go to school regardless of their legal status,” Pearson said. “It should also press China to stop arresting and summarily repatriating the children’s North Korean mothers.”

Under the North Korean penal code, leaving the country without state permission can be considered an act of treason, punishable by heavy penalties including imprisonment, forced labor, and in some cases the death penalty. This means that many of the North Koreans in China, most of whom left the country without state permission, are at a strong risk of persecution if they ever return. They would, therefore, qualify as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. As a state party to the convention, China has an obligation to investigate the risk North Korean women face if they were returned to North Korea and should not summarily arrest or repatriate them.

Under international law, and its own domestic laws, China is legally obligated to grant all children access to free elementary education, regardless of their nationality or legal status.

“To give the children access to elementary education, all China has to do is to respect its own laws and international conventions it already ratified,” Pearson said. “It is the right and humane thing to do.”

The Olympic torch is stopping in North and South Korea on its way to Beijing for the August 8, 2008 opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.