Monday, November 14, 2005

Nowhere to run

Fifty years ago, the savage war which divided the Korean peninsula ended, not with a peace treaty but an armistice, leaving the two sides still, technically, at war.

More than one million troops still stand ready on either side of the troubled border, the Demilitarized Zone.

With most aid and what little investment it had been receiving cut off, the fate of North Korea's citizens has been deteriorating, a decade after two million of them starved during the worst famine in living memory. Many attempt to leave, risking everything to flee across the border to China, which doesn't recognize the desperate invaders as refugees.

Fifty years of suspicion, the world's most heavily fortified border, two economies poles apart and surviving family members separated for five decades with little prospect of reunion.

Evidence exists of forced labor and detention camps in North Korea where conditions are appalling and torture and executions frequent.

However it's destitution which forces most people to flee the country.

South Korean economist Dr Yoon Deok Ryong says the centrally controlled economy has collapsed. “If you go to there, you cannot see cars on the highways, you cannot see smoke from the chimneys, there are no trees on the mountains, and so on. Physically there is no sign of economic activity. ...This shows North Korea's economy has already collapsed because it does not have the capacity to feed its own people. Malnutrition is a general phenomenon," Dr. Ryong says.

To the dismay of his family, Kim Sang Hun spends his retirement helping refugees and trying to bring their plight to the attention of an apparently uncaring world.

"My concern with the situation is purely humanitarian or from the point of human rights, which I believe are the over-riding most important value, which should not be compromised by any political or economic considerations," he says.

Mr. Kim became famous for his part in the storming of the Spanish Embassy in Beijing a couple years ago by 25 refugees who then traveled to South Korea.

I asked Mr. Kim if the idea behind the embassy rushes in Beijing was to draw attention to the issue, start a debate, and hopefully help the several hundred thousand [North Korean refugees] in China to attain refugee status?

"That's right, and as you know, those North Korean defectors who went into the Spanish embassy the next day they were sent out of China.

“I was very surprised. I expected months and months or at least weeks and weeks discussing it, but the Chinese government just brushed away discussion in the eyes of international community," he says.

Kim Sang Hun previously worked underground but now that he is prevented from traveling to China, where he faces arrest, he now lobbies openly.

Mr. Kim focuses on pressuring China to honor the United Nations’ conventions it has signed and grant asylum to the North Koreans. He believes his own government has turned its back on the issue, afraid of offending its giant neighbor.

And he rejects the critics who say his methods have made life harder for those in the border areas between North Korea and China.

Seoul-based Tim Peters agrees. He’s the director of the Christian agency, Helping Hands Korea, which sends aid across the border when it can. He is particularly critical of the failure of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees to make a difference.

"The aid community have certainly been giving the UNHCR an earful for years now about their inaction regarding asylum seekers from North Korea,” Mr. Peters says.

But what can the UNHCR do if China insists on pursuing its policy of repatriating the refugees? "What the UNHCR can do is simply invoke two very powerful instruments that are contained in the 1951 Convention of which the Chinese government is a signatory.

“But in actual fact the UNHCR is cooped up in Beijing, and the Chinese government forbids them to go up to the Yangbyang area. And apparently the UNHCR is passively accepting this particular ruling by the Chinese government,” Mr. Peters says.

“Secondly there is a clause signed by China in the UNHCR (convention) that in the case of disagreement, binding arbitration is the way out - let's say whether or not the UNHCR in this case could go up and interview the North Koreans at the China-North Korea border.

"To the best of our understanding, the UNHCR in China has never once invoked its instrument of binding arbitration, which strongly suggests to us that they're accepting passively the status quo, and whatever the Chinese government says is being just submissively accepted by the UNHCR."

Tim Peters believes the UNHCR is failing completely in its responsibility to the North Korean refugees.

“We find this absolutely intolerable that the very institution, the very agency of the United Nations that is mandated to take care of, and to exercise protection for, refugees is either sitting on its hands or treating them as nuisances. ...I think they're in the wrong line of work, I really think they're in completely the wrong line of work."

According to Mr. Peters, the North Koreans face a whole range of consequences once they are repatriated back to North Korea.

“In the case of females, there's the horrific potential that if she's carrying a baby, there would be a forced abortion, or if she is allowed to go full-term, then she faces the prospects that her baby would be killed."

Tim Peters believes that instead of repatriating North Korean refugees, China should simply allow international law to take its course.

“China is a signatory of the UN convention, so it should simply allow it to dictate the outcome for these asylum seekers.

“It's a well known fact that China seems to fear that there will be a flood of refugees, but in fact the UN would, in a sense, take the financial burden of handling them.

“But the Chinese continue to flout international law and they seem to be doing it with impunity. Nobody is raising a red flag on this, except a group of small NGOs, and I think it's time that the bigger players start taking up this obvious issue, and the South Korean government should be first in line."

[From an article by Karon Snowdon, Australia Broadcasting Company (Asia Pacific)]

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