Sorry ‘Bout That: How a South Korean Consulate Helped Doom Nine Family Members of Its POWs

[Scroll down for updates.]   Thirty-one years after the North Koreans kidnapped him from his fishing boat, 67 year-old Choi Uk Il is back in South Korea with the wife who never lost faith in him, and after his own government’s Shenyang consulate nearly turned him away.  You can’t help but admire the ferocious loyalty of his wife, who raised their children on a cleaning lady’s salary, kept faith with her husband, and then cowed the faithless Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade that nearly betrayed him.   

For his part, Choi remarried inside North Korea, although I would hesitate to criticize  him under these unique circumstances.  His wife appears to have understood:  how fortunate a man he is to have married someone of her exquisite strength of character (to my wife, on the other hand, this is just more proof that all men are the same — and after all, she is never, ever wrong).   Let’s hope that his new North Korean family is more successful in joining him than the families I’m about to tell you about.


According to a report to be published in the next Chosun Monthly  (linked story in Korean),  nine family members of three South Korean POW’s, who had been held in North Korea for decades in violation of the 1953 Armistice, were repatriated to North Korea last October.   The nine refugees successfully escaped from  North Korea, crossed overland to the city of Shenyang, and  made contact with the South Korean Consulate there. 

The Consulate, instead of sheltering them inside a consular facility protected by the Vienna Convention, arranged for the nine to stay in private home-stay accomodations (minbak) that lacked consular protection.  Then, as a result of either a colossal blunder or a deliberate betrayal, the hosts tipped off the Chinese police, who then arrested the nine and hauled them back to the loving arms of the Dear Leader.  South Korea then offered what it always offers in similar situations: an obsequious, private, c.y.a. protest/attempt to negotiate, which deserves to be contrasted to the adolescent bombast of Korean officials’ public disagreements with the United States or Japan.  China drew the natural conclusion — that this was not a big deal to the South Koreans … in other words, a green light to do what it’s done so often before.  And when the South Korean government explains its policy like “Comrade” Chung Dong-Young has previously done, why shouldn’t it?

Because these refugees  had contact with the South Korean Consulate in Shenyang before their capture by Chinese police, their fate will probably be grim, and they have reportedly been sent to North Korea’s concentration camps.  They are unlikely to survive the experience.

This, in spite of desperate efforts of South Korean  relatives of the nine to intervene with the MOFAT.

According to the Donga Ilbo (also in Korean), there were no  actual South Korean POW’s among the group.  Two of the  POW’s  were deceased, and one was living in the South.  The  usual pattern has been for escaped POW’s to get out first, and then hire defection brokers to retrieve their family members from the North.  One POW who managed to escape recently, Chang Moo Hwan,  had agonized about the fate of his North Korean family.  His case was another that provoked public anger when the South Korean Consulate initially refused to help him.  I’ve also previously blogged about a Capitol Hill event where the speakers were two escaped POW’s.  More accounts from escaped POW’s  here and  here.

No doubt, this will serve South Korea’s interest in avoiding the embarassment of having any more of its Korean War POW’s resurface, since those POW’s now know that their escape means that they’ll never see their North Korean loved ones again.  South Korea has done its part to insure that the hostage system stays intact.  They must be proud.

This new report ought to focus some constructive attention on  South Korea’s  Shenyang Consulate, which, on closer examination, turns out to be a great place for a North Korean refugee or a South Korean POW to get himself sent to Camp 22.  Let’s consider  the record:

*   January 2007:  The near-betrayal of Choi Uk-Il,  the South Korean abductee who just returned home. 

*   December 2006:  The Shenyang Six, refugees who are in Chinese jails now, and who may soon  be sent back to North Korea.

*   September 2006:  Two North Korean refugees who entered the Shenyang Consulate, who for some reason were concerned enough to leap the wall to the U.S. Consulate on the other side.

*   May 2006:  A previous group of four refugees who also  entered the South Korean Consulate in Shenyang, then knocked down a guard a vaults the wall to the adjoining U.S. Consulate.  Three of them later came to America; the fourth went to South Korea.

*    January 2005:  Escaped POW Han Man-Taek, who was caught and sent back to North Korea, from an undetermined location in China.

*   October 1998:  Escaped POW Chang Moo-Hwan, a POW whom South Korea’s Beijiing Embassy tried to turn away.  Chang made it, but I wonder if we’ve just learned that his family didn’t.

*   God only knows how many more.

