Friday, December 30, 2005

The plight of North Koreans today

Kang Chol Hwan is a former North Korean prisoner and author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang.

The plight of North Koreans today, Kang says, is “very similar” to that of Jews during World War II. ...When I see photos of the Jewish genocide, my heart just breaks.”

Read more

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Indifference at plight of North Koreans

"Why, I wonder, do we express revulsion when reading of Stalin's gulag in the 1930s-60s; Mao's secret famine in the 1960s; or the killing fields of Pol Pot in the 1970s, yet show indifference at the plight of North Koreans today?"

--Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Testimony of North Korean defector

"At the camp [where I was held], I witnessed public executions, forced labor, and other inhumane atrocities.

"A new prisoner in the North Korean political prison camps is taught not to consider themselves as human beings. The prisoners cannot complain of beatings or even murders.

“Even the children are subject to forced labor, and about one third of them die of malnutrition and heavy labor. I also suffered from malnutrition three months after being imprisoned, lacking even the strength to walk.

“Because we were not given any source of protein, we would catch and eat snakes, frogs, or even worms in order to survive. At first, I did not want to taste these things. One day my friends caught some rats while working in the fields and roasted them on an open fire.

“That was the first time I tasted rat meat, and that one piece of rat meat sustained me. From then on I ate anything to survive: rats, frogs, snakes, and worms.

"Prisoners who do not do this could die in less than a year. People like me who are able to eat anything can survive longer."

Kang Chol-Hwan, North Korean defector and human-rights activist

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Fundraiser for North Korean refugees

Tim Peters has worked for nine years to find inventive ways to help North Koreans and their nation’s refugees.

He and his group, Helping Hands Korea, began by trying to send a ton of corn into the communist country each month to battle famine there. Corn is less valuable than rice, which might be redirected by North Korean officials to military bases instead of to elementary schools, he said.

About three years ago, he paired with a bakery in China that sends high-nutrient buns over the North Korean border each day to feed school children. Sending baked bread, instead of sacks of ingredients, provides more insurance students, rather than others, will get the loaves before they spoil, he said.

More recently, Peters has taken to raising money to help North Korean refugees who have made it as far as China, but need more help escaping to another nearby country where South Korean officials can offer help. The refugees often live in China for six months or longer.

Getting a refugee into China costs about $500. Getting someone out of China — where people are returned to North Korea if caught — costs about $2,000, rescue workers have said.

[Last year] Helping Hands helped sustain about 500 North Koreans living in China

[Excerpt of article by Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes]

Fundraisers for North Korean refugees (2)

Tim Peters is trying to … help North Koreans fight their poverty … by holding a fund-raiser to collect more money to help the refugees. The night will include a silent art auction.

“It’s not only for raising resources,” he said at an interview, “but to raise awareness about the North Koreans.”

Refugees typically … make it to China, Peters said. From there, they must travel to another country, usually Mongolia or through Vietnam to Cambodia, where South Korean officials can begin to help, he said.

Peters has lived and done missionary work in South Korea on and off for 30 years. He said North Koreans he helps know of his religious motivation but “our help is not contingent on their acceptance [of Christianity].”

Twice, Peters has testified before congressional committees about his work with North Korean refugees, according to the Family Care Foundation. He also submitted a paper last year to the World Economic Forum during its East Asian Economic Summit.

Peters talked Monday about some of the success stories — a child who received “clandestine medical assistance” while hiding in China, a woman who managed to cross the North Korean border although she had lost all 10 of her toes to frostbite as a labor camp.

Not all make it. Recently, a 12-year-old boy, caught in China, was returned to North Korea, he said.

“You get to know these people, even if you only see them for a day of two,” he said.

[Excerpt of article by Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes]

Friday, December 23, 2005

Christians under siege in North Korea

The persecution of Christians overseas continues and, in some countries, is increasing, specialists on international religious liberty said at a Dec. 14 briefing at the U.S. Capitol.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission told the audience of congressional staffers, activists and reporters, “We come here at Christmastime, and we can celebrate our religious freedom. We’re here to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves because they live in countries where they are not free to worship.”

In a briefing titled “Christmas Under Siege Around the World,” Land, Chaput and five other experts on the issue described the conditions for Christians in countries such as North Korea, China, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and India.

Though North Korea is the “world’s most closed society,” a recently released USCIRF report based on interviews with refugees and escapees gives some indication of the ongoing repression of believers in that Asian country in which the late dictator, Kim Il Sung, is the object of a “quasi-religious cult of personality,” Land said.

The findings in interviews of the North Koreans included, Land said:
1) “There is no freedom of thought, conscience or belief in North Korea”;

2) North Koreans are required to attend indoctrination sessions at least weekly at Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Research Centers;

3) none knew of “any authorized religious activity;”

4) some reported on executions of people who participated in religious activities or possessed a Bible or other religious material.

[Excerpt from an article by Tom Strode, Baptist Press]

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Envoy to China: Treat Defectors Better

The U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz, urged China to improve its treatment of North Korean defectors and expressed hope the United States could also become an accessible haven for some refugees.

Lefkowitz said the issue of North Korean refugees was one of the "real personal human tragedies" of the situation around rights in the communist nation.

Michael Horowitz, senior adviser to the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said the U.S. has to push China to change its stance on defectors by threatening sanctions. Still, he said tough measures — like sanctions and campaigns to either boycott or switch the venue of 2008 Beijing Olympics — could grab Chinese attention but also backfire.

Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, said U.S. diplomats refused to accept North Korean defectors in China, Vietnam and Thailand over the past six months. "They told me, ‘Don‘t bring them here to the U.S. embassy, please take them to the UNHCR office,‘" Peters said.

[Excerpt from an article by Burt Herman, Brocktown News]

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

U.S. taking diplomacy route on N. Korea

A Bush administration official described the situation in North Korea as brutality and deprivation that "offend our notions of human decency," which Washington is trying to redress through diplomatic means.

"We want them (North Koreans) to have food, and at the same time we want them to have freedom," Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Craner quoted President Bush as saying, "No nation should be a prison for its own people."

Last year, about 300,000 North Koreans fled their starving homeland for China, where they live in fear of being turned in to authorities and repatriated. The Chinese government considers the refugees "economic migrants," though the panelists at the seminar said Beijing is violating an international convention on the treatment of refugees by forcing North Koreans to go back to their homeland.

Those who are repatriated may face execution.

[From an UPI article by Carolyn Ayon Lee]

Diplomacy route on North Korea (2)

Fifty-seven percent of the North Korean population is malnourished, including 45 percent of children under age 5, said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., in an opening speech [at a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute].

North Korea is enduring an eighth straight year of mass starvation due to the policies imposed by the government of Kim Jong Il.

A particularly telling statistic is that Pyongyang has lowered the height requirement for military conscripts to 4 feet 2 inches from 4 feet 11 inches, Brownback said.

In North Korea's notorious prison camps, nearly one-fourth of the population dies each year because of hardships such as hard labor, torture and withheld food, said Brownback, who has been active in developing U.S. policy on North Korea and North Korean refugees.

[From an UPI article by Carolyn Ayon Lee]

Diplomacy route on North Korea (3)

The panelists at at the American Enterprise Institute heard firsthand accounts from several North Korean refugees and from a South Korean pastor who was imprisoned by China for 220 days for assisting the refugees. During his detention in a Chinese prison, Pastor Ki-Won Chun received only a piece of bread and a cup of water, once a day.

Two other panelists, like Chun, are human rights activists helping the North Korean refugees.

"How many more testimonies, heart-wrenching testimonies, heart-breaking testimonies, mind-boggling testimonies before we act, as Senator Brownback has said, in a way that is commensurate with the gravity and the nightmarish quality of what is going on in North Korea?" asked Tim Peters, an American who is the founder of a Seoul-based famine relief program, Helping Hands Korea.

Another activist, German physician Norbert Vollertsen, first went to North Korea as a volunteer doctor. For his work, the North Korean government awarded him the Friendship Medal, which gave him a rare inside look into the country.

"The military elite they are enjoying banquets and fashionable nightclubs; in contrast was the lifestyle of the ordinary people and children -- they are dying, starving," Vollertsen said.

[From an UPI article by Carolyn Ayon Lee]

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tales of Horror Falling Mostly on Deaf Ears

Theirs were compelling tales of privation, hardship, sorrow and unspeakable horrors of sexual slavery.

