Inexplicably, the Bush team continues to overlook a spectacular opportunity to deliver freedom to tens of thousands of North Koreans, to pressure the country from within for fundamental change and to lay the groundwork for a peaceful, reunified Korean Peninsula. By fostering an underground railroad to rescue North Korean refugees living in China, the United States could do all these things at once.
On humanitarian grounds alone, the case for action on behalf of the wretched North Koreans in hiding north of their country’s border along the Yalu River is compelling. While the exact numbers are unknown, this refugee emergency may be second only to Darfur: the International Crisis Group speaks of scores of thousands of refugees, and recently uncovered Chinese official documents indicate hundreds of thousands.
As illegal immigrants in China (Beijing insists North Korean border-crossers are economic migrants), they live in constant fear and at terrible risk. Women are forced into the sex trade or coerced marriages; men and children on the run have less obvious utility and thus, by some accounts, correspondingly higher mortality.
Yet the North Korean refugees who end up as victims of exploitation, violence or crime in China may be the lucky ones. A far worse fate awaits those whom China “refouls,” or deports to North Korea in violation of Beijing’s commitments under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. North Korea regards fleeing Kim Jong-il’s paradise as an act of disloyalty close to treason. Captives forcibly returned to North Korea face prison, torture and death, attesting to the refugee status that official Chinese wordplay denies.
Despite a gradually hardening Chinese posture toward this humanitarian crisis (now entering its second decade), over the years a few private groups have been bravely spiriting refugees out of China and into third countries. Intrepid souls like Steve Kim of New York (jailed in China since 2003), Phillip Buck from Seattle (jailed for 15 months in 2005-2006), Adrian Hong (deported last December) and others from America, South Korea and elsewhere have rescued thousands of North Koreans from China, often by way of an arduous 6,000-mile overland journey into Southeast Asia, where North Korean refugees can seek resettlement in states that accept them. …And that trickle would grow if these North Koreans knew they could count on official protection along the way.
Some will worry loudly about international resettlement for tens (never mind hundreds) of thousands of North Korean refugees, but the logistical issues are basically solved in advance: as a matter of national law, South Korea is obliged to welcome them all. Under Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic of Korea’s Constitution, as reaffirmed by the country’s Supreme Court in 1996, every North Korean refugee has the right to resettle in South Korea.
The critical missing piece for getting this underground railroad up and running is safe passage through China. But because the South Korean government fears antagonizing the North and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is too timid to face down Beijing, China’s opposition to this rescue mission has gone unchallenged. Only the United States is in a position to help overcome Beijing’s recalcitrance.
The Chinese government’s cost-benefit calculus regarding these refugees would change drastically if Washington weighed in as their advocate. If the United States (along with other governments) provided informal assurances that China is merely a way station for North Koreans — assuaging any official fears about a permanent foreign refugee population — it may well be possible to convince Beijing to cooperate in the relocation mission (or at least to look the other way as it takes place).
Should it do so, many of the problems that Beijing seems to fear will vanish of themselves: if those refugees can be quickly processed by the United Nations refugee commission or similar offices, for example, Beijing need no longer worry about the risks imposed by a large, illegal population along its border with North Korea.
Additionally, with United States leadership, Seoul and the United Nations lose their cover for ignoring the North Korean refugee crisis. The governments and organizations that have responded to the calamity in Darfur could also be rallied to the front lines for North Korean refugees. And, under the international spotlight, Seoul would be forced to observe its constitutional pledge of citizenship for all Koreans despite the current South Korean government’s obvious reluctance to displease Kim Jong-il on any issue.
A North Korean underground railroad is only a first step toward an entirely free Korean Peninsula, but a terribly important one.
Bringing North Korean refugees to freedom will redound only to America’s strategic advantage and will give tangible proof to the seriousness of this country’s freedom agenda. America — and any American president — could take pride in such a legacy.
[Excerpt of a New York Times article by Nicholas Eberstadt, on the board of the United States Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and Christopher Griffin, a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.]