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North Korean defectors hold little hope for new Chinese leadership

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
November 14, 2012 -- Updated 1407 GMT (2207 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Defectors disagree on what China's new leaders mean for North Korea
  • They criticize China's policy towards refugees from the dictatorship
  • One of the defectors spent childhood years in a forced labor camp

(CNN) -- Smoke rises from the marbled beef sizzling over the table grill. One man turns the meat, joining in with the animated conversation already underway, each barely allowing his friend to finish his sentence before offering his own opinion.

It's a scene replicated across Seoul every lunch time, but these five men have something particular in common. They all risked their lives to escape the hardships of their home country North Korea and have all now settled in the South.

Read more: Power consolidation in North Korea

The topic that has ignited such passion today is China and its ongoing leadership change. All five agree China has been too forgiving of North Korean behavior and human rights abuses in the past, but they are split as to whether that will change with fresh blood at the helm in Beijing.

Xi Jinping is widely tipped to lead China for the next ten years. Seo Jae Pyoung, Secretary-General of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea says his initial dealings with Kim Jong Un, the young North Korean leader, will be watched closely.

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"The relationship between Xi and Kim Jong Un will definitely be different compared to the previous relationship between former leaders and the Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il regime. The Chinese government may support North Korea financially, but I believe it will require a policy of reform and opening up from North Korea."

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Kim Seung Chul disagrees. The President of North Korea Reform Radio says, "I think the new Chinese leadership will be even more aggressive in supporting North Korea and using it as a strong card against South Korea and Japan. If we ignore this, tensions in Northeast Asia will not get any better."

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China sees North Korean defectors not as refugees but as illegal economic migrants. If they are caught by Chinese border guards, they are arrested and often sent back to North Korea. This practice is internationally condemned as human rights groups say the defectors face harsh treatment and even death when they return.

All five of these defectors risked their lives traveling through China to try and make it ultimately to South Korea.

But could this policy change? "China is a member of the United Nations refugee convention but does not allow the UN to help refugees," says Kang Chol Hwan who works as a journalist. Kang survived ten years as a child in a brutal North Korean labor camp and wrote a book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, about his experiences.

He does not believe China will soften its policy towards defectors. "The UN is giving into pressure from China, and the US is not interested. Both need to put pressure on China, only then will something change."

CNN's K.J. Kwon and journalist Jungeun Kim contributed to this report.

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