Kyeong-Sook Cha and Soon-Hee Ma, two defectors from North Korea, testified for the House Committee on International Relations, and provided firsthand accounts of widespread tragedy occurring in the Sino-North Korean border areas.

In order to avoid the massive starvation resulting from North Korea's failed economy, the daughters of these women had escaped to China to earn money for food. When their daughters failed to return, the women followed, braving the icy waters of Tumen River and the security forces on both sides of the border.

Kyeong-Sook Cha went to China with her younger daughter to look for her older daughter, who had disappeared. In the process, she witnessed widespread sexual slavery of North Korean women in China. Cha and her younger daughter were likewise kidnapped, sold as sex slaves, captured by Chinese police, repatriated to North Korea, abused by North Korean security agents, witnessed torture of pregnant women and babies, escaped to China and repeated the experience that would have broken most women the first time.

Despite horrible suffering, Cha miraculously found her older daughter and finally escaped to freedom together.

Soon-Hee Ma's oldest daughter also went to China when the food distribution ceased. Fearing reprisals for her daughter's defection, she and her two remaining daughters escaped North Korea to look for her eldest daughter. They were separated and sold off by human traffickers in China.

Ma, too, was eventually reunited with her daughters. Ma's oldest daughter had been sold to a Chinese "husband," and was able to convince him to buy her family back. Before Chinese authorities could repatriate them to North Korea, they bluffed their way into a South Korean consulate and to safety.

[Excerpted from an article by James Na in The Seattle Times]

Tales of Horror Falling Mostly on Deaf Ears (2)

Unfortunately, no one from the mainstream media was present to bear witness to [Kyeong-Sook Cha and Soon-Hee Ma’s] moving testimony.

Their misfortune was that the hearing took place on Oct. 27. The media in Washington, D.C., were in a feeding frenzy over the Harriet Miers withdrawal and the "Scooter" Libby indictments. Cha's and Ma's tragic stories were ignored.

Congress previously passed landmark legislation, the North Korea Human Rights Act, in 2004. The result of the legislation, however, has not been impressive.

Timothy Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a Christian relief project, complained that, despite the intent of the law to help North Korean defectors, the State Department has been "seriously out of step with the spirit and letter" of the act, and "not a single North Korean refugee has been assisted" in asylum-seeking since the passage of the law, leaving them to the mercy of Chinese police, North Korean agents and human traffickers.

Despite the collusion between the Chinese and North Korean governments to prevent North Korean defections, it is clear from the testimony of Cha, Ma and others involved in the North Korean "underground railroad" that neither government is able to stem the flow of the desperate people who seek to escape nightmarish North Korea, where millions starve and 200,000 languish in gulags.

It is possible, even likely, that aiding the outflow of North Korean defectors and spreading the news of the outside world — thereby encouraging a mass exodus — would do far more to bring down the repugnant North Korean regime and resolve its nuclear threat permanently than any amount of futile diplomatic talk with the regime could achieve.

[Excerpted from an article by James Na in The Seattle Times]

[Full testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific]

Monday, December 19, 2005

Medical conditions in North Korea

By the time a North Korean reaches age 7, the child most likely stands about half a foot shorter than were he living south of the 38th Parallel [in South Korea].

Famine, extreme climates and brutal work camps all contribute to devastating health conditions in North Korea, human rights and medical experts told military medical personnel at Yongsan Garrison.

Lack of food accounts for the stunted growth, according to Tim Peters, founder of a group in Seoul that helps North Korean citizens and refugees. Almost 40 percent of people assigned to labor camps in North Korea die from exhaustion, he said.

And it’s common for young boys to develop liver problems, he said, because they drink large quantities of liquor in the winter in hopes of feeling warm.

“Just getting across the river is not the hardest obstacle” for North Korean refugees, Peters told a group of about 100 medical professionals gathered at Yongsan to learn about the latest developments in military medicine.

[Excerpt from an article by Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Children Without a Future

Humanitarian workers reported to Human Rights Watch a significant and growing problem of North Korean street children in China. The migration of children is caused by similar factors to that of adults, with the additional element of a breakdown in the school system and absenteeism in the provinces of North Korea most affected by food shortages.

These young people are known in Korean as kkot-jebi (child vagrants) and sometimes are described as "orphans," but it is more precise to say they are unaccompanied minors, some of whom have lost one or more parents, or whose parents are incapable of caring for them. Most appear to be boys, aged ten or older.

Typically the most mobile of migrants, the children cross frequently to conduct trade or bring their small earnings across the border to families in North Korea. Some take refuge in shelters established by missionary or humanitarian groups; others sleep on the streets.

For the few lucky enough to make it into third countries, their eventual social integration is made more difficult by their previous life of wandering between the relative freedom of life in China and their families in North Korea, and the `survival skills' they had to learn on the run. Some that arrive in South Korea are found to have serious psychological trauma from being raped, confined, or beaten while in China.

[From a Human Rights Watch report]

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Tale of Human Bondage

The majority of North Korean women who venture into China fall into the hands of human traffickers of the sex trade. Although a victim of such depravity, Lee Mi-ja considers herself providentially protected to have survived to tell the following story.

Lee Mi-ja’s father died when she was still very young, leaving her mother to grapple alone with the hardships of a famine-racked North Korea. Unending work, privation and shrinking government distributions combined to take a fatal toll. Three years ago, her mother, a victim of utter fatigue and despair, surrendered in her daily life-and-death battle for survival in the hardscrabble economy of Hamkyoungpukto, “the Siberia of North Korea.”

In her 20’s, Mi-ja suddenly found herself unshielded from the economic facts of provincial life in the wake of eight years of man-made famine. A middle-aged woman from a nearby town … confided in whispered tones that her relatives lived in China. Furthermore, she had decided to take pity on Mi-ja’s family tragedy expressing a willingness to accompany her personally to China and arrange for Mi-ja to live with relatives described as prosperous. The grieving young woman accepted readily, never suspecting anything but goodwill from her elder.

The harrowing river crossing of the Tumen River went undetected by both North Korean and Chinese border guards. However, Mi-ja’s elation was short-lived.

In a matter of only a few hours, she watched with disbelief as a coarse Chinese farmer stuffed a wad of Chinese bills into the ajumma’s fist and glared at the young woman as if he’d struck a bargain for a fattened pig.

Mi-ja’s heart sank yet again upon discovering she would not even attain the dubious status of a ‘mail order bride.’ Instead she was relegated to a ‘concubine’ for a violent married man, who would burst into a rage and rain blows on her face and arms at the slightest sign of protest to his advances, leaving her face bleeding and swollen.

To endure such dehumanizing treatment would scar the life of even strong individuals. However, Mi-ja is quick to point out that she counts herself fortunate. She escaped her sexual servitude in less than a year. She explains ruefully that many North Korean girls, as young as 15 and 16, have been bought and sold in China up to four times.

[From a testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations]

Full testimony: The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

Friday, December 16, 2005

US Envoy Wants Rights Pressure on North Korea

The U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea argued that the lack of basic liberties in the communist nation was an international issue and called on the world to pressure Pyongyang. Jay Lefkowitz, speaking at a U.S.-supported international conference on the issue in the South Korean capital, said a campaign to improve human rights in North Korea - which he labeled a "deeply oppressive nation'' - would boost regional stability, not shake it.

"We do not threaten the peace by challenging the status quo,'' Lefkowitz said in his first public appearance in South Korea. "Indeed, failing to follow this path and take steps towards liberalization is a far greater risk to the long-term security and economic prosperity in the region.''

Lefkowitz's remarks appeared to be directed at South Korea, which has pursued a path of reconciliation with the North and refrained from openly criticizing the human rights situation there. South Korean officials say their policy of maintaining stability on the divided peninsula takes precedence over public demands for improving human rights.

Lefkowitz, whose job was created this year by Congress, has been charged with raising the human rights issue and providing assistance to refugees fleeing the North.

North Korea has railed against any criticism of its human rights record as a U.S.-backed effort to seek the overthrow of Kim Jong Il's regime. But U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, who introduced Lefkowitz, said Washington was just seeking to urge the North to reform and live up to its obligations under the U.N. charter and other international treaties.

Calling on China to stop sending North Koreans back to their homeland, Lefkowitz said Beijing should also allow the U.N. refugee agency access to the defectors.

