By Simon Martin ,AFP
SEOUL — South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak urged China Wednesday to follow international norms in handling North Korean refugees, as his government pressed Beijing not to repatriate them. Lee also accused the North of trying to incite divisions within his country to sway elections later this year but said the tactic would not work. His first comments on the refugee issue came a day after the South said it would seek U.N. support to try to prevent refugees recently detained in China from being sent back.
Human rights activists in Seoul say returnees face severe punishment or even the death sentence. They say China’s policy breaches international refugee conventions, an assertion denied by Beijing. “The relevant people entered China illegally due to economic reasons. They are illegal border crossers, they are not within the category of refugees,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday. China opposes “the internationalization and the politicization of this issue,” the spokesman added Wednesday. The activists, along with lawmakers and teenage former defectors, have held a series of rallies outside China’s embassy in recent days. They say some 30 refugees detained recently face imminent repatriation. “When it comes to the North Korean defectors, it is right for the Chinese government to handle them in line with international rules as long as they are not criminals,” Lee told a press conference. The South Korea and Chinese foreign ministers plan to meet in Seoul soon, Seoul’s foreign ministry said. The refugee issue was expected to figure high on the agenda. Lee’s press conference was to mark the fourth anniversary this week of his inauguration. Inter-Korean relations have been icy since the conservative former business executive scrapped the “sunshine” aid and engagement policy towards the North of the previous center-left government. Lee has said there is a “window of opportunity” for better ties after the death of the North’s longtime leader Kim Jong Il in December, and the takeover by his son Jong Un.