Due to their lack of familiarity, N. Koreans more susceptible to falling into government frame-ups

“They’re sending him off to another death.”

This was the conclusion offered by Ju Seung-hyeon when I met him recently. Ju recently earned a PhD in political science from Yonsei University, making him, at 34, the youngest North Korean to earn a Ph.D. in the South. The “him” he was referring to was a North Korean soldier who crossed the armistice line on June 15.

When the soldier first crossed over, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense immediately alerted the press that he was defecting. The next day, it was leaked to the media that he had trekked for seven days from distant Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province, by car and on foot, and that he was the driver for a high-ranking officer in a People’s Army rear unit. Before, the administration had insisted on information controls to protect the family members left back home by refugees. This time, it had essentially identified the refugee to Pyongyang immediately on his arrival.

“This was a character assassination against a defecting soldier who had just survived a life-and-death situation,” declared Ju of the media coverage. “He’s going to have to live with the guilt for his family for the rest of his life.”

As Ju shared more details, it became more apparent that North Korean refugees are some of leading examples of people left in the human rights blind spots of South Korea today.

The reason Ju is so interested in the soldier’s story is that he himself was a North Korean soldier who also crossed the armistice line. In 2002, Ju arrived at the South Korean military’s guard post from its counterpart in the North, which he had left twenty-five minutes earlier.

Life in the South wasn’t easy. “I wasn’t welcomed in South Korea,” Ju said. “I became like human surplus.” In North Korea, he had never gone hungry, he explained; in the South, he had to go without food. Eventually, he decided he wanted to help resolve the nation‘s division. He went to school, starting as an undergraduate and earning a Ph.D. ten years later in 2014 with a dissertation on “the value of division.”

“If the [South Korean] government hadn’t given his personal information, the North would have just treated that soldier as a missing person,” Ju said. After all, he argued, who would have believed that a soldier who had vanished 200 kilometers away in Hamhung, North Korea‘s second most populous city, could have crossed the armistice line to the South?

“In my opinion, it all had to do with the MERS situation,” he added.

At the time the refugee arrived, criticisms of the Park Geun-hye administration for its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were spinning beyond its control. Ju’s conclusion is that the administration decided to share detailed information about the defecting soldier right away to draw the media’s attention away. The disregard for the soldier’s human rights was an all-too-predictable byproduct.

It was far from the first such violation of refugee human rights. Stories of refugees being framed for espionage have become an all-too-familiar part of the news landscape. Under military governments in the past, it was chiefly South Koreans victimized by spurious espionage allegations; now North Korean refugees are the main scapegoats for frame-ups and witch hunts. Their lack of familiarity with the workings of South Korean society and their own rights within it makes them easy targets.

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Kim Bo-geun, senior staff  writer
In that sense, the refugee human rights issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Indeed, it’s quite likely that new cases will surface as the administration encounters new crises, or in time for presidential elections and other items on the political calendar.

So who is around to fight for refugee human rights when they are trampled? To date, it has mainly been progressive attorneys and civic groups, as with the Yu Woo-sung espionage frame-up. Indeed, refugee groups at the time issued a statement calling for Yu’s punishment.

Will there ever come a day when refugees gird up to fight for the protection of their fellows when their rights are violated? Such an intervention could drastically reduce the number of infringements. No one is more aware of the reality of refugee human rights than the refugees themselves. Ju’s case is an illustration: as a soldier refugee himself, he had a better understanding than anyone of the human rights violation that occurred in the soldier’s case last month.

Seeing refugees fight for each other’s human rights might also inspire greater warmth in South Korea toward refugees as a group. (The Hankyoreh)