HONG KONG — There was biting irony behind the episode of the five North Koreans’ seeking asylum at the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang, China, as well as the lingering diplomatic Sino-Japanese impasse over whether China infringed on Japanese sovereignty by taking the North Koreans into custody.

There was Japan, which has until now demonstrated little, if any, concern for the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, Korean or otherwise, suddenly feeling obliged to criticize both Chinese and Japanese officials for their indifference to human rights. At least the Japanese press and public are free to criticize.

There was China, which has until now demonstrated little, if any, concern for the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 refugees who have crossed from North Korea into northeastern China, suddenly being forced by the pressure of worldwide opinion to send the North Koreans to South Korea.

The episode also spotlighted the terrible trauma that has afflicted the North Korean people over the last decade. Slowly but inexorably a small minority of those who have been traumatized, aided and abetted by South Korea and Japanese nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are highlighting the contradictions of China’s policy toward Korea.

Immediately, the contradictions behind South Korea’s current policy toward North Korea are also being challenged. No sooner were the Shenyang five safely in South Korea than three more North Koreans, despite stepped-up Chinese security precautions around foreign embassies and consulates, sought asylum in Beijing by dashing into a diplomatic compound — this time the embassy of South Korea.

The South Koreans are remaining tight-lipped on the details of how the North Koreans managed to get in. The asylum seekers success in gaining access implicitly challenges both China and South Korea: how far will they both go along the road of appeasing Pyongyang?

Given their present policies, Beijing and Seoul might well prefer to return the latest three refugees to North Korea. Fearing the outcry if they did, and having a decent concern for their international images, they simply cannot follow that preference.

But the Chinese would prefer not to be challenged. So barbed wire has been placed around many embassies. Extra police has been drafted for security duty around diplomatic establishments. Some have been seen standing guard armed with baseball bats.

The purpose behind all these measures was to make sure North Korean refugees are no longer able to take the authorities by surprise. China also wanted to please its ally, the North Korean government led by Kim Jong Il, and to limit Pyongyang’s embarrassment. China has also sought to please Kim by classifying all the North Korean refugees in China as “economic refugees” who should be returned home.

Yet so far this year, China has felt obliged to allow 38 North Koreans to go to South Korea after they claimed refuge at embassies in Beijing and at consulates in Shenyang. China’s only condition has been to insist that they proceeded to Seoul via Singapore or Manila. This last gesture can hardly please North Korea very much, but it illustrates that China is still trying to do so.

China’s basic strategy toward Korea is to sustain communist rule in North Korea, lest a failure there, or even a collapse of the regime, becomes a threat to the communist regime in China, too — as well as a threat to Beijing’s continued influence in the divided Korean Peninsula.

But while 38, or 41, refugees have made it to South Korea in this way, thousands of others have not. Periodically Beijing orders a campaign to arrest North Koreans, and then sends those it arrests back to the North, where they may be beaten and briefly detained if they are lucky — imprisoned and even executed if they are not lucky.

There are indications that Beijing is currently conducting another such sweep, arresting Korean refugees not merely in the border areas but throughout China.

This means that some of those Koreans who have escaped the terrible trauma of the recent famine within North Korea are being further traumatized as they are forcibly returned to the conditions from which they once fled.

So as China demonstrates some concern for human rights by sending 38 Koreans to South Korea, it also demonstrates a complete disregard for human rights by also trying to help an incompetent but ruthless totalitarian regime to stay in power, and control its population.

This contradiction is not likely to fade away anytime soon.

Yet it is a risky strategy for China. It could well turn out to be self-defeating.

First, there are fresh reports of dire food shortages and even famine once again descending on North Korea. The World Food Program has appealed for increased food donations. Few aid-givers have responded. Other nations such as Afghanistan rate a higher priority and appear more deserving.

Second, there is absolutely no sign of any serious reformist intent on the part of Kim. The few eyewitness accounts that there are testify that the deindustrialization of the North Korean economy continues apace. North Korea cannot feed itself. Pyongyang may appear modern, but the rest of nation stumbles toward ruin.

Third, North Korea’s northeasternmost provinces have been savagely neglected during the years of famine. Once Kim’s Kim Il Sung thought of industrializing the northeast. Now that policy has abjectly failed.

Fourth, the eastern sector of the Sino-North Korean border along the Tumen River, adjacent to these provinces, is also the one part of the border where crossing is relatively easy. In the western sector, crossing is impossible, and it is almost impossible in the central sector too.

For the immediate future China is locked into a no-win strategy. Severe deprivation haunts the northeast. The North Korean refugees will keep fleeing. They will keep trying to draw attention to their plight. Returning more of them to North Korea will neither save that nation from itself, nor will it improve China’s image in the outside world.

So as the tremendous suffering and the terrible traumas of the North Korean people continue to accumulate, China is increasingly faced with what could also be, for it, a traumatic choice: Does it go on supporting a communist ally at the risk of damaging itself?

One wonders if the objective of what the Americans refer to as “regime change” is ever discussed in China as a policy option regarding North Korea.

Are there those at the top in Beijing brave enough to argue that only by conniving at somehow making sure that North Korea has a more open reformist regime can China’s unique brand of communist capitalism itself be assured of survival?

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