The Political Labelling Of North Korean Defectors

Politics and humanitarianism are often intertwined when it comes to humanitarian crises. This extends to the current refugee crisis facing North Korea. North Korean defectors seeking refuge from the country’s repressive government face numerous challenges in reaching safety, many opting for safe haven in South Korea and the Republic of China. Herein lie the problems of labelling and political agendas. Different countries have different policies concerning North Korean refugees, which are being driven by various agendas and politically constructed ideas.

When fleeing to China, North Koreans risk being caught and regarded as ‘economic migrants’ where they risk being forcibly sent back to North Korea to face punishment. On the other hand, North Koreans are considered displaced persons when fleeing to South Korea and are automatically entered into resettlement programs where they can gain South Korean citizenship. These two contrasting approaches show the effects of political labelling in refugee crises.

According to the United Nations, refugees are people who have “left his or her country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return there because of serious threat to his or her life or freedom.” As a refugee, an individual is entitled to the principle of not being forced to return to their country of origin where there are threats to their lives and freedom. With China labelling North Korean defectors as economic migrants, the Republic technically does not have any obligation to follow the suggestions of the United Nation’s Convention on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, which they are a signatory to, and therefore, can force defectors back to North Korea. The fluidity of the term ‘refugees’ in different countries shows the global inconsistencies on what constitutes a refugee and implies that political agendas have a powerful influence on such labels.

This is a huge issue as certain refugees, such as North Korean defectors, already go through countless challenges in establishing a better life. However, in many cases, the necessary assistance needed by these vulnerable people is barred by various states’ political agendas.

The line between politics and humanitarianism must be critically analyzed as the lives of thousands of individuals are affected by political labelling and government agendas. The international community must take responsibility for putting pressure on government bodies and society itself when making decisions that will detrimentally affect the lives of vulnerable individuals. In saying that, it is also the responsibility of governments to uphold their commitment to serve people’s best interests, rather than their political agendas. North Korean defectors, and the larger community of refugees forced to leave their home countries are entitled to basic human rights that should not be compromised for political gains.

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