During an interview with Yonhap News Agency, Anne Mary Campbell, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Korea, also said other UNHCR officials in Beijing have been working with the Chinese government on the issue of better protecting refugees from the North.
"No one should ever be returned to a territory where they have a well-founded fear that their life or liberty is at risk," Campbell said, who has been stationed in Seoul since 2010.
China, which is a state party to the U.N. Refugee Convention, does not recognize North Korean defectors as asylum-seekers, and maintains a policy of repatriating those found in the country to their homeland, where they face harsh punishment.
Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, home to more than 25,000 North Korean defectors.
"UNHCR has no sovereignty rights. We do have limitations. So we rely on the good will and international responsibility of governments to protect all persons seeking refuge in their territory," the 59-year-old chief from Ireland said.
"But our office in China does work with the Chinese government to help people who seek international protection," she said without elaborating further.
Anne Mary Campbell, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in South Korea. (Photo courtesy of UNHCR) (Yonhap)
Praising South Korea's handling of refugee issues over the past 20 years after its adoption of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, the chief expressed high hopes for Seoul's new legislation on the matter.
"South Korea has had significant accomplishments during the relatively short history of dealing with refugee issues. It is one of the very few Asian countries that enact an independent domestic law for refugees," Campbell said.
In February, the National Assembly enacted the Refugee Act, which allows asylum seekers to apply for the status at the point of their entry, bans forced repatriation, and guarantees their rights to get help from lawyers, among others. It will take effect in July 2013.
She stressed "a quality asylum system" should be put in place in the country.
According to UNHCR data, a total of 4,835 people lodged their asylum claims as of September 2012 since 1992 when South Korea signed onto the international convention, but less than 10 percent of them have been recognized as refugees or given humanitarian status.
The quality system requires "formal procedures to enable those who arrive at points of entry to claim asylum" with an access to an interpreter, and the principal of "not sending back a person in need of protection to home if there is a danger of death or persecution on their return," she said.
To lend support for improving the asylum system in South Korea, the Seoul office has been pushing for several advocacy works in partnership with the Justice Ministry, civic groups and local governments such as providing services on legal matters, interpretation and counseling, which "made some notable progress," the Seoul chief said.
"South Korea has an understanding of the cost of war and the difficulties involved in securing peace because of its history," which will allow Seoul "to better interact with other counties in the international arena particularly as a member of the U.N. Security Council," she said.
"But historically as a homogeneous nation, Koreans are not yet well-adopted to the idea of living together with people of different races," Campbell said, stressing the need to further raise public awareness on the matter.
"Nobody flees their home because they want to," she said. "They flee their home because they have to."
A refugee camp in Jordan. (Yonhap file photo)