Saturday, November 12, 2005

NGOs face crisis over U.S. rights act

News of the North Korean Human Rights Act spread quickly among defectors in China, Russia and other countries, as well as to citizens in the communist state, a non-government organization says.

Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea said news of the bill may encourage North Koreans to defect or refugees to seek asylum when previously they would have been "less inclined to do so." He also sees the bill causing divisions among North Koreans not loyal to the communist party.

That's good news to Peters, but disconcerting for others with a common goal to improve human rights in North Korea who prefer the South Korean government tend to the North's needs first, or that the United States not involve itself at all.

The South Korean government, aid groups and defectors themselves are struggling to come to grips with [the North Korean Human Rights Act, passed in 2004].

A symposium at Yonsei University, inviting leading thinkers on the issue and students from around the globe, provided a platform for varying opinions and concerns on the act's purpose and implications. Based on U.S. human rights laws that preceded the Iraq conflict, the North Korean bill is a pretext for war, said Lee Seung-yong, who represented aid group Good Friends.

But not all NGOs attending felt so bitterly about the act, though many had suspicions that it was pushed through by hawks in Washington who favor a regime change in North Korea.

Peters, who intertwines his work with Christian missionary efforts, has not changed his approach to helping North Koreans in the last 15 years. Years ago society labeled him as liberal, leftist and even a socialist, but now he's being lumped in with neo-conservatives.

Many of those who support the act used the panel discussion to say on the record they are not interested in politics but are acting according to their conscience and compassion for North Koreans.

Activists such as Tarik Radwan was moved to tears when he heard the testimony of defectors. "I don't want to spend eternity (in heaven) not making eye contact with those I could have helped," said Radwan, an immigrant lawyer.

Being labeled as politically motivated can be the death of organizations which can't afford to pander to only special groups. One solution is to keep as far distant from politics as possible, said the symposium's co-host, Liberation in North Korea.

LiNK emphasizes that it is a non-political, non-religious and non-ethnic organization, the latter being necessary since some aid groups want to exclude members who are not Korean.

The group's co-founder, Adrian Hong, said that despite the U.S. Congress' passage of the act with unanimous support, Americans barely know about North Korea. Informed Americans are reached through grassroots efforts such as guest speakers lecturing on college campuses and volunteers maintaining Web sites and posting flyers.

Also spreading the word is a documentary, "Seoul Train," based on the underground railroad connections that help North Koreans in China escape to third countries. It contains footage of starving children in the communist state and tells of three failed attempts to get refugees out of China.

NGOs will get a boost from the U.S. Congress since the act provides for $20 million annually to efforts related to North Korean defectors.

But Hong fears competition for funding will hurt relationships between NGOs and new groups will form to try to get the money. LiNK will not apply for any funding as it fears it would be a gesture of partisanship. "Even if we could get the funding, we would refuse it. It could cost us our legitimacy," said Hong. "The people who hate Bush would hate us."

"It's encouraging for some who have been on a shoestring budget," said Peters, a full time speech writer in Korea who relies on donations and his own cash.

[From an article by Andrew Pett, The Korea Herald]

No comments: