Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Diplomatic License: UNHCR and Korea

Anything having to do with North Korea, a secretive, isolated country, will always be hard to pin down.

As we showed you last June on the program, the documentary film "Seoul Train" at great risk captured the desperate plight of North Korean refugees seeking asylum unsuccessfully in China and elsewhere in the region.

Joining me now Dong Chul Choi, a North Korean refugee, in our Washington, studios. He is with the North Korea Freedom Coalition. In Geneva, Switzerland is Ron Redmond, the spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioners Office for Refugees. Also with us in Washington is Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, a group that assists refugees. And, finally, Tim Peters from the nongovernmental organization Helping Hand Korea, on the phone from South Korea.

Tim, where do we stand now regarding refugees coming out of North Korea and trying to seek safe haven in China, South Korea and elsewhere since we last addressed this issue when we talked about the film "Seoul Train" a couple of months ago?

TIM PETERS, HELPING HANDS KOREA: Well, Richard, the situation is only getting worse, more difficult for the North Koreans that dare to cross the Tumen (ph) or the Yalo River into China.

The Chinese continue an extremely harsh crackdown in ferreting out the refugees in China, and if they can catch them, they repatriate them to the tune of about 200 to 300 a week. So crossing borders from China to third counties continues to be an extremely daunting enterprise, particularly at this time of the year when temperatures plummet. The situation is extraordinarily and taxing, both for the refugees and the people that try to help them.

ROTH: Let's get some definitions and facts here.Ron Redmond, from the United Nations in Geneva, what rights do these people have under international treaties to avoid being sent back?

RON REDMOND, UNHCR: Well, UNHCR has been trying to grapple with this issue for most of the past decade. We look at North Koreans now in China as a population of concern to UNHCR. We believe many of them are refugees. About half of them, however, go back and forth between North Korea and China. In other words, there is some movement back and forth across that border as people go back to try to bring food, money and other assistance to their families.

UNHCR however has no access to the border. We have a fundamental disagreement with China. The Chinese say that the North Koreans are illegal entrants or illegal migrants. The UNHCR says they are people of concern to us. We need access to them. We believe many of them are refugees.

[Portion of transcript with “Diplomatic License”, with Richard Roth, CNN anchor]

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