A combination of COVID-19 border closures and an unprecedented pressure campaign by a South Korean government keen to engage with North Korea might destroy the networks defectors from the North have long used to start new lives, activist groups say.
The South Korean Ministry of Unification last month said it would “inspect” 25 defector-run non-governmental organizations (NGOs), citing their failure to file necessary documents, and check if 64 others are following conditions to stay registered.
Yesterday the ministry expanded the investigation to a total of 289 organizations.
The sweeping probe comes as South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration strives to restart dialogue with Pyongyang.
The ministry has already revoked the licenses of two defector groups that were sending anti-Pyongyang propaganda into the North, following complaints from the North.
Only a handful of NGOs have been investigated since 1998, and just one has previously been stripped of its license, that is required to get tax exemptions and hold fundraisers.
About 30 NGOs yesterday joined forces to issue a statement urging the ministry to halt what they called a “discriminatory crackdown.”
Many of the groups have for decades worked behind the scenes with the government to bring defectors to the South via an informal network of brokers, charities and middlemen dubbed the North Korean “underground railroad.”
Hired and funded by the NGOs, the intermediaries work as guides and offer shelter for defectors during their long, dangerous journey across China into Southeast Asia.
This year, the number of defectors arriving in the South plummeted to an all-time low at 147 as of June, mainly because the North closed borders on COVID-19 concerns.
Several NGOs said the networks might never recover, even when borders reopen.
“Even if the investigation ends up with nothing, rescue networks would mostly be dismantled, defection routes gone and the NGOs closed by then,” said Lee Young-hwan, the founder of the Transitional Justice Working Group, which works with defectors.
Ministry spokesman Yeo Sang-gi said the investigation does not target defectors and was designed to ensure the NGOs follow rules.
Activists say that the current administration has been less willing to help defector than previous governments.
When 13 defectors were detained in Vietnam last year, US diplomats came to rescue instead of South Korean authorities, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Ji Seong-ho, a defector and South Korean lawmaker who
previously ran a rescue network, said he managed to help another group of refugees caught in China get to South Korea — despite little help from Seoul officials.
Ji was astounded that more than six months later the officials said they were still striving to free the group.
“I was speechless. Government involvement may not always be successful, but how would they get the defectors released without even knowing where they were? In fact, they were already living well here,” Ji said.
When Seoul last year repatriated two North Korean sailors, calling them dangerous criminals who had killed 16 colleagues, some defectors feared they could be sent back, said Lim Il, a novelist who defected in 1997.
A coalition of 21 Seoul-based NGOs sent a petition to the UN last month, requesting a review of Moon’s policies.
Human Rights Watch and others have urged Seoul to halt what they called a “political crackdown.”
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