Monday, May 15, 2006

Real Life Dangers for Underground Railroad Activists

[Portion of a radio interview with Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, on ABC Radio Australia]

The journey to flee North Korea may be perilous, but the will of many people to escape the hunger and repression in the communist state far outweighs the dangers. For many North Koreans, the uncertainty of successfully seeking asylum in China or South Korea is paramount. Yet the odds have improved somewhat thanks to an informal network of activists who try against formidable obstacles to help North Korean refugees in crisis. They're known as the Underground Railroad. Reverend Tim Peters has become the public face of this operation and he does so at great personal risk.

LINDA LOPRESTI: There's no doubt that you take a risk in doing what you do. You must encounter some very stiff opposition from those in government in China and in North Korea who I guess want to stop what you're doing? Can you tell us about the kind of obstacles you face?

PETERS: Well yes, one of the obstacles has become all the more evident in, in fact the last 30 to 45 days. The Chinese government announced in March of this year that they were tripling the bounty given out to any of their citizens who would reveal a North Korean who is hiding in China. It seems as if Beijing is making it extremely clear that they want to solve the border crossers from North Korea their own way, not with the human rights instruments that they are signatory to, but simply by flushing them out or in many cases getting their own citizens to reveal who they are.

We know that the Chinese government values trying to interrupt and break up the Underground Railroad by capturing those that are doing it. In fact two of our colleagues are now languishing in Chinese prisons because they've helped the refugees. And one South Korean that I'm aware of has now been in prison for three years. So the cost is great, the risk is great.

LOPRESTI: Does that concern you: [Tim Peters, that] obviously you've got quite a public face for the network of activists? Are you not concerned for your own safety?

PETERS: Well naturally I am, I'm not constantly underground in China, the particular location where I live allows me a certain degree of safety from the actual fieldwork where I am able to speak about it to the world, but at the same time not reveal any specifics of any of my colleagues that are there. I think it's necessary to continually speak out and make the major actors in this drama, the government etc., to really act commensurate with their influence in the international community.

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