A U.S. envoy said two days of meetings in Beijing with North Korean representatives, the first since the death of dictator Kim Jong Il in December, have yielded “a little bit of progress.” But any optimism about resuming talks on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has been dampened by fears for dozens of North Koreans now being held in China after fleeing their homeland over the past month. Earlier this week, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak asked China to treat the North Koreans as refugees, but China’s Foreign Ministry has repeated its long-held stance that North Koreans who flee into China are illegal immigrants. That means the North Koreans face repatriation and the likelihood of severe punishment.
That process may have already begun. On Friday, South Korean newspapers reported that some of the refugees have already been sent back to the North. North Korean defectors who previously escaped to the South have said they worry that refugees captured during the official mourning period for Kim Jong Il could face execution along with family members if sent home.
An article Friday in China’s Communist Party-run People’s Daily criticized (in Chinese here) South Korea for raising the refugee issue, saying it would only harm efforts to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula. The piece was written under the pen name Zhong Sheng, a homophone for the “voice of China” and can imply an official stance. “China will continue to faithfully fulfill the responsibility of a great nation, and continue to play an active and constructive role,” the article concluded. “The countries concerned should fully respect and value this, and not trouble the process of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
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The refugee issue has played out against the backdrop of the talks in Beijing between the U.S. and North Korea. Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korean policy, said Friday at the close of the two-day session that the talks were “serious and substantive and … ranged over all the issues.” He added that the two sides “made a little bit of progress” but didn’t give details, and said it would be an exaggeration to describe the results as a breakthrough. Davies said earlier that he thought it was a positive sign that North Korea agreed to rejoin the talks so early in its leadership transition. Kim Jong Il was succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, but little is known about how much power the 29-year-old wields. The speed with which the North rejoined talks “shows that the transition was further along than outsiders realized,” says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China and North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.
Davies, who took over the North Korea portfolio from Stephen W. Bosworth last year, said there wasn’t “any dramatic differences in how they presented their views” in the latest talks. The discussions follow meetings between U.S. and North Korean representatives held in Geneva in October and in Beijing in December before Kim Jong Il’s death. North Korea was represented by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, a longtime negotiator for the isolated totalitarian state.
The goal of these discussions is to create conditions for a return to the on-again, off-again six-nation talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. While the U.S. and its allies want to see the North dismantle its nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang is seeking food aid and security assurances. China is focused on regional stability and wary of any collapse of North Korea’s leadership. The potential resumption of the six-party talks between North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia is, says Kleine-Ahlbrandt, still “a long way off.” So too, it seems, is any hope for North Korean refugees.