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Russia regards N.K. defectors as refugees, Korean envoy says

Wi Sung-lac
Wi Sung-lac
Russia has a stable protocol to help North Korean defectors head for South Korea with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said Wi Sung-lac, Korean ambassador to Russia.

His comments came as China refuses to listen to Seoul’s repeated pleas to stop forcibly repatriating North Korean defectors who are likely to face severe punishment, torture or even execution if they are returned. China labels these would-be defectors economic migrants, not refugees.

“The first North Korean defectors in Russia were found some time between 1993 and 1996 when I was working in Moscow,” Wi told reporters.

“Through consultations with the UNHCR, Russia established a ‘formula’ to take them to Seoul in humanitarian perspectives in 1993. They still use such methods (when dealing with North Koreans),” he said.

But while thousands of North Koreans escape to China, not many defectors head to Russia, he said.

Wi, South Korea’s former chief negotiator to the six-party nuclear talks, said he was skeptical about the possibility of the resumption of the six-party talks any time soon, although the third U.S.-North talks were known to have made some progress last week.

Since the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il in December, the chilled relations between the two Koreas have made it difficult to forecast the timeframe for resumption of the talks, he said.

“The strained South-North relations are a new development since the death of Kim Jong-il and circumstances have become more difficult,” Wi said.

“There were first and second rounds of talks between the U.S. and North Korea but the situations were better then. I do not have a rosy picture.”

Russia wants to resume the six-party talks as quickly as possible, on the condition that North Korea disarms its nuclear facilities, he said.

Despite the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s stance toward a South Korea-Russia project to build pipes across North Korea to provide Russian natural gas to South Korea has not changed, Wi said.

Currently, South Korea’s Korea Gas Corp. and Russia’s Gazprom are negotiating the size of the gas supply.

“For the North, the issue is confined to only two things. One is the passing of the pipes and the other is the fees it will charge,” he said, hinting that the North is positive about South Korea and Russia’s gas pipe project.

Although Russia will hold a presidential election soon, the election result is not likely to affect the country’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula, Wi said.

Russia wants to strengthen its networks with East Asian countries through the APEC meeting in September.

By Kim Yoon-mi (yoonmi@heraldcorp.com)
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