The impact of the coronavirus combined with an unprecedented crackdown on defector-run groups by a South Korean government focused on improving relations with Pyongyang may destroy networks refugees have long relied on to escape the authoritarian North, activists have warned.
This year, the number of North Korean defectors escaping to the South plummeted to an all-time low of 147 as of June, mainly because the North sealed its borders to keep the coronavirus from ravaging its ailing health sector.
NGOs operating in South Korea have also claimed that increased government controls stymieing their work across the border has crushed rescue networks to the point where they may never recover.
For decades, groups in the South have built up a so-called “underground railroad” to offer shelter and safe passage for escapees fleeing oppression and starvation.
However, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said last month it would “inspect” 25 defector-run NGOs, citing their failure to file necessary documents, and check if 64 others are following conditions to stay registered. On Wednesday, the ministry expanded the investigation to a total of 289 organisations.
The sweeping probe comes as Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, strives to kickstart stall relations with the North Korean regime, which in June blew up an inter-Korean liaison office, blaming its ire on anti-Pyongyang propaganda being sent across the border by defector groups.
The ministry has already revoked the licences of two defector groups, depriving them of tax exemptions and the ability to fundraise.
With more licences under threat, some 30 NGOs have joined forces to lodge a protest against what they named a “discriminatory crackdown.”
Human Rights Watch in July called on the Moon administration to halt its “targeted campaign of regulatory intimidation against civil society groups.”
The campaign “damages the country’s record of respect for civil and political rights,” said Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director.