Fumiko Saiga, Japan's newly appointed special envoy on North Korea human rights who was attending the conference, also called for international cooperation on the issue.

[Associated Press]

Thursday, December 15, 2005

CNN: Undercover in the Secret State

Throughout the latter half of November, CNN repeatedly aired Undercover in the Secret State a documentary which follows Korean-American journalist Jung Eun Kim as she tracks down a new breed of dissident in North Korea. These dissidents are using small digital cameras and cell phones to show the world the brutal life inside North Korea.

Images include a video smuggled from North Korea showing a public execution and what appears to be a concentration camp housing political prisoners. In one clip, the residents of a village gather on a hillside to watch the firing-squad execution of a man accused of helping a defector cross into China.

North Korea is the last Stalinist regime, a closed one-party state founded on a personality cult, a rogue regime known for repression of its people and a menacing nuclear arms program, a nearly bankrupt nation, where, in the 1990s, the U.S. government says more than 2 million people starved to death during a famine. Kim Jong Il denied the famine even existed.

Images from the film include emaciated children begging and stealing on streets littered with dead bodies and a nearby market selling bags of rice that had been provided by the United Nations for famine relief.

Human Rights Watch has estimated there are 200,000 political prisoners inside North Korea; Pyongyang denies any camps exist.

The documentary shows dissidents used new technology like small digital cameras and cell phones to get the images and to set up their escapes to China and a safe house in Bangkok, Thailand.

In one scene, a man in North Korea defaces a poster of Kim Jong Il and then flees the country. He tells Korean journalist Jung-Eun Kim he wants the world to know of the growing opposition movement within North Korea.

In the Bangkok segment, Tim Peters of Helping Hand Korea is shown escorting a North Korean who is part of the resistance movement in North Korea. Tim Peters prays fervently for protection against "hit squads" that might attempt to prevent the refugee from applying for refugee status from the UNHCR agency.

Sarah McDonald, who produced and directed the documentary, said, "Some of [the dissidents] are motivated because their families actually starved to death in front of them, and they realized that they just had to go out and seek a way of ensuring that their lives were changing in the future."

[CNN - Undercover in the Secret State]

North Korea Decries CNN Documentary

North Korea criticized CNN for airing footage purporting to show a public execution, accusing it of being part of a U.S. government-organized slander campaign.

CNN aired a documentary with footage defectors claimed to have smuggled out of the North, including a public execution of a person who had helped someone defect to China. The network had said North Korea declined to respond to a request for comment.

In commentary by its official Korean Central News Agency, the North said the footage was "full of sheer lies'' and accused CNN of airing the tape at the instigation of the U.S. government as part of an alleged psychological campaign to overthrow the regime.

The North said it would "not show any mercy to those who are hostile'' to the country, and that its people would rally around leader Kim Jong Il "in order to frustrate the hostile forces' ever-more undisguised moves to isolate and stifle'' the North.

[Associated Press]

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tim Peters' Thailand Testimony

Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea testifying before U.S. Congressional committee:

I learned in June of this year that a North Korean refugee had made his way to Thailand. All indications suggested that he belonged to a nascent resistance movement within North Korea.

Due to political developments in South Korea that this refugee deemed to be overly submissive to Pyongyang, he hesitated to ask for resettlement in South Korea, worrying for his own personal safety there and the possible impediments to his continued liaison work with fellow resistance members in North Korea.

He specifically requested assistance from activists to obtain entry into the United States. I immediately called a US Embassy official in Seoul, whom I had found to be both knowledgeable and helpful in refugee matters. Outlining this refugee's remarkable situation, I asked the embassy official if he could coordinate communication with the State Department and his colleagues in Thailand to consider this man's exceptional situation, for which the North Korean Human Rights Act seemed particularly well-suited. He did so promptly.

But again, the relayed responses from Washington and the US Embassy in Bangkok were both opaque and equivocal. We were urged NOT to take him to the US Embassy in Bangkok, but instead to the UNHCR office in Thailand to determine his status as a refugee and which country would be best suited for his resettlement.

I was assured that if the UNHCR were to recommend his resettlement in the US, then the US would be willing to accept him. I agreed to take him to UNHCR and immediately communicated with the Bangkok office of the UNHCR

However, I also notified the State Department via the US Embassy in Seoul. that there was a high likelihood that this man's movements were being monitored by North Korean agents in Thailand. Therefore, I requested a non-contact security escort for this North Korean refugee, a fellow activist and myself, as we physically escorted this resistance figure to the UNHCR office in Bangkok. I was told that the US Embassy in Bangkok would not provide such security for us as we were not diplomats.

On the day we took him to the UNHCR office, we simply invoked the power of prayer and the time-honored promises of Psalm 91 for our protection. I'm happy to report that no untoward incident occurred despite our obvious vulnerability.

What has transpired in the past four months was nothing short of a Catch-22 scenario between the UNHCR office and the US Embassy in Bangkok. .. This brave North Korean refugee fell between the bureaucratic cracks and, at one point, ended up on the streets of Bangkok, working as an illegal construction worker to make ends meet.

In my estimation … this prolonged stiff-arm of Mr. Park makes a mockery of the State Department’s claim in its recent report to Congress that “resettlement of North Koreans in the United States is available in cases where this solution is deemed appropriate.”

To the best of my knowledge, the refugee in Thailand continues to await processing and remains vulnerable in that setting. This refugee's story and our attempts to assist him through this extended ordeal are explored in a U.K. Channel 4 /CNN documentary entitled "Undercover in the Secret State."

[Excerpts from a testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations]

Full testimony: The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

PDF version

Monday, December 12, 2005

Going Home… to Die

850 North Korean refugees were being held after capture by Chinese security forces in five separate Chinese detention centers in the Yenbian region. Well-informed sources reported that the refugees were being repatriated ... to North Korea at a rate of roughly 100 per week

Why does the prospect of repatriation incite terror within North Korean refugees, to such a degree that many testify to carrying a small cylinder of poison as a contingency for suicide in the event of capture by Chinese security patrols or North Korean secret police operating in China?

For those refugees who convert to the Christian faith during their fugitive life in China, forced repatriation to their own home country constitutes a particularly grim fate. Such was the case of a family of four refugees whose faith flourished for over a year in the care of an undercover missionary in China. In May of 2002 the family was discovered and detained by Chinese police; shortly thereafter they were sent back to the North Korean border town of Namyang. The repatriated family members’ attempt to keep some portions of their religious reading hidden in their clothing was discovered by investigators from the North Korean State Security Agency.

Countless refugees have testified that the very first question asked repatriated refugees by interrogators is, “Have you had any contact with Christians in China?” or “Do you believe in Jesus?”

Although many newly converted refugees choose discretion as the better part of valor, this family was firm and forthright in their profession of faith. Following their bold declaration to authorities, a number of eyewitnesses testified that the four were led to so-called “Hepatitis Street,” a small courtyard adjacent to the liver ward of a hospital in Namyang City.

As a five-soldier firing squad was hurriedly assembled, the residents of the neighborhood were summoned to observe the execution. Gunshots rang out and all four fell with mortal wounds to the head. The message to the stunned cluster of neighbors was unmistakably clear: anyone who attempts to exercise a religious belief other than the worship of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, would meet the same fate.

[From a testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations]

Full testimony: The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Where the Right Is Right

Liberals took the lead in championing human rights abroad in the 1970's, while conservatives mocked the idea. But these days liberals should be embarrassed that it's the Christian Right that is taking the lead in spotlighting repression in North Korea.

Perhaps no country in human history has ever been as successful at totalitarianism as North Korea.

Koreans sent back from China have been herded like beasts, with wires forced through their palms or under their collarbones. People who steal food have been burned at the stake, with their relatives recruited to light the match. Then there was the woman who was a true believer and suggested that the Dear Leader should stop womanizing: after she was ordered executed, her own husband volunteered to pull the trigger.

"The biggest scandal in progressive politics," Tony Blair told The New Yorker this year, "is that you do not have people with placards out in the street on North Korea. I mean, that is a disgusting regime. The people are kept in a form of slavery, 23 million of them, and no one protests!"

Actually, some people do protest. Conservative Christians have aggressively taken up the cause of North Korean human rights in the last few years, and the movement is gathering steam.

Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a bipartisan and secular group, agrees that the religious right is more active on this issue, but she wants more liberals to join the campaign as well. Her group is a good place to start:

[From an op ed by Nicholas Kristoff ,in The New York Times]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

North Korea's food problem

North Korea struggles to feed itself due to a mixture of geography and economic policy. Photographs which depict a lush, rural environment are misleading. The country needs an average of 1m metric tons in food aid a year.

"North Korea is not an agrarian country," said Kathi Zelleweger, a frequent visitor to the country with aid organization Caritas. It is mostly rugged mountain terrain, and only about 18% is arable.

It is dependent on fertilizer and machinery to make that land productive, both of which are expensive.

Politics compounds topography. Agriculture in North Korea was collectivised in the 1950s, in line with its Stalinist philosophy of self-reliance.

This means farmers have a low incentive to work hard, said Paul French, a writer on North Korea.

"If their farm produces five times as much, they don't get five times as much food," he said. Instead, they concentrate on their own private plots, which they use to feed themselves and to produce food for the markets.

The problem with this system is that market reforms, instituted in 2002, have sent prices soaring at a higher rate than wages. "Who can afford this stuff in the markets?" asked Mr. French.

The answer: only the elite. Government officials, senior managers of state enterprises, security forces, and the leadership of the army are all unlikely to go hungry.

But a typical urban family can now only afford to buy 4kg of maize - the cheapest commodity - a month.

[Excerpted from article by Sarah Buckley, BBC News]

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

North Korean Diet

The UN's World Food Program estimates that an average urban North Korean's guaranteed diet is around 280g of cereals a day.

However, spokesman Gerald Bourke points out that North Koreans are very adept at foraging for wild food, and may also be given gifts from relatives.

The internationally recommended minimum is 550-590g a day, provided this is nutritionally balanced. But dietary balance is difficult to achieve in North Korea, where foodstuffs such as oil are prohibitively expensive.

The urban diet is partly made up of a ration provided by the government, but this has dropped from 300-250g of cereals per person per day. North Korean officials have told the WFP they expect it to slump to 200g a day.

"The rural folk have already learned how to cope," said Tim Peters, director of aid agency Helping Hands Korea. "But the urban people are so dependent on the government for distribution."

As a result, foreign donations that have helped to prop North Korea up in previous years are doubly important this year.

To date, only 270,000 of the 500,000 tons of food needed for 2005 has arrived, the WFP says.
And there is always the risk of natural disaster.

Floods exacerbated the extreme food shortages 10 years ago, and North Korea's ability to cope with them "is now probably worse", said Mr. French.

[Excerpted from article by Sarah Buckley, BBC News]

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Trafficking of North Korean women refugees

In late May, a female North Korean refugee hiding in China sent this plea for help to an operative in the underground railroad:

Please help us. Please save us from this darkness full of danger. We are currently living in China risking danger every day. It is not just me alone, but my mother, elder sister, and my elder sister's 3-year-old daughter. The only crime we have is coming here to find something to eat because we were hungry. What is worse than being hungry is the constant worry and fear that at any moment we might get caught.

An estimated 300,000 North Koreans have escaped to northeast China. Women and children are increasingly the majority of refugees crossing the river into China. If they can locate a friend or relative's house, they have a chance at finding a safe haven. But if the ethnic Korean Chinese traffickers find them first, they are abducted and sold, either to men as informal wives or concubines or to karaoke clubs for prostitution. Their price and destination are determined by their age and appearance. China's one-child policy has resulted in a deficit of women from selective abortions, infanticide, and the selling off of girl babies. Kidnapping and trafficking have become common ways that Chinese men acquire women.

The women are raped by sellers and buyers. Some of the traffickers are looking for a woman for themselves, and they sell the other ones. According to an activist who makes regular trips to China to assist refugees, women are mostly sold in cities in Jilin Province in northeast China. He has gone to karaoke clubs in search of women and found that the clubs were protected by Chinese police. A young woman refugee said that Chinese officials are complicit in the trafficking of North Korean women.

Once a woman is sold, she is completely powerless. If she offers any protest, she is threatened with exposure to the Chinese authorities. There are reported cases of vengeful men reporting women to the police. They are then deported to North Korea. Most often, women are resold to another man after the original buyer tires of them.

Pastor Chun Ki-won director of the Durhana Mission based in Seoul, South Korea, is active in assisting refugees. A modern-day liberator, he has been arrested and imprisoned in China for his part in running the underground railroad. According to him, 80 to 90 percent of the women refugees in South Korea have been victims of sex trafficking.

Pastor Chun Ki-won's name and his mission are well-known among refugees hiding in China. He receives one to two letters a day from women describing how they have been sold and asking for assistance. He said, "Women are treated like animals. They have no rights. Whoever finds them first can sleep with them. Then he sells them later."

The author of one letter to Pastor Chun Ki-won wrote: "I want to live like a human being for one day. I am a human being. How can I be sold like this?"

[Excerpted from an article by Donna M. Hughes, National Review]

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Trafficking of North Korean women refugees (2)

To hide from the Chinese police, families or small groups of [North Korean] refugees climb into the mountains of northeast China and build shelters to hide in and sleep at night. During the day, they walk down into towns in search of food or work.

A secret underground railroad, run mostly by Christian activists, operates to get refugees to safety. If the conductors on this railroad are caught, they are arrested and sentenced to prison in China. Brave North Korean activists, who could be deported if they are caught — and certainly executed — risk their lives to help the refugees.

One woman refugee said that ethnic Korean Chinese men hunt for them in the forests and mountains. If they find them they rape them and force them to "marry."

There is evidence that women are trafficked to China from inside North Korea as well. Tim Peters, director of Helping Hands, assisted a 26-year-old woman refugee who was sold to a violent man. After the death of her father and mother in North Korea, a sympathetic woman offered to help her get to China where she could live with the woman's relatives. But after they crossed the Tumen River, she observed the woman being paid 1,500 yuan ($190) by a man. She was sold to a married man who bought her to be his concubine. She escaped with the help of a Christian activist.

There are numerous reports of women in North Korea being so hungry and desperate that they allow traffickers to sell them to someone in China. As awful as this is, it enables them to live, eat, and maybe send some money or food back to other family members.

Refugees caught in China are routinely arrested and deported to North Korea. Those who flee from North Korea are considered traitors to the government and the ruling ideology of Juche or self reliance. The returnees are imprisoned in detention centers, interrogated, mistreated, and starved. Pregnant women are forcibly aborted or newborns killed to keep "foreign" blood out of North Korea.

According to a first-hand report, a 26-year-old woman in a detention center was executed for "selling herself" in China. Yun Hye-ryeon, wife of Aquariums of Pyongyang author Kang Chul-hwan, was in the cell next to this woman. The woman had crossed into China to feed herself and her baby, but according to the North Korean officials she fell under the influence of capitalism and sold herself for money. She was publicly executed as a lesson to others.

[Excerpted from an article by Donna M. Hughes, National Review]

Friday, November 25, 2005

Bush Weak on China and North Korea

President Bush spoke up for democracy in Mongolia, a poor, windswept nation of 2.4 million people that never before had been visited by a U.S. president. Wedged between communist China and authoritarian Russia, Mongolia's democrats certainly could use the boost they received from Mr. Bush. But it's striking that a president who dedicated his second term to promoting freedom did not do more of it during his weekend visit to Beijing -- where advocating for human rights is more difficult and more urgent.

Yes, Mr. Bush did attend a church service, and he did offer some perfunctory remarks encouraging China "to continue making the historic transition to greater freedom." But political liberalization was nowhere near the top of a bilateral agenda with President Hu Jintao that was focused on trade and economic issues and North Korea's nuclear program.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman probably was accurate when he reported that "human rights issues made up a tiny, tiny, tiny part of the meeting between the leaders of the two countries."

The United States has always had to balance economic, security and political priorities in relations with China, and Beijing doesn't respond readily to pressure from Washington. But Mr. Bush's light touch with Mr. Hu is disappointing because the Chinese president, far from continuing a "transition to greater freedom" during his three years in power, has been moving his country in the opposite direction.

The Chinese media, academia, religious groups and the local Internet are all more tightly controlled now than they were when Mr. Bush last visited China, in 2002.

More than a dozen journalists and writers have been imprisoned in the past year; lawyers seeking to defend them have been disbarred. Plans to expand local elections and allow foreign newspapers have been frozen, and Hong Kong has been denied the free elections.

