The time is right to encourage Beijing to reevaluate its policy of forcibly returning N. Korean refugees, which is in conformity with its treaty with Pyongyang but is in contravention to human rights norms. In recent months, there has been a rise in N. Koreans seeking asylum at various embassies in China. Accordingly, there has been increased media attention of their plight along with increased arrests of N. Korean refugees. Some say the added persecution of N. Koreans in China brought on by more public exposure is a bad trend. I think otherwise.
Losing face is the wild card for the North Korean human rights movement. Beijing cares about its reputation in world opinion. Therefore, more of the 200,000 N. Korean refugees “illegally” living in China should continue their acts of civil disobedience, publicly. More pictures of Chinese guards dragging mothers carrying their babies away from embassies must be made available for the world to see.
Some of the most poignant, moving, and mobilizing images of the Civil Rights movement in the United States were of police dogs being released on African-American students, of firemen’s hoses being used on marchers and sit-in protestors. No decent, moral government would allow such atrocious acts by their representatives. This was the invaluable realization such publicly provoked abuses evoked. The average American citizen who was otherwise apathetic to the plight of Blacks could no longer ignore what his or her conscience, pricked by these images on the nightly news, was now screaming about in complaint. Watch the historically accurate movie Gandhi, and review the news archives and photographs of the Indian protestors triumphing over their oppressors – not by guns or violence – but by being publicly beaten and humiliated. To be sure, such beatings and humiliations had gone on before their acts of passive resistance. But now these abuses were being forced to be done in full view of the world through the help of the press. The same must be done for North Korea’s refugees in China.
One important caveat against applying the principle of civil disobedience does not apply here. That is, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.’s acts of passive resistance would not likely have worked if done under the oppresive regimes of Hitler, Stalin, or Kim Jong Il. For non-violent civil disobedience presupposes the existence to some degree of a moral tradition with the oppressor. This was the case with the United States and Britain. But what about China? Some point to Beijing’s acts towards Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and Falun Gong as examples of the current Chinese regime having no such moral compass. While admitting these examples have some merit, they ignore where Beijing is today and wants to be tomorrow.
China has gained entrance into the WTO. It has won its decades-long effort to host the Olympics. It is continuing to grow in economic and military might. China’s nationalism – its substitute for religion – has been swelling to unparalleled levels. When the world sees China, they whisper, they will no longer see a backward people looked down upon by the West. This growing concern for their reputation in a world where human rights can no longer be ignored without bringing censure on a government’s prestige is enough of a moral tradition for civil disobedience there to succeed. Further shutting out the foreign media is no longer a viable option for them. They cannot have their cake and eat it too; they cannot vie for global prestige without the global attention the foreign media provides.
Therefore, the human rights community must applaud the current rise in public defections and rushes on embassies. We must show our support for news reporters and photographers who bring to light the abuses of exploited refugees. We must direct the world’s attention to these pictures that say a thousand words. And most importantly, we must pray for these brave refugees who provoke public abuse, expose their calamity, and risk their lives in order to create an intolerable environment where average citizens of the world can no longer look the other way.