Refugee and Food Update

Charges of Chinese repatriation of refugees raised a firestorm over the last month, which we covered in some detail here. We also noted that in addition to violation of the Refugee Convention such repatriation also violated the Torture Convention given their likely fate.

Last week, Yomiuri Shimbun broke the story that China may have stopped repatriating refugees. The source for this story was an official in Liaoning province.  Although those reports are hard to confirm, DailyNK covered the return of the five North Koreans holed up in a consular building in Beijing for three years; this group—three of which were descendents of a South Korean soldier taken prisonder during the Korean war–did finally get safe passage to Seoul on April 1. The Chosun Ilbo also reports that China has permitted another five defectors who had been living at a South Korean consulate in Shenyang to depart, but their story has not to our knowledge been covered.

How we interpret the Chinese action is another issue. One idea is that it reflected pique over the missile launch; Yomiuri played up this angle. This has given rise to speculation that the Chinese might be tilting; Evan Ramstad at the WSJ blog raises the possibility, citing unnamed sources that explicit orders were from Beijing given not to repatriate.

Don’t hold your breath. An equally plausible explanation is that the South Koreans were not backing down on the issue. Chosun Ilbo reports that Hu Jintao had given LMB assurances that China would “respect” the South Korean position at the time of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, and the LMB administration took him at his word and continued to make the case. If the Chinese can claim credit for appearing to pressure its Northern ally, all the better; whether they really will or not is an altogether different issue.

In the meantime, disturbing news on the food front suggests that one of the underlying causes of cross-border movement—hunger—continues to operate. Tokyo Shimbun (via Arirang) reported last week on the basis of North Korean sources that 20,000 people had died in Hwanghae province since Kim Jong Il’s death; Goodfriends 449, posted earlier in the month, also reports that the province is in crisis, attributing the shortfalls to crop damage from the rains and limits imposed on economic activity during the 100 day mourning period for Kim Jong Il (a sadly fitting tribute, we should add).

But the story probably runs deeper. Despite growing considerable food, South Hwanghae tends to score poorly on nutritional surveys.  The dominant hypothesis is that because of the presence of military bases and proximity to Pyongyang, South Hwanghae food production is more effectively “taxed” than that of more distant provinces. We are skeptical of the specific claim of 20,000 deaths by starvation in the last 4 months; the number of deaths claimed is very, very high for a single province in a short period of time. But our read of the overall food balance—coupled with the policy uncertainties surrounding the transition—make it wholly plausible that localized shortages would emerge at this time of year. Whatever its political fate, we see no reason to change our view that the humanitarian crisis in North Korea continues.