On August 12th the Chinese army intercepted 11 North Korean defectors – 10 adults and one child – as they tried to cross the Chinese border into Laos.
They had spent a month making their way through China and their goal was the South Korean embassy in Vientiane.
Beijing normally repatriates North Korean defectors but on this occasion Britain’s Sky News reported that China had agreed to help the refugees get to South Korea.
The news, picked up by some Chinese agencies, was welcomed by netizens.
“This is what a responsible government would do,” one wrote approvingly on weibo. Another said: “This is what humanitarianism looks like.”
Beijing is concerned that the implosion of North Korea could release a flood of refugees across its borders. But many Chinese disapprove of their government’s policy of propping up Pyongyang and its unsavoury regime.
As Xi Jinping’s recent trip to South Korea showed, many Chinese feel more of an affinity to the lower half of the Korean peninsula, while many believe that Beijing’s longstanding policy of sending defectors back home is wrong.
“North Korean defectors are not traitors, they just want their life back,” wrote one person in the online debate.
However few netizens expressed much hope that this latest move heralds a change in Beijing’s basic position on escapees.
“We shouldn’t be too optimistic about this – even if it’s clearly the right thing to do. I assume this is just a gesture to frighten North Korea and when we are in a good relationship with them again we will start giving those people back,” wrote one.
Hundreds of North Koreans cross the border into China every year, many of whom want to end up in South Korea. The journey through China is one of their only options as the border with South Korea is heavily militarised.
One of the main ways out of North Korea is to seek help from Christian missionaries who operate from inside the hermit state and across the border in China. Earlier this month a Christian couple from Canada who ran a cafe in the Chinese border city of Dandong were arrested and charged with the “theft of state secrets”. Many have speculated that their true “crime” may have been helping North Koreans escape. If that is indeed the case, it hardly suggests that Beijing is ready to look more favourably on North Koreans wanting a better life.
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