SEOUL—South Korean leaders urged China to halt its pursuit and repatriation of North Korean defectors, bringing to the forefront a difficult issue that has long lurked in the background of the countries' relationship.
Both President Lee Myung-bak and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan raised the matter in meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Friday. The issue has become the focus of growing protests in South Korea after the North's new leader Kim Jong Eun reportedly threatened death penalties on returned citizens and their relatives.
Mr. Lee "called for China to actively cooperate in resolving the North Korean defector issue," a presidential spokesman said. The spokesman added Mr. Yang acknowledged South Korea's concern and would convey it to Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The South Korean foreign ministry separately reported that Mr. Yang repeated to Mr. Kim China's oft-stated view that North Koreans who are illegally in China are economic migrants, not political refugees deserving of protections set out in international law.
Mr. Yang also told his Korean counterpart that China dislikes the "politicization and internationalization" of the issue, a stance that Chinese officials have also expressed repeatedly in recent weeks. Earlier this week, a spokesman for China's foreign ministry called on South Koreans to stop discussing the issue.
But protests about China's repatriation practices have grown in South Korea, which is now home to approximately 25,000 North Korean defectors, as reports emerged that the North Korean regime cracked down on activity in the North Korea-China border region since the death of Kim Jong Il in December.
Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of North Koreans are believed to be in China. Some try to move on to South Korea with help from brokers and activists who must hide them while moving through China to other countries. South Korea's embassy and consulates in China for years have coped with North Koreans trying to enter in mad dashes past Chinese police.
Most of the recent protests have concentrated on the fate of approximately 40 North Koreans believed to be held in Chinese prisons awaiting transport back to the North.
Earlier this week, South Korea's parliament passed a resolution urging China not to return the arrested North Koreans, and a South Korean diplomat raised the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Meanwhile, activist groups and politicians in South Korea and the U.S. have staged protests and other events. A U.S. congressional commission scheduled a hearing on the repatriation issue for Monday.
In Seoul on Friday, Park Sun-young, a member of parliament, collapsed at a protest rally on the 11th day of a hunger strike to call attention to the plight of the North Koreans. She was in serious condition at a hospital Friday night.
—Soo-ah Shin contributed to this article.
Write to Evan Ramstad at email@example.com
South Korea, North Korean defectors, China, Kim Jong Eun, the North, Kim Jong Il, Kim China, Lee Myung-bak, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, North Koreans, repatriation, Kim Sung-hwan