The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Hong Kong has seen heightened security measures in its surrounding area after a North Korean defector was reported to have sought refuge at the consulate.

Multiple versions of reports regarding the identity of the rumoured defector have surfaced since then. One widely-cited report from Ming Pao stated that the defector is a North Korean student, aged 18, who attended the 57th Mathematical Olympiad at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology between July 6 and 16.

South Korean consulate
The entrance of South Korea’s Consulate General.

Each country sent six contestants to the mathematics event, including North Korea, but at the contest’s opening ceremony on July 10, only five representatives from the country were on stage.

The South Korean consulate in Hong Kong declined to comment on the incident on Thursday morning. The Commissioner’s Office of China’s Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong said it is looking into the matter.

This version of events has been reported in Hong Kong media, including Apple Daily, RTHK and i-Cable News. Other reports said the defector is middle-aged and others said there may be more than one defector.

North Korea
North Korean contestants at the Mathematical Olympiad. Photo: Facebook.

Two security guards with metal detectors were seen at the South Korean consulate on Wednesday while plain clothes police officers were seen nearby, according to Apple Daily. Police officers with guns were present at the atrium of the Far East Finance Centre, where the consulate is located. They told the newspaper that they were from the Counter Terrorism Response Unit.

Consulate ‘safest place’ for defector

If confirmed, this would be the second case of North Korean defectors seeking refuge in Hong Kong.

Arnold Fang, researcher for East Asia at Amnesty International, told HKFP that North Korean defectors often choose South Korea as their destination of refuge since language fluency plays a role in sustaining oneself in a society.

Fang said if there is in fact a defector inside the South Korean consulate, the Chinese and South Korean governments should not deport this person back to North Korea, as both governments are parties in the 1951 refugee convention.

Far East Finance Centre
Far East Finance Centre. Photo: Wikicommons.

He added that there can be “multiple strands of relations at work” in terms of which authority will be responsible for the supposed defector in the consulate.

“As far as I know, the consulate is the safest place for [the defector],” said Fang.

In 1996, a family of 16 from North Korea sought refuge in Hong Kong, according to Lau Kwun-hang, co-founder of the NGO North Korean Defectors Concern.

Lau told RTHK that it is difficult to understand why a North Korean defector would choose Hong Kong as a destination for refuge, as few have done so in the past.

Gene Lin is a Journalism and Computer Science student at The University of Hong Kong. He worked as a reporter for the 'LIVE: Verified Updates' during the Occupy Central protests. He is also an editor at HKU's first English-language student paper, The Lion Post.