[Excerpt of a Washington Post editorial]

Thursday, November 24, 2005

North Korean Defectors Pose Challenges

The slow exodus of North Koreans from their impoverished homeland is posing increasingly vexing diplomatic problems for China and South Korea, as they grapple with their Stalinist neighbor's decay.

"When I came to China, I learned that people in North Korea eat worse than a pig in China," said a 34-year-old North Korean woman, now in China, who asked that only her surname -- Moon -- be used.

Moon currently holds a low-profile restaurant job in this dusty Chinese city. Yanji, which has a large population of ethnic Koreans, is located one hour from the North Korean border.

The mix of political oppression and brutal economics in North Korea has left defectors on the wrong side of the fence in the view of the Chinese government.

The issue has set South Korea and China at loggerheads while defectors and human rights activists contend that humanitarian concerns have been abandoned.

The government in Seoul is worried about the flow, fearing the situation is jeopardizing its efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang. Starting this year, South Korea slashed settlement money given to North Korean refugees by two-thirds - to around $9,000. The defectors have often used the settlement money to finance the escape of relatives through activist networks and human brokers.

Although China signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, China has opted to send many of the North Koreans back home, where campaigners say they face serious punishment, or death.

[From an article by Jeremy Kirk,]

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A dangerous journey

On the Chinese side of the Tumen River border with North Korea, elderly ethnic Koreans who run bamboo boats for tourists said refugees were easy to spot because their clothing style was different and they did not fit in with their Chinese counterparts.

Most people in this small city are openly sympathetic to their very poor North Korean neighbors, who occasionally breach the shallow waters of the Tumen River to reach China.

Once the refugees are in China, human rights activists have employed various techniques to get them out again - high-profile dashes using ladders to climb into embassy compounds in Beijing; desert drives to the Mongolian border; risky land routes through Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.

"New routes are being looked for all the time," said Tim Peters, the founder of Helping Hands Korea, a nongovernmental organization that raises funds for clandestine operations to move refugees out of China."Old routes get discovered and get shut down."

Border guards and police are often bribed to look the other way.

Often, hard decisions must be made depending on the defector's profile and risk of imminent capture, Peters explained.

He said many South Koreans seemed to regard defectors as a costly social nuisance.Peters commented that if in the future, the international community is remembered as doing more than South Korea has when it comes to helping refugees from the North, "that's going to be a horrible scar on the consciences of their [South Koreans'] grandchildren."

[From an article by Jeremy Kirk,]

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

North Koreans Escape - to Pain

The lucky escapees from famine and the Stalinist dictatorship of North Korean leader Kim Jung-Il face a living nightmare even when they reach prosperous and democratic South Korea, where food and free will are unrestricted.

Haunted by survivor's guilt, traumatized and emaciated, North Korean refugees arrive in the capital Seoul after a long ordeal of hiding, waiting and debriefing. They hope for a job and new life but they find it hard to shut off the memories of starvation and despair.

Nearly all of them succumb to depression, and many attempt to commit suicide. "Systematically, all of them suffer from psychosomatic pain -- in the head, in the back and chest," says Gilduin Blanchard, representative of the international non-governmental organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Seoul. "Men drink, women often refuse to go out for months -- so big is their fear. The rate of suicidal attempts is very high."

Still, those who manage to escape are the strongest, social workers say. In the dead of winter, they sprint across the frozen Tumen river bordering China and spend days in hiding while the Christian underground railroad and human rights activists arrange their escape route. Over the years of a protracted North Korean famine, which started in the early 1990s, those activists have set up a chain of safe houses and orphanages to smuggle North Koreans into China.

The refugees imagine that once in China, their sufferings are over. "They believe they can find food and work there," says Blanchard. But the reality is in fact, very different. "They have no legal status inside the Chinese border, which means they have to hide in constant fear from being repatriated."

Previously, Chinese authorities turned a blind eye to what they still call economic migrants, who regularly cross the border to barter for food, stay with relatives, or just blend in with the vast ethnic Korean population along the Chinese side of the frontier.

[Excerpted from an article by Antoaneta Bezlova, Inter Press Service News Agency]

North Koreans Escape - to Pain (Part 2)

In 2000, Beijing reversed its lenient attitude and started organizing nationwide manhunts, offering rewards to those who turn in North Korean refugees and fining and even jailing those who help them.

"Since the beginning of 2005, the Chinese have been catching and expatriating about 400 to 500 people a week," says U.S. Christian missionary Tim Peters, who heads Helping Hands Korea, a group that assists refugees from the North.

That means at least 20,000 to 25,000 North Koreans are attempting to escape the country yearly.

Only a handful of those end up in South Korea. There are just over 6,500 officially registered North Korean refugees in the South and the numbers of newcomers have been steadily dropping.

Refugee supporters blame the downward trend on a combination of factors. They say the Chinese government's pressure to stop the exodus on its side of the border has been matched with an increase in summary trials and executions on the North Korean side.

"In recent months the North has stepped up the number of public executions, hoping they can serve as a deterrent for people who want to escape," says Kim Sang Hun, a 70-year-old retired United Nations official and human rights activist.

Rare video footage of summary executions in the North showing blindfolded prisoners shot in the head was smuggled through China to South Korea earlier this year. But South Korean authorities have barred the airing of the secret tape, fearing it might upset Pyongyang and harm fragile North-South relations.

[Excerpted from an article by Antoaneta Bezlova, Inter Press Service News Agency]

Monday, November 21, 2005

Regime change underway in North Korea?

American businessman Roy Browning has a front-row seat for the unusual signs of change emerging from North Korea. Mr. Browning lives in a high-rise in Dandong on the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, overlooking the Yalu River that separates the two countries.

Late last year, there were reports that portraits of Mr. Kim, which dominate Pyongyang's public buildings, had been removed. Insiders claimed the portraits and other Kim images were removed to be cleaned, or because their presence had drawn comparisons to Saddam Hussein.

Any such retooling of Mr. Kim's likeness is significant in the country, which has built a cult of personality around the Kims. Great Leader Kim Il Sung remains president for life, even after his 1994 death. His son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, is supposed to command singular loyalty. The country's goals of reunifying with South Korea and defeating U.S. "imperialism" hinge on the presence of an all-powerful leader.

Activists and observers used to probing the communist country's idiosyncrasies believe a dramatic change is slowly underway, one that is shifting power away from dictator Kim Jong Il and toward a cabal of military generals.

North Koreans Mr. Browning met coming across the border were hiding their "Dear Leader" pins inside their coats instead of displaying them over their hearts as mandated.

From these signs, he speculates that momentous change is afoot. “It is difficult to see things happening even as close as we are because of the strict control the country has. If you can imagine Nazi Germany in 1939 and then make it much worse, you will then have the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

Seoul-based Korean-American human-rights activist Douglas Shin has been tracking blips in North Korea's usually predictable propaganda. From subtle rewordings in the state press and from reports Mr. Shin receives from a high-ranking North Korean official, he believes a band of military generals has already sidelined Mr. Kim.

Still, decoding secretive North Korea remains an intensely speculative parlor game. Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a group assisting North Korean refugees, also hears growing chatter from his contacts about changes in Pyongyang. They confirm the increased border activity Mr. Browning has witnessed, but note that while approved forays into China have multiplied, a parallel clamp-down on refugees escaping North Korea has occurred on both sides of the border.

While Mr. Peters believes Mr. Kim is suffering challenges to his rule, he is not sure the bouffant-haired dictator has lost control just yet. "I don't think we should underestimate the staying power of this regime," he said. "Not because Kim Jong Il is so powerful, but because of the [indoctrination]. There's a joke that if any two people had a conversation that was even remotely critical of the government, they would both inform the authorities."

[Excerpted from an article by Priya Abraham, WORLD Magazine]

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is there hope for North Korea?

It's not only in the Middle East that Iraq's election lights a way. Let us turn to what may be the world's most abandoned population, 23 million souls living under a government that surely qualifies as the worst totalitarian state on the planet: North Korea.

Long viewed as home to hopelessly brainwashed generations, marching in lockstep to the glory of the tyrannical father-son Kim dynasty, North Korea has been pretty much written off the world's list of candidates for transition to democracy--at least by the usual sophisticates of world politics, at least for the foreseeable future. The vision routinely offered in seminars and lectures on such matters as East Asian security is one of a North Korean population that, if ever set free, would have no idea what to do except perhaps pivot as one, swarm South Korea and devour its bounty like a colony of army ants--upsetting all sorts of cozy regional habits in the process.

