Tim Peters is based in Seoul and runs an organization to help North Korean refugees, Helping Hands Korea. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for NKzone.
MacKinnon: You are working with the "underground railroad" in China to help North Korean refugees escape to third countries. Has your work gotten easier or harder?
Peters: There's no question that things have gotten more difficult Perhaps the following incident will give you an idea of the circumstances that activists and refugees are operating under. On April 2nd of this year a new threshold was crossed when a Chinese border guard at the Mongolian border shot & killed an unarmbed refugee attempting to cross to freedom to Mongolia. Every indication points to his being shot in the back and running from the guard, NOT wrestling with the guard for his weapon as the Chinese maintained through their embassy in Washington DC in late April. At the same time, four South Korean activists remain imprisoned in Chinese jails for simply aiding N.Korean refugees.
The prevalent idea in South Korea and in some quarters in the west as well, is that nuclear and economic issues need to be resolved first, then we can turn to human rights, is to my mind fundamentally flawed. I believe we can learn a lot by looking at the Helsinki Accords as a model. The US was absolutely resolute in insisting that human rights issues be included in key negotiations with the Soviet Union. Brezhnev yielded, perhaps concluding that it was a minor issue.Those human rights led to Solidarity in Poland, to give but one example, and the rest was history.Moreover, human rights monitoring is a hell of a lot easier to verify than verifying dismantlement of nuclear programs. Why not use human rights access and improvements in the DPRK as a litmus test of how sincerely the North Koreans are complying with their agreements?
I can't imagine that the Bush people want to repeat the absolute idiocy of trumpeting breakthroughs as the Clinton people did in '93 and '94, only to find out later than Kim Jong-il was laughing up his sleeve and steaming full-speed ahead with his nuclear program(s). Another advantage of having human rights issues, e.g. gulag visitations, full access to food aid deliveries, is that there would be ongoing dialogue and engagement, but not only on the issues that the DPRK wants to talk about. Nothing else has worked, and I think it's worth a try.
MacKinnon: If people out there want to help your organization and other such activists, what should they do?
Peters: If interested individuals or organizations in the US would like to take an active part in helping North Korean refugees, after looking over our project at http://www.familycare.org/network/p01.htm they can follow donation procedures on our website for Helping Hands Korea. Because the foundation is a 501(c)(3) entity, such donations to our project are tax deductible for US citizens.
Donors are most welcome to communciate with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know if they'd like their donations to be used for
(a) sheltering N.Korean refugees in China,
(b) helping refugees get to a safe haven in a surrounding country, or
(c) providing food relief to N.Korean schoolchilren and orphans inside North Korea.