I’m far beyond the point of believing that each of these incidents could possibly be an isolated  case of regrettable incompetence.  I infer from this that  that the Consul was acting on some kind of higher authority to get rid of inconvenient refugees and POW’s, and you have to give the Consul credit for the minbak switcheroo, which is  almost as plausibly deniable (and just about as repugnant, at least on a per capita basis)  as signs like this one once  were.  You would think that after the second or third such incident, the Consul would have been fired for ingoring the diplomatic cable that would have followed the first such incident.  On the other hand, employees are better at keeping  secrets than ex-employees, so I reckon the Consul will continue to be an employee (I understand that the bitchy operator who tried to turn Choi Uk Il away has been sacrificed).  Anyway, I suppose I should  emphasize that I don’t know this for a fact, I just don’t see any other  plausible alternative explanation, so I’m calling “bullshit” preemptively.

[Update:   Rats are smelled, excuses are made. 

The Marmot picks up  a Korean language report that a consulate employee was sent to drop the refugees off in the minbak, said he’d be back the next day, and  never returned.  Four  days later, the ChiCom police showed up instead.  That version seems consistent with the Korean Consulate making a deliberate decision to abandon the nine to whatever fate awaited them.

The Daily NK says that the MOFAT had already begun an “investigation” of the Shenyang Consulate, even before this incident came to light.

The Joonang Ilbo reports the MOFAT’s “official” excuse:

[A]  ministry official said yesterday that North Korean defectors with links to South Korean prisoners of war in the North are generally given more lenient treatment by Chinese authorities under a mechanism arranged by Seoul and Beijing.  Apparently, when South Korean diplomats in China are approached by North Koreans in that category, they have been kept in a safe house outside the diplomatic premises until they are processed both by Seoul and by Beijing for onward trips to South Korea.

In this case, the JoongAng Daily and other reporters have learned, those arrangements broke down. Apparently there had been an incident earlier in the day in which a group of North Koreans successfully entered another consulate in the city. Later in the day, Chinese police scoured the area for other potential defectors and discovered the nine in their temporary lodgings. The security forces were evidently not aware of the group’s special status.

South Korean officials reportedly alerted the Chinese to the problem, but the group had, it seems, been repatriated too quickly for those efforts to be successful.

That fast?  (Here’s a map that should give you some idea of the driving distance from Shenyang to the North Korean border, about 150 of secondary road.)   Oh, and now that these people are safely back in North Korea — if not already dead —  the Chinese can expect a call from Song Min Soon.  Well!   I’ll be interested  to hear  whether Minister Song will apply the same standard of “quiet diplomacy” to the Motherland that he’s applied to the United States  in the past.  I bet the whole Forbidden City  hangs  below a pall of dread.  Not.  You can’t bite  a hand that’s moving your jaws from inside your head.

Update 1/20:   Yonhap is reporting that one of the nine is already dead.

One of the nine, who was the wife of a South Korean prisoner of war, apparently froze to death one month ago while she was being questioned by North Korean security authorities after they were deported to the North, a source familiar with North Korean affairs said. The woman, the source said he understands she suffered from a chronic disease at an advanced age.

It is unclear whether her death was caused by harsh punishment during the questioning or by the disease, the source said.

In the same story:  the opposition Grand National Party is leading a fact-finding delegation to the Shenyang consulate, suggesting that this is going to be an election-year issue.  It should be.  There have been some protests over this, but mostly small ones  by the family members of other abductees and POW’s.  For the most part, South Koreans aren’t burning Chinese flags, lighting candles, covering themselves with bees, or  severing fingers.  The reaction thus far, summarized in two words:  “sh!+ happens.” 

I pronounce myself completely mystified by the political psychology of South Korea, and I don’t think there’s a medication for what ails it.  Nor do  I think South Koreans will “get it” before it’s too late.  That’s why it’s a dangerous oversimplication to believe that North Korea’s insular and belligerent nature is entirely the result of its  isolation. South Korea is a social experiment whose wackiness illustrates the limits of the core-gap theory, and of the extraordinary  difficulties that unification will bring.  An effective North Korea policy may  require us to  marginalize South Korea. 

[Resuming original post]   Incidentally, here are five letters you will almost never read consecutively  in the context of the North Korea refugee story:  “U-N-H-C-R.”  If there is any organization within the UN that stands out for its exceptional incompetence, apathy, and worthlessness, it must be the UNHCR … and that’s saying plenty.   It has to make you wonder where our money is going, notwithstanding the UNHCR’s obfuscation that, unlike  whichever UN  bodies have called for the closure of Gitmo (and putting this guy God-knows-where?),  it is not a political organization and is thus powerless to raise a stink … like, say, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  By all means, read the UNHCR’s lengthy  obfuscation  about this issue in its entirety and let me know if you  see any hint of the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg between those lines, but the spirit seems to have met the same fate as the man.  It’s not as if the UN has heard  no constructive ideas about how to deal with this problem.  But if the UN waited decades for an outside NGO to explain a situation of which is should have been well aware, it’s unlikely to become an effective executor of international humanitarian law today. 