That's one big reason why democratic states like the U.S., Japan, European Union members and South Korea have focused not on freeing North Koreans, but on wheeling and dealing with their tyrant, in efforts to contain Pyongyang's nuclear bomb-making, war-threatening, terrorizing ways. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in her confirmation hearings that she thinks North Korea can best be dealt with via "diplomacy."

What that means in practice remains to be seen. But let us hope that with Natan Sharansky's book, "The Case for Democracy," making the rounds in Washington, Ms. Rice was thinking more of reaching out in any way possible to the captive population of North Korea than of pinning our own security on yet more rounds of those "six-way talks" in Beijing. Those are the spectacles at which the North Korean representative huffs and puffs, and the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Russia all dignify his killer regime with their joint attention, while the Chinese communists smile and serve tea.

Not so long ago, this was more or less the approach of democratic societies, including the U.S., to Saddam Hussein and the millions of Iraqis who in 2002 "re-elected" him president with 100% of the "vote." The important people of global politics, at the U.N. and in many of the world's capitals, dealt with Saddam; meanwhile the Iraqi people under threat of torture or death collected their rations and either kept quiet, defected or died at state hands in numbers that far outstripped the current widely reported violence.

With Saddam gone, Iraqis now have opportunities that North Koreans--except the two million who were quietly starved to death by their own government these past 10 years--can only dream of. While Iraqis were wowing the world with their will to go to the polls, North Koreans, according to the state "news" agency, were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung's "unforgettable" publication of "Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country." Does anyone seriously imagine that is how North Koreans freed of their regime would choose to spend the day?

While North Korean cadres were pondering the agricultural insights of Kim Sr., the regime of the current tyrant, Kim Jr., was busy cutting the rations of ordinary North Koreans--again--to half the minimum daily energy requirement, as the U.N. World Food Program director for North Korea, Richard Ragan, recently told Reuters.

The classic answer is to send aid. Unfortunately, there is a mountain of evidence that this serves chiefly to sustain the Kim regime, which à la Saddam finds ways to divert relief to its own uses--one of those uses being to keep control over a horribly oppressed citizenry. President Clinton cut a deal with Pyongyang in 1994 meant to produce a nuclear freeze while feeding the people of North Korea.

Pyongyang predictably cheated on the freeze, starved the people anyway, and Kim Jong Il, who had just inherited the regime from his father, seized the chance to consolidate his grip.

[Excerpted from an article by Claudia Rosett, Wall Street Journal]

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Is there hope for North Korea? (Part 2)

How to reach the people of North Korea is a tough question.

But one place to start is by speaking the truth in our own capitals. That's what Mr. Bush did in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he named North Korea as one of the three charter members of the "axis of evil"--along with Iran and Saddam's Iraq. But later, Mr. Bush said only that "we're working closely with the governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

Trouble is, the source of the threat from Pyongyang is less North Korea's nuclear interests than its government.

Democratic South Korea has nuclear plants capable of producing bomb fuel, but we aren't much worried Seoul is about to start dispensing bombs to blow us up.

The great danger of North Korea stems from a totalitarian regime that must conjure enemies to keep its own grip at home.

Short of war to remove the Kim regime, probably the best way into North Korean society is to welcome and encourage people coming out. That offers a chance for North Korean defectors to speak up, broadcast honest news back into the country, organize dissident groups and seek ways best known to former insiders to communicate with those still trapped under Kim's rule.

Except the number of North Koreans welcomed by the rest of the world has been tragically small--amounting to about 6,300 all told, most of them arriving in South Korea over the past three years. That's about zip compared to the number who would flee given even a whisper of a decent chance. At risk of their lives, an estimated 300,000 have in any case fled across the border into China.

You might think that once they reached Chinese turf, an outfit such as the United Nations, keeper of the 1951 convention on refugees, would offer help. Hardly. Since famine in North Korea and growing mobility inside China brought the first serious refugee influx in the early 1990s, the U.N. has engaged in what it calls "quiet diplomacy," meant to persuade China's regime to honor its international obligations and at least allow safe passage to these asylum-seekers, who have a fear of persecution deeply grounded in the likelihood that they may be executed, or sent to murderous labor camps, if returned.

But so quiet is this diplomacy, so as not to offend China--which sits on the governing body of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and holds a veto-wielding seat on the UN Security Council--that nothing much has emerged from all the hush. There are no refugee centers for North Koreans in China; instead, there is a bilateral treaty with North Korea under which asylum-seekers are labeled illegal economic migrants. If caught, they are sent back.

The result, as South Korea-based private American relief worker Tim Peters reports in a recent bulletin, is that even with help for North Korean refugees signed into law in the U.S. last year, the outlook for them "is indeed grim for 2005." China has beefed up efforts to keep them out or catch them, posting more soldiers along the border, and adding roadblocks to detect private aid workers trying at risk of prison themselves to reach the border areas.

From inside North Korea, reports Mr. Peters, he has been receiving accounts that "authorities have stepped up the monitoring and interrogation of families in which family members are unaccounted for." That is awful news, because in North Korea, the regime imposes collective punishment on entire families.

How the end might come for the despotic regime of North Korea, we do not yet know. It would be foolish to expect it will in any sense be easy. But it would be cruelty and madness, not to mention plain dumb foreign policy, to assume that 23 million human beings would not, like the Iraqis, welcome the chance to start the long labor of assembling a government of, by and for the people. If they do, the world will be safer for it.

[Excerpted from an article by Claudia Rosett, Wall Street Journal]

Friday, November 18, 2005

North Korea Expels European Aid Groups

North Korea has ordered non-governmental European aid groups to leave the country after the European Union submitted a U.N. resolution criticizing Pyongyang's human rights record, aid workers said Wednesday.

The order covers at least 11 of the 12 foreign non-governmental organizations in the isolated North, which has struggled for a decade with severe food shortages. The groups affected are running health, sanitation, forestry and other programs.

The NGOs have been asked to wind up their operations by Dec. 31, said Padraig O'Ruairc, the Pyongyang coordinator for Concern, an Irish humanitarian group.

Other groups ordered to leave include Britain's Save the Children, the French groups Handicap International and Premier Urgence and Sweden's PMU Interlife, according to aid workers.

The order comes as the World Food Program also is scrambling to preserve its access to North Korea following a government request for the U.N. agency to wind up its food aid program this year and switch to economic development assistance.

North Korea issued the order last week after the EU submitted a U.N. resolution expressing "serious concern" about reports of torture by the Stalinist dictatorship and its restrictions on religion, travel and other activities. It calls on the North, one of the world's most secretive societies, to cooperate with U.N. human rights investigators.

The EU resolution, which has 40 co-sponsors, expresses "serious concern" at the "continuing reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights" in North Korea, including torture, public executions, imposing the death penalty for political reasons and the extensive use of forced labor.

[From an article by Joe McDonald, Associated Press]

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bush sticks to hard line on North Korea

(CNN) U.S. President George W. Bush has maintained his hard line on North Korea, saying there will be no assistance to Pyongyang until it gives up its nuclear weapons and programs.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Gyeongju, South Korea, the U.S. leader said a sought-after "light water nuclear reactor" would not be delivered until the "appropriate time." And that time was "after they (North Korea) have verifiably given up their nuclear weapons and programs."

President Bush was speaking after a meeting Thursday with South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun, during which the two men had extensive discussions on how to deal with the North's nuclear capabilities.

South Korea has resisted the tough approach advocated by the Bush administration for ending the impasse with North Korea, opposing the idea of military action if diplomacy fails. South Korea also is cool to the idea of taking the standoff to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

President Roh left open the possibility of another leaders summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, but also said the six-party talks were the best framework for dealing with the nuclear situation.

Call for Bush to Focus on North Korea's Human Rights Record

As the world focuses on North Korea's nuclear program, human rights activists say not enough attention is being paid to Pyongyang's human rights violations.

A new U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report, called Thank You, Father Kim Il Sung, refers to the harsh and absolute cult of personality surrounding the late North Korean leader. Author David Hawk said the report relies on eyewitness accounts from North Korean defectors and largely details religious persecution.

"There are people who continue to be imprisoned for their religious beliefs, quite a number of people who are punished because of their religious beliefs." he said.

