China's government has reportedly decided to allow about 40 North Korean refugees to leave for a third country months before the upcoming Beijing Olympics.
According to reports, the refugees have been sheltered in the South Korean embassy compound and been under the protection of the United Nation's refugee agency, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), in Beijing. If all the proceedings go accordingly, the North Korean defectors are expected to leave China in January or February for a third country such as South Korea or the United States, reported Radio Free Asia (RFA).
The Chinese government is suspected of making the decision to prevent the issue from overshadowing the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It is said that at least 500,000 North Koreans have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years. Although the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea considers the North Koreans who flee to China "refugees" deserving of protection, China has a signed agreement with its communist ally to return refugees back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture, and sometimes execution for leaving the country – a state crime.
China, in defense of its actions, has claimed North Koreans entering its country are "economic migrants" and not refugees and thus it has the right to return them.
U.S. human rights activists have urged people not to travel to Beijing to attend the 2008 Olympics unless China grants the UNHCR access to North Koreans hiding in its territory.
Despite China's decision to allow the 40 or so North Korean refugees to leave for a third country, RFA noted that the case is rare and that it would be pretentious to expect such a flexible attitude on a regular basis. It has been reported that Beijing plans to beef up its crackdown on "illegal" North Koreans and set up more frequent identification checks on the streets in Beijing while strengthening controls on the North Korean border ahead of the Olympics.
Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations have indicated that China must not only deal with the concerns and criticisms of the international community amid the run toward the Olympics but revise the entire policy regarding the refugees.
North Korea, one of the most repressive regimes in the world, has been criticized for the systemic, widespread and serious violations of human rights that reportedly take place in the country as well as the government's refusal to cooperate with the U.N. human rights commissioner or special investigator.
The communist state has also been criticized for its all pervasive and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, religion, assembly and movement, its imposition of the death penalty for political reasons, the detention of thousands in prison camps, the punishment and torture of border-crossers, and the maltreatment of people with disabilities.
North Korea is ranked by the international ministry Open Doors as the world's worst persecutor of Christians.