That’s why I’ve turned  agnostic to skeptical about the “duty to protect” fad.  In theory, it sounds just spiffy.  In practice, it relies on the UN as its executor, which really means that the UN will continue to occupy the field without even being able to see the ball, much less move it.  What’s more, I’m not sure which scares me more:  a UN that  realizes that it can’t enforce  basic universal values, or one that thinks it can.  Just look at who’s defining those values.  Frankly, I’d prefer to see UN agencies that can’t prevent genocide be given 90 days to present an effective plan to stop it, or be “fired” from their protective role.  This has, besides its fiscal advantages, the advantages of dispensing with the false pretense that someone is taking care of the problem, and refocusing minds on something more constructive than the kind of salvation Rwanda got … posthumously.  After you take every other implausible option off the table and recall what Chairman Mao told us about where power comes from, you conclude that  what North Korea really needs is not UN intervention, but a more equal distribution of gun barrels.

Update:   The Chosun Ilbo has a final  plea from one of the betrayed  refugees:

“We can no longer live in China. We live in fear every day and have nightmares every night. The only way for us to live is to go to South Korea, our grandfather’s homeland,” the monthly quotes him as saying. Around Oct. 20 last year, South Korean officials met families of the POWs and told them it had become “difficult” for their North Korean families to come to Seoul. According to the families in South Korea, most of their relatives were sent to concentration camps after their forcible repatriation.


국군포로가족 9명, 선양총영사관 밖에 머물다 北送

‘탈북자 관리’ 또 도마위에..외교부 ‘유감’ 표명(서울=연합뉴스) 조준형 기자 = 국군포로 3명의 북한 ë‚´ 가족 9명이 탈북한 ë’¤ 중국 ì„ ì–‘(瀋陽) 소재 한국 총영사관이 주선한 ì„ ì–‘ë‚´ 민박집에 머물다 중국 공안에 적발돼 전원 북송된 사실이 뒤늦게 알려졌다.

17일 월간조선 2월호에 따르면 국군포로 3명의 가족 9명이 지난 해 10월 탈북해 주 선양총영사관 관계자에게 인도됐으나 총영사관에 진입하기에 앞서 영사관 직원이 알선한 민박집에 투숙하던 중 중국인 주인의 신고를 받고 출동한 공안 당국에 체포됐다.

정부 당국은 외교채널을 통해 이들 9명의 북송을 막기 위해 교섭을 벌였으나 공안 당국에서 조사를 받은 이들은 결국 지난 해 10월말 북송됐다.


  1. Add to the UNHCR, our own PRM under Assistant Secretary Saurebrey. If this is how they deal with NK refugees, I wonder how they will deal with the Iraqi refugees.


  2. I recall reading about an incident several years ago that occurred in Africa.

    The ‘operative’ phrases:

    Nurse working with North Korean labor detail decides to defect

    Said nurse contacts local South Korean embassy for assistance

    South Korean embassy, in turn, contacts North Korean embassy

    Nurse is on the next plane back to Pyongyang

    (Betcha the nurse won’t be doing THAT again!)


  3. Joshua, just how good do you think the chances are that the tip off actually came from the South Korean embassy?

    No idea. I’m in conspiracy territory, which is not familiar terrain.


  4. Joshua: I’m wondering if some sort of lawsuit against the ROK accusing it of complicity in DPRK/PRC crimes against humanity, would work here. I’m doubtful it would actually succeed in courts, but the embarassment/nuisance factor might prod policy changes. As it is, only conservative South Korean media outlets and conscientious blogs report these cases and the Roh moo-hyun administration safely ignores any resulting public outrage.


  5. You mean in a US court? Doubtful there would be jurisdiction, under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities act, which I think is at 28 USC 1607.


  6. By “here” I meant in this case. I’m thinking of all the various European efforts to bring Chile’s Pinochet to account — and again, as is obvious, I’m a layperson when it comes to legal matters. But from his layman’s viewpoint, South Korea since the Kim Dae-jung era is highly complicit in the suffering of North Koreans both generally and in the heartbreaking cases like these POWS and defectors.


  7. Abductees’ family members have previously sued their own government in Korean courts, on a “failure to protect” theory, so I suppose it’s an option for that limited purpose. It did attract some news coverage.

    On the other hand, I have zero faith in the impartiality of Korea’s judicary, and litigation is pretty hard to sustain unless there’s a reasonable prospect of an award of damages or attorney fees.


  8. It sounds like some figured out they had to leap the wall to the U.S. consulate. I wonder why word hasn’t spread among the would-be defectors that the U.S. premises are the only safe haven.