Mr. Hawk called on President Bush to raise the issue of human rights in North Korea with South Korean and Chinese leaders. He said he especially thinks U.S. concerns should be conveyed to Seoul. "I think it would be extremely important, and in my own opinion, the most important element is for human rights to be put on the engagement agenda of South Koreans in their engagement policy with the North Koreans," he added.

The issue has been championed in the U.S. Congress, which last year passed the North Korea Human Rights Act.

[Excerpted from an article by Stephanie Ho, Voice of America]

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

North Korean Food Situation May be Worsening

North Korea remains in the middle of an acute food crisis. And there are signs the country's dependency on outside aid may be growing even stronger.

Every year since 1999, South Korea has supplied its impoverished rival with 300,000 metric tons of fertilizer. But this year, North Korea has asked for an unprecedented 500,000 tons.

Analysts say the request is the latest sign that the North is still unable to produce enough food and that its dependence on donors is increasing at a time when it shows little sign of resolving major differences with the outside world. For a decade, North Korea has needed foreign aid to feed its people, as natural disaster and years of economic mismanagement have eroded crop production.

In a further sign of food shortages, the United Nations World Food Program says North Korea recently cut daily food rations to 250 grams of rice or cereal per person, per day. Brenda Barton, a spokeswoman at WFP headquarters in Rome, says that is insufficient.

"That is half of what people need to survive on a day-to-day basis," she said.

Humanitarian groups say a major difficulty they face is in ensuring that food aid reaches the neediest civilians rather than being diverted to North Korea's armed forces or the ruling elite.
The WFP says it is satisfied that most of its aid reaches those for whom it is intended: children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Christian activist Tim Peters runs a charity in Seoul that delivers food aid to North Koreans. He says that North Korean refugees told him in China late last year the shortages are getting worse.
"The refugees told us that for the most part they have not seen food aid within the last four or five years," he said.

Japan, the United States and other countries say they are willing to provide aid to North Korea once it has verifiably ended its nuclear weapons program.

In the meantime, the World Food Program's Brenda Barton says North Korean civilians will continue to suffer. "The situation day by day for the population is still very tenuous. People often don't know where their next meal is coming from," she said.

[Excerpted from an article by Kurt Achin, Voice of America]

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Just How Bad is the Starvation in North Korea?

Mrs. Kim is a Chinese Korean living in Northeast China. In a recent interview with VOM, she relayed the following:

“We started a home church on the second floor of our home in 1993, with eight of our Christian friends. … In 1996, my husband passed away. I was really depressed and lonely.

“The more I prayed about my situation, the more I felt God calling me to North Korea. So in the spring of 1997, I planned my first trip. …I knew God had called me [there]. But then I was heartbroken by what I saw.

“I walked down the road in this one village where dead bodies were on the side of the road. I saw a hungry boy eating one of the bodies. But then a policeman also saw him, and pulling out his revolver, he shot the boy in the head. It was the first but not the last person I saw shot for committing cannibalism.

“When I returned to China after that first trip, I left something in North Korea –my heart; I knew this was to be my ministry. … Since then I have made contact with 40 house churches and helped start another 60.

“But now the work is very difficult. … Four believers were caught worshipping together. They were arrested and sentenced to seven years.

‘Another family was arrested --the while family, including the children. They were all in prison except for the father. He was executed.

“[I helped] a son and a daughter of one family come into China for more training. But when they were returning to North Korea, they were caught and charged with ‘treason’ and becoming Christians. They have been publicly executed.”

[Excerpted from Voice of the Martyrs, November 2005 issue]

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)]

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Unwelcome Truths

North Korea's highest-ranking defector arrived safely in Washington DC despite North Korea's threat to "shoot his plane out of the sky" if he dared to visit the U.S.

Hwang Jang Yop brought with him a two-prong proposal for what he calls the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula: regime change and greater international focus on the human-rights abuses of the North. Mr. Hwang said: "I want to emphasize the importance of eliminating the Kim Jong Il regime." How to do that? "The U.S. should put the issue of human rights at the top of its agenda in its dialogue" with North Korea.

Hwang Jang Yop is an unlikely champion of human rights in North Korea. (Mr. Hwang , the former head of North Korea's Workers Party and president of Kim Il Sung University had defected to South Korea in 1997.) Now in his 80’s, he spent his career in the service of the brutal regime he now denounces. He was the North's ideologue-in-chief--founder and leading proponent of the "juche" ideology of self-reliance that Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il, used to justify his totalitarian rule.

One would think that the one place in the world where the campaign to free the North Korean people would be taken most seriously would be South Korea, where Mr. Hwang lived under virtual house arrest until recently. Think again.

Most Koreans are well informed about the brutal realities of life in the North but prefer to look the other way. It's much pleasanter to contemplate reunification fantasies such as the one portrayed in a hit movie about a cross-border romance between a South Korean woman and a North Korean soldier.

If the South Korean people seem indifferent to the plight of their brothers and sisters in the North, it's in large part because their political leaders remain silent. President Roh Moo Hyun was a human-rights lawyer before taking office but human rights north of the DMZ is way down on his priority list.

South Korea's constitution requires it to welcome any North Korean who wants to come to the South. Yet in the 50 years since the end of the Korean War, the South has accepted around 3,000 refugees. Most have come in the past two years, thanks in large part to the efforts of several private groups dedicated to helping North Koreans find refuge in the South.

The rescuers, many of whom are Christian, differ among themselves over how best to help. One faction prefers to work out of the public eye. Another faction pursues high-profile tactics such as helping asylum-seekers flood embassies in China. Its aim is to draw international attention to the plight of the quarter-million or more North Korean refugees hiding in China.

There's another aspect too--money. "I don't mean to sound mercenary," says Tim Peters, an American missionary here. "But in some respects running into a consulate in China is cost effective." Smuggling a refugee out through Mongolia or Vietnam costs $1,000 to $3,000 per person, he says. Mr. Peters adds that money also talks in North Korea's gulags. "It's easier to spring someone from a North Korean prison than from a Chinese prison," he says.

Word filtered back to Mr. Hwang in Seoul about the fate of the family he had left behind [in North Korea]. His wife committed suicide. So too, the reports said, did one of his daughters. She is said to have jumped off a bridge to her death while being taken to a prison camp. Two other daughters and a son are lost in the gulag.

This is the reality of life in North Korea--and the truth that Mr. Hwang is speaking out about.

[Excerpted from an article by Melanie Kirkpatrick, Wall Street Journal]

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]

Friday, November 11, 2005

Seoul Train - U.S. Documentary on North Korean Refugees

Filmmakers Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth flew to Seoul, where they were met at the airport by their secret contact, "Bernard," and began a two-month journey through the capital city, then traveled to Beijing and to the towns along the North Korea-China border.Bernard provided the secret key to the region's secret Underground Railroad.

What's happening to the refugees is "a catastrophe," Lisa Sleeth says. "If only people knew."

"His intro was as good as gold to the secretive underground folks," says Butterworth. "They trusted us."

"Jim and Bernard clicked instantly," says Sleeth. "He's a 72-year-old Korean - an amazing person - with more energy than you can imagine."

The duo learned about the plight of the North Koreans, who - unlike the South Koreans supported by a roaring economy - live in a country teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Their first stop in China was Beijing, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. "We went in with cameras rolling," Sleeth says. "They freaked. We had to stop filming before they would talk with us."

The pair had to resort to an off-the-record interview to get information about the U.N.'s activities in the region. It left them unsettled and more committed to the project. "That solidified our opinion that they're totally impotent," she says.

Their next stop as "tourists" was Yanji, China, just north of the North Korean border. It's the area many North Koreans live and work once they illegally cross the border."We got there late at night and in the morning looked across the Tumen River," Sleeth says. "It was the most miserable stark place that's been totally deforested."

The two tall, blond Americans were conspicuous because Yanji is not a location that attracts many tourists. "This was ground zero," Butterworth says. "We can't say too much about the people we met with because we'll blow their cover."

While there they hooked up with another member of the railroad, an American citizen of Korean extraction. Many members of the railroad adopt higher-profiles than what might be expected to help throw off suspicion about their activities.

Every week the Chinese send 200 North Koreans back. How many escape is not known."These activists are not wimps," she says. "They're bad-ass. They are survivors. These activists are confident, strong-willed and risk takers."

While in Yanji, they met with a North Korean refugee who was living with a Chinese man. Through her, they learned that women refugees are often purchased by Chinese men for $800.

