Tuesday, January 31, 2006

World Food Program to resume North Korea aid?

On January 1, North Korea halted the World Food Program (WFP) which had been feeding a third of North Korea's 22 million people. The World Food agency closed its five offices outside Pyongyang and shut down its 19 food factories in the North.

The impoverished North has relied on foreign donations for a decade to feed its people. Observers suggest that demanding the withdrawal of the WFP was a political strategy on North Korea’s part to regain control over its food distribution network.

Some possible good news, at least for the starving, as reported by Pravda:
The World Food Program is working on plans to resume food aid to North Korea, but to a much smaller number of people.
The new plan would include economic development assistance while also feeding pregnant women, children and others, said Gerald Bourke, a WFP spokesman in Beijing. He said staff members in Pyongyang were working on the details, including how many people would be fed. The proposal is to be presented to the United States, Japan and other donors for approval at a meeting in February, Bourke said. He said the earliest that it could take effect would be March.

Monday, January 30, 2006

North Korea exporting slaves

The old Czech schoolhouse is now a factory producing uniforms. Almost all the workers are North Korean, and the women initially looked delighted to see visitors. "I'm not so happy here. There is nobody who speaks my language. I'm so far from home," volunteered a tentative young woman in a T-shirt and sweatpants who said she was from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

But as she spoke, an older woman with stern posture and an expressionless face — a North Korean security official — passed by in the corridor. The young women scattered wordlessly and disappeared into another room, closing and bolting the door behind them.

Hundreds of young North Korean women are working in garment and leather factories like this one, easing a labor shortage in small Czech towns. Their presence in this new member of the European Union is an echo of North Korea's former alliance with other Communist countries.

The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings, apparently one of the few legal sources of hard currency for an isolated and impoverished regime living off counterfeiting, drug trading and weapons sales.

[Excerpted from an article by Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times]

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Salaries in North Korea as low as $1 per month

Experts estimate 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans are working abroad on behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, in addition to the Czech Republic, defectors say.

With salaries at state-owned companies in North Korea as low as $1 per month, the chance to work abroad for a three-year stint is considered a privilege.

In the Czech Republic, the minimum wage is about $260 a month. Almost the entire monthly salaries of the North Korean women working in this Czech town are deposited directly in an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives the nworkers only a fraction of the money.

To the extent that they are allowed outside in this village 20 miles west of Prague, they go only in groups. Often they are accompanied by a guard from the North Korean Embassy who is referred to as their "interpreter."

They live under strict surveillance in dormitories with photographs of North Korea's late founder Kim Il Sung and current leader Kim Jong Il gracing the walls. Their only entertainment is propaganda films and newspapers sent from North Korea, and occasional exercise in the yard outside.

[Excerpted from an article by Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times]

Saturday, January 28, 2006

North Korea's 21st Century slave labor

"This is 21st-century slave labor," said Kim Tae San, a former official of the North Korean Embassy in Prague. Kim Tae San should know. In 1998, he helped set up the factories in the Czech Republic where the North Korean women he is referring to work.

In 2002 he and his wife defected and sought asylum from South Korea.

It was Kim's job to collect the salaries and distribute the money to workers. He said 55 percent was taken off the top as a "voluntary" contribution to the cause of the socialist revolution. The women had to buy and cook their own food. Additional sums were deducted for accommodations, transportation and extras such as flowers for the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The women even had to pay for the propaganda films they were forced to watch.

By the time all the deductions were made, they received between $20 and $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.

Kim says Czechs often mistook the North Korean women for convict laborers because of the harsh conditions. "They would ask the girls, 'What terrible thing did you do to be sent here to work like this?' "

[Excerpted from an article by Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times]

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

China Cleaning Up the NK Defectors for the Beijing Olympics

Tim Peters says that now is the worst time ever for North Korean defectors in China.

Tim Peters is an American human rights activist who for the past 10 years has devoted himself to the improvement of conditions of North Korean refugees, and defector assistance. His activities mainly consist of assisting the North Korean refugees in China and sending food to children, orphans and pregnant women inside North Korea.

Tim Peters, one of a number of NGO activists for this cause, has been active in Korea and inside China as well. In 1998 Peters established a relief organization called Helping Hands Korea, which helps North Korean defectors in China.

“With the upcoming Beijing Olympics, the government of China considers the North Korean defector as 'target number 1 for clean up'”, Peters says. And as a result their control has intensified, making the situation even worse for the refugees.

[From article by Ah Kyoung Hee, The Daily NK]

Monday, January 23, 2006

Daily NK Interview with Tim Peters

The Daily NK met with Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, to find out more about his organization’s activities in China.

Daily NK: What are your current activities in China?

