The JoongAng Ilbo reports that 11 North Korean defectors, including five family members of South Korean POWs taken during the Korean War, have been trapped in the South Korean consulate in Shenyang for close to three years. In fact, they’ve been kept virtual prisoner since they entered the consulate with the Chinese sealing the legation.

What’s more, the Chinese apparently offered to trade releasing the defectors for the 10 Chinese fishermen in jail in Korea on charges of killing a South Korean Coast Guard officer.

A high-ranking government source said the Chinese were refusing to screen the defectors for leaving the country in order to plant in the minds of defectors that if they enter a diplomatic compound, they won’t be able to go to South Korea and they’ll be stuck in there for years.

The source said the issue had been brought up during Sino-Korean summits, but the Chinese side was not showing sincerity. On Jan 9, President Lee Myung-bak, on visit to China, asked Chinese President Hu Jin-tao to allow the defectors to come to South Korea, and the Chinese side said it would first allow the three South Korean POW family members at Korea’s general consulate in Beijing to leave. The Chinese side began departure screenings, but stopped. A South Korean official said China began demanding through another government agency that the POW families be traded for the Chinese fishermen who were arrested for killing a South Korean Coast Guard officer while they were illegally fishing in the West Sea in December and the body of a Chinese sailor who died during an illegal fishing crackdown in December 2010 and whose remains have been left in a morgue for over a year.

In case we didn’t get it, the JoongAng rephrased it as a demand to trade defectors, who are no different from refugees, for Chinese sailors who are criminals.

Where’s former Aussie PM Kevin Rudd when you need a diplomatic statement?

A government official said China, which permitted North Korean defectors who entered South Korean legations to come to the South via third nations from the early 2000s, had completely changed its position from 2009.

In April of last year, China allowed two North Korean defectors with relatives in Japan who had been staying at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang for two years, 8 months to leave, but also got a memo from the Japanese Foreign Ministry saying their legations would no longer accept North Korean defectors.

The government believes the tightening of the Chinese policy on defectors has to do with long-term Chinese policy in regards to Korea. It is said in May 2009, when international pressure on North Korea was growing due to the North’s second nuclear test and talk was made of a North Korean collapse, China decided during a meeting of the heads of overseas mission heads that blocking a North Korean collapse was in China’s interest. Instead, talk of pressuring the North to reform and open itself was quieted down. The next year, China recognized the succession of Kim Jong-un when his dad visited China in May, and openly took North Korea’s side in the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do incidents. It’s even got one foot out of international cooperation over the North Korean nuclear issue. Seoul believes the Chinese hard line against allowing defectors to leave, which could lead to a North Korean collapse, is along these lines, too.

The result was a demand by the Korean government Sunday for China to comply with international laws on refugees. To which China responded in its usual manner.