They also sent a man inside North Korea with the hidden button camera, but they declined to provide many details. They received other films made inside the country they were able to smuggle into the United States.

Their film Seoul Train includes footage of a family about to escape North Korea as they say their good-byes to family members and receive their forged documents. It also has devastating footage of a hungry toddler picking bits of food from the muddy ground.

To throw off any suspicions, they also created dummy camcorder memory cards filled with typical "tourist" shots they could hand over to the authorities if they were stopped and questioned.

Working from a small apartment [to edit their documetary], Sleeth and Butterworth started what would seem like an endless string of 16-hour days.

Both are quick to point out that what they've done is nothing compared to the ordeals the refugees face each day.

[From an article by Cliff Thompson, Vail Daily]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

North Korean Defectors adjust to life in South

For North Korean defectors who arrive in the South, the transition from the world's most rigid communist state to one of its most competitive capitalist economies will be a challenge.

"Their biggest problem is finding employment," said An Hyo-deok of the quasi-governmental Association of Supporters for Defecting North Korean Residents. "They have learned about South Korea in China or Southeast Asia" — where popular Korean soap operas and films paint a glamorous picture of life — "and so have unrealistic expectations. They want to be professionals, but most end up working in manufacturing," he said.

Upon their arrival in South Korea, refugees are whisked away to what a government source called "a state-run education and training facility" in Gyeonggi province, outside Seoul.

Under tight security, their debriefing process began immediately with officials of the National Intelligence Service and the Unification and Defense Ministries. The intelligence service will be looking for spies among them, but a more prosaic reason for the interrogations is that a number of Chinese-Koreans may be masquerading as North Koreans in order to get a passport from the South.

Once the month long debriefing is complete, the defectors will be sent to "Hanawon," a government-run halfway house, where they will undergo two months of "capitalism education." Classes include language, etiquette, driving and computer skills.

After its completion, they are granted South Korean citizenship and are free to settle anywhere in the country, under police and local government protection. The need for protection is lessening, however.

"Many defectors do feel insecure here, but as most come from the working class, they have no need to," Mr. An said. "The only ones who really need protection are military and party-level defectors."

For example, "Lee Han-yong, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law who defected to the South, was killed by North Korean agents about seven years ago," he said.

Many defectors find that life in the South is no bed of roses. Their previous life experience is largely invalidated. Some, such as Kim Yong, enjoy success. He defected in 1991 and now runs a franchise of North Korean-style noodle restaurants, complete with branches in the United States.

But many defectors never make it. Some remain unemployed, others become criminals, and at least one tried to return North.

"They have no capital and no credit. They have to start at the bottom of the ladder, and they feel bitter," said Kongdan Oh, of Washington's Institute of Defense Analysis. "Northern life was without competition in many senses — except perhaps competition to flatter the party leaders and the [ruling] Kim family — so the severely competitive nature of the South frightens them," he said.

Yim Kyung-ho, dean of Good People World College, a Christian organization that assists North Koreans in the South, said those defectors who are successful often keep a low profile, because they do not want their family in the North to suffer if their status in the South becomes well-known.

Mr. An said in the past, defectors came for political reasons, but in recent years, most have been economic refugees.

Tim Peters, a U.S. missionary with Helping Hands Korea, said, "Whether suffering from political or religious persecution or sheer desperation from lack of food, the North Koreans qualify for refugee status."

The government pays 50 percent of defectors' wages for two years, as an incentive for employers to hire them — a hint that defectors are not highly valued employees. Under the new policy, cash incentives will be given to those who manage to hold down steady jobs.

The mass defection is something of an embarrassment for the South Korean government, which has, since the initiation of detente by former President Kim Dae-jung in 2000, taken steps to avoid antagonizing the North. The process was kept quiet, ostensibly at the request of Vietnam, but some analysts think it also was designed to avoid angering Pyongyang.

"I applaud them for doing the right thing, but my understanding is that the South's government was not entirely proactive in this drama," Mr. Peters said. "My information is that the Southeast Asian country saw this backlog of refugees who had arrived with the help of [nongovernmental organizations], and said to Seoul, 'Get them out or we will send them back to China.' "

Pyongyang reacted strongly, with its official newspaper calling Seoul's grants of asylum "premeditated abduction" and "terrorism in broad daylight."

In South Korea's liberal climate, even activists urging improvements in North Korean human rights have come under attack.

Norbert Volersen, a German activist, has been physically assaulted. An Internet radio station established by defectors to broadcast to the North has been intimidated into moving its office.

A Western diplomat who met with foreign reporters wondered whether anti-American incidents in the South in recent years could have been provoked by undercover North Korean agitators.

[Excerpted from an article by Andrew Salmon, Washington Times]

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tough Chinese policy fuels N Korean refugees' flight to SE Asia

Beijing's refusal to help the increasing number of North Koreans who flee their politically repressive and famine-hit country is fueling perilous escapes across China to Southeast Asia, activists said.

The arrival of 450 refugees in South Korea via Vietnam highlighted the growing need for North Koreans to take great risks to sneak out of China after escaping their own country, overseas aid groups said.

"The Chinese are not making things easier," said Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based NGO which assists the refugees.

Beijing considers the North Koreans illegal economic migrants instead of refugees and repatriates as many as 100 a week to the Stalinist state, where they face imprisonment, torture and sometimes even execution, rights groups say.

The refugees used to storm into foreign embassies in China to seek passage to South Korea but Beijing has stepped up security in the past two years. Many now have travel across continent-sized China to Southeast Asia.

"This is the only way for them to come out and save their lives," said Hiroshi Kato, head of the Japan-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.

Most of the estimated 300,000 North Koreans hiding in China want to leave if they can, aid groups said. Their status as illegal immigrants leaves them in constant fear with little chance of a normal life.

"[It] is a testimony of how difficult it is to cross not only the Tumen River (from North Korea) into China but cross the entire breadth of China, knowing full well they are fugitives and if they are caught, they're repatriated," Peters said. "It's phenomenal that they make it at all."

The journey to Southeast Asia is full of dangers, but also stories of courage and compassion, activists said.

The case reveals an extensive underground network that ferries the refugees to countries including Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

"Without the underground railroad network, we can't do anything," said Kato. "There are so many people who help along the way -- sometimes, even in short distances of two to three kilometers, 20 kilometers, 100 kilometers -- so many pieces of the network."

South Koreans, including activists and sympathetic businessmen, make up the bulk of volunteers. Others are Japanese, Westerners or ethnic Koreans from the United States or Europe.

Volunteers also set up safehouses along the way. Beijing has begun arresting activists, accusing them of stirring up trouble, but this has not stopped them.

"They provide food, shelter, railway tickets," Kato said.

It takes three to 10 days to travel from the North Korean border to southeast China and trains are one of the few modes of travel available. But the Koreans face arrest if train police demand to see IDs.

The "Southeast Asian route" has existed since 1997, but was seldom used due to its long distance.

North Koreans preferred travelling from China's Inner Mongolian province across the grasslands to Mongolia.

Once there, they are basically safe. The Mongolian government is more lenient and allows the defectors to reach the South Korean embassy in Ulan Bator.

But China sometimes blocks off the borders with Mongolia and with the extra security at foreign embassies in Beijing, the Southeast Asian route became the most frequently used.

Vietnam is the preferred destination as the border with China is relatively easy to cross. Each day, large numbers of people go back and forth to sell merchandise and smuggled goods, including drugs.

The underground network makes use of the drug traffickers and also the human smugglers -- who smuggle Chinese without visas and have connections with Chinese border guards -- to sneak North Koreans across.

"They help for a fee of 700 to 1,000 US dollars per person, which includes the money to bribe the border guards and the risk they take," said Lee Ho-Taek, founder of the Seoul-based aid group The Refuge Pnan.

Currently hundreds of Korean refugees are believed to be gathered in Southeast Asian nations awaiting a chance to reach South Korea.

China will likely step up security on its southeastern borders, but that will not stop the flow, activists said, as guards and traffickers can always be tempted.

The Chinese foreign ministry had no immediate response. Besides wanting to preserve good ties with Pyongyang for strategic purposes, Beijing fears an influx of Korean refugees and a collapse of the North's regime.

But Peters said China's policy was unsustainable in terms of its international reputation and treaty obligations.

"Maybe now with South Korea accepting larger numbers of refugees, that will send a signal to China," he added.

[Excerted from Yahoo News article]