SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s expulsion of two North Korean fishermen set a bad precedent that has spread fears in the North Korean defector community and could lend legitimacy to its widely criticized judicial system, defectors and activists said on Friday.
South Korea repatriated on Thursday two fishermen who South Korea said killed 16 colleagues before crossing the maritime border into South Korean waters last week.
South Korean officials said the two, in their 20s, appear to have killed their 16 colleagues after their plan to take action against their abusive captain went wrong. They were suspected of beating the 16 to death, officials said.
The decision drew criticism and dismay from some defectors, who said the men should have been tried in the South and would likely face torture, and possibly execution in North Korea.
“The South effectively backed the North’s system by sending them back,” said Jung Gwang-il, a former political prisoner in North Korea who runs a human rights group in Seoul.
“Now so many defectors are fearing they, too, might somehow be deported,” Jung told Reuters.
Many defectors had served prison terms in the South for crimes they committed in the North, including murder and rape, and the two should have been prosecuted in South Korea if they were suspected of having committed a crime, Jung said.
South Korea’s constitution stipulates that North Korea is its territory and its Supreme Court has ruled North Koreans should also be considered South Korean citizens.
But a spokesman for the Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, rejected as inappropriate the application of those principles in this case, because the two were on the run and there was no “sincerity” in their bid to defect.
North Korea’s state media has made no mention of the pair.
Y. H. Kim, another defector turned rights advocate, said the expulsion of the two was the latest in what he said were government efforts to “trample” on defectors.
As living examples of North Korea’s rights abuses, defectors are the public face of efforts to press for change in North Korea.
But as a surge of inter-Korean diplomacy unfolded last year, many of the 33,000 refugees from North Korea in the South say they feel like political pawns suddenly discarded.
“I’m so devastated thinking how human rights has become an empty word,” Kim said.
American lawyer Joshua Stanton said South Korea violated a U.N. convention banning the expulsion of people to a place where there are “substantial grounds” for believing they may face torture.
North Korea has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including public executions, torture and prison camps holding up to 120,000 people, according to a U.N. estimate.
North Korea rejects those allegations.
“There is little doubt that South Korea’s move has condemned these two men to torture and likely execution, and for that reason, there should have been a much higher standard of evidence required before sending them back,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Robert Birsel