|Koreans: The refugees nobody
By David Scofield
- During the waning days of the Cold War in 1989,
Hungary dismantled its border with Austria, providing a
route for East Germans to pass to the freedom of the
In July 2003, the US State Department
publicized proposals calling for a new recognition of
North Korean refugees, ensuring them US consular support
and aid in transit to third countries.
parallels are obvious.
But China is not Hungary,
and rather than allowing safe passage through its
territory, China is committed to rounding up and
extraditing as many North Koreans as possible, making it
more difficult than ever for North Koreans to escape.
Even if the desperate manage to sneak past 150,000
regular People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops newly
installed along the North Korean border, and evade the
armies of undercover Chinese and North Korean agents on
the road to the capital, the chances of making it past
the cordons of security surrounding the embassy area in
Beijing are remote.
China's refusal to recognize
200,000-300,000 North Koreans currently residing in
China as legitimate refugees ensures them a fringe
existence. Stories abound of the inhumanity that befalls
North Koreans in the region: women forced into
prostitution in order to satisfy cash "protection"
demands from local gangs, while others are sold into
marriage, sometimes to South Korean men, an interesting
if twisted form of North-South rapprochement.
The international community and the region's
most effected nations must acknowledge the refugee
status of North Koreans fleeing the despot of Pyongyang
and afford them the legal protection entitled by treaty.
The establishment of a regional United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the border
region would be a good first step toward ensuring that
recognition and basic human rights are afforded the
refugees. But unlike well-meaning US initiatives that
would help export fleeing North Koreans far and wide,
North Koreans, secure that their status as legitimate
refugees will be acknowledged and a modicum of security
ensured, should be settled on North Korea's doorstep,
poised to bring change.
Moving North Koreans
away from the North Korean frontier removes the
political pressure that hundreds of thousands of
internationally recognized refuges can bring to bear.
United Nations involvement in the region and
international recognition of those who escaped as
persecuted refugees would make it difficult for China to
continue to support the North Korean regime - with luck
prompting internal discussions and regional strategies
designed to encourage leadership change in North Korea.
Unfortunately, those who are most at risk in
North Korea, the most destitute and starving, lack the
means, method and knowledge to escape. Those who
successfully make it out of North Korea have the
resources - hard currency - and the information
necessary to escape with their lives. These emigrants
are often the most educated and resource rich, and are
vital to ensuring change in North Korea, and to
rebuilding what decades of neglect has destroyed. They
should be kept close to aid in the reconstruction of
China, of course, did not ask for
this responsibility, and indeed it is not the only
country connected to North Korea that could provide an
avenue of escape. Russia and South Korea also share
borders with North Korea. But the small (17 kilometer),
well-patrolled Russian frontier has experienced only a
trickle of North Korean refugees in the past. Those who
go this route enter a region with little North Korean
presence, and a daunting 9,000km trek to the nearest
Russian UNHCR office or Western embassy.
Korea is also ideally situated to help fleeing refugees
from North Korea, even if the world's most fortified
frontier makes land crossing impossible. South Korea has
the resources to settle thousands of their fleeing
Northern brothers; unfortunately, the South Korean
government is less than enthusiastic.
Southern approach to peace through appeasement ensures
that the South is overly cautious not to do anything
that might offend the Northern leadership. While
hundreds of thousands of Northerners languish in the
wilds of China, South Korea has only accepted a total of
1,100 North Korean refugees to the end of 2002, usually
with very little fanfare. The South Korean approach
calls for increasing ties and trust between the two
leadership structures, with an accompanying requirement
that the Northern leadership, regardless of the inhuman
atrocities they have committed, be respected and nothing
be done that might cause them embarrassment, an approach
that seems likely to ensure the survival of the wicked
regime that is driving hundreds of thousands to flee.
China's 1,400km border will continue to be the
most viable destination for escaping North Koreans, but
this does not mean China is solely responsible for
maintaining the North Korean defectors. The enforcement
of basic human rights is in the region's best interests,
making funding the temporary settlement of North Korean
refugees on the doorstep of North Korea the
responsibility of all the region's nations.
region and the world must acknowledge that fleeing North
Koreans are legitimate refugees entitled to the
protection of internationally ratified treaties. The
establishment of a regional UNHCR office in the North
Korea-China border region should be the physical
manifestation of a region and a world committed to the
protection of basic human rights, vanquishing the North
Korean people's fear of extradition, imprisonment,
torture or death. The region's most affluent must step
forward, both in the spirit of human rights and in
protection of their own vested economic interests in
regional stability and prosperity, with the funds
necessary to ensure that those who make it out will be
free of persecution and afforded the security necessary
to marshal their collective strengths and plan a
different course for North Korea.
Scofield is a lecturer at the Graduate Institute of
Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, Seoul.
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