Another political thriller has arrived in Hong Kong with a North Korean mathematics genius seeking refuge at the South Korean consulate, marking the first time since the handover in 1997 that a North Korean has attempted to defect through Hong Kong.
According to SCMP, the defector was allegedly part of a North Korean delegation for the annual International Mathematical Olympiad, with this year’s competition being held in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Composed of six teenagers and two adults, the team lived separately from all other participants and stayed at Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, a district where a heavy Korean presence has led locals to nickname it “Little Korea.”
Running for two weeks from July 6th to 16th, the North Korean team had performed well at the competition, coming in 6th place out of 109 teams. They were also present throughout the entire competition, having attended both the opening and closing ceremonies.
However, prior to their departure back to Pyongyang on the July 19th, one of the mathletes took the opportunity and escaped from his delegation, finding his way to the South Korean consulate at the Far East Finance Center in Admiralty.
Initially covered up, the news was revealed to the public when The Standard reported that a source “close to the authorities” had cryptically stated: “Waves won’t rise without any breeze.”
According to South Korean news outlet Dong-A-Ilbo, the defector is an 18-year-old student that is part of the “privileged class” of the DPRK’s Worker’s Party of Korea. He is also one of the top “mathletes” in his team, having participated in the competition “at least twice,” winning two gold medals and one silver.
Journalists and reporters were refused entry by consulate guards. The SCMP has also attempted to contact the consulate through telephone, though without any success. One minister from the South Korean Foreign Ministry explained to Reuters that “keeping in mind [the safety of North Korean defectors] and diplomatic relations with relevant countries,” the ministry is not allowed to respond to media questions about the event.
Since then, there has been a heavy security presence around the consulate. The HKSAR has deployed numerous counter terrorist units and plainclothes police to patrol around the building’s perimeter. They also refused to talk, with one police spokesperson telling Reuters “we are aware of the report” and then “declined to comment further.”
What complicates the situation even further is that according to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s jurisdiction is limited to domestic functions, whereas China has authority over diplomatic issues. “This issue is related to foreign affairs and not one the Hong Kong government can handle,” Korean affairs expert Steve Chung Lok-wai said.
According to an interview by the BBC, Hong Kong NGO North Korean Defectors Concern claims that the defector would have to stay at the consulate for a few months. Co-founder Lau kwun-hang explained that although China has no jurisdiction to enter the consulate and arrest the asylum seeker, he needs the permission of the Chinese government if he intends to head to South Korea.
Defectors have always been a persistent problem for the North Korean government. China sees North Korean defectors not as political refugees but as economic migrants, thus they forcibly deport them back to the DPRK. In this case, Chung stated that Beijing might follow it’s policy of repatriation.
However, as The Standard explained, there might be a different outcome due to the “one country two systems” principle and the defector’s identity. One notable example is Edward Snowden, who managed to go undercover in Hong Kong and flew from there to Russia despite adamant requests by Washington to extradite the whistle blower back to the United States.
By Arnie Yung
[Images from Facebook / HK01 / Mingpao]