Repatriated refugees, some of whom have defected [from North Korea] three or four times, are either executed, or tortured severely and sent to the gulags. Their pain is indescribable. Helping Hands Korea helps these people who are in hiding safely make their way to third countries, whatever country. As long as they find refuge, I have no bias on whether they end up in South Korea or another country.

I guess this is like a fireman rescuing people trapped in a fire. All I want is that the defectors can escape the fear of hunger, suffering, torture, and execution.

Another thing Helping Hands Korea does is send food to North Korean schools, kindergartens, and orphanages. We no longer send grains such as rice or corn but we send prepared foodstuff from China directly to the places in need [in North Korea].

Daily NK Interview with Tim Peters (2)

Daily NK: Is there a specific reason why you send prepared food or meals?

Tim Peters: Mainly to prevent the food aid from being used for other purposes. In 1996, under the Kim Young Sam administration, the only legal way to send food into North Korea was through the Red Cross. However, most of the food sent at the time did not make it to the outer regions such as Hamkyung province and Hwanghe province, but only to [the capital city] Pyongyang. The food ended up going to the ruling class and the military.

Thus Helping Hands Korea looked for other ways to provide food to the North Korea people, and decided on prepared food because for one it is only fresh and useable for a given time and so it is more inclined to be used as intended and you reduce risk of food being diverted for other purposes. There is a much higher possibility that it will reach the people directly.

Daily NK: How is this food aid distributed to the people?

Tim Peters: When I found out that food aid was being embezzled, we formed our own network by which to send food into North Korea. The network was formed around NGO activists, including myself, and Chinese of Korean descendent, as well as North Koreans who have relatives in China. This remains the basic network we use to distribute the food.

Chinese individuals of Korean descendent deliver the meals, since those with relatives in North Korea can freely travel back and forth across the North Korean border. This also allows us to monitor that the food is properly distributed inside North Korea. The relatives in China stay in touch with those in North Korea to confirm they are receiving their meals.

Daily NK Interview with Tim Peters (3)

Daily NK: Does the government of China still repatriate North Korean defectors?

Tim Peters: Yes. China repatriates hundreds of North Korean defectors back to North Korea every month. The extent of this violation is more than words can describe.

China claims it fulfills its responsibilities as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. However, not only does it not take any humanitarian actions, but China then carries out inhumane policies of arrest and repatriation of the defectors

Daily NK: Can you tell us about the current situation of the defectors?

Tim Peters: Currently the Chinese police have intensified control of defectors in the Northeast regions. Until a few years ago, we had the relative freedom to manage more than ten safe houses in China where the defectors could find a place of refuge. Now we are down to two in the same area. Also, it is no longer safe for defectors to stay together as a family but individuals have to seek refuge separately. The defectors live day by day, in remote places, with constant fear of arrest.

With the coming Beijing Olympics, the government of China considers the North Korean defector as “target number 1 for clean up” So this is why control has intensified and the situation is worse for the defectors.

Here’s an example, my wife and I and a doctor attempted to deliver some medication to a woman refugee. The defector we were to meet was scheduled to leave to Cambodia the next day, and she needed some medication. When we arrived at the meeting place, we received the message that the woman did not wish to meet us.

Even though she was in urgent need of medication, she refused to meet anyone. Here on the eve of her anticipated departure to a safe country, she just didn’t want to take a chance, since she had learned to trust no one. This is but one example of the extensive control of the Chinese government.

Daily NK Interview with Tim Peters (4)

Daily NK: Aren’t there efforts in place to prevent the forced repatriation of the defectors back to North Korea?

Tim Peters: The problem is the South Korean government, who does not intervene when South Korean nationals are arrested by the Chinese government for assisting the North Korean detectors. Take the cases of Choi Young Hoon arrested in 2003, or Kim Tae Hee who was imprisoned for two years, and many other South Korean missionaries and activists.

Unfortunately, the South Korean government does very little for its nationals who want to help the North Koreans in this respect. The government’s priority is to maintain economic and trade ties with China so it refuses to even bring up the human rights issues. And China uses such trade relations to further its other interests as well.

This is a very sad situation. I cannot even begin to express my disappointment about the South Korean government’s stance. The human rights issue must be prioritized. South Korea’s actions must match up to the democratic principles upon which its state is established.

Daily NK Interview with Tim Peters (5)

Daily NK: Besides the role of the government, what about the role of society?

Tim Peters: Obviously, I believe it is the role of NGOs to speak out about the North Korean situation and the inhumane policies of the Chinese government.

Firstly, NGO activists in the States monitor Washington’s foreign policies, to determine whether the U.S. Government foreign ministry has policies in place recognizing the plight of the North Korean defectors, and the what kind of efforts are being implemented to improve human rights situations of the North Korean refugees in China.

Second we reach out to the business community. The economy and human rights are inseparable. Prior to trade relations, we must demand that China actively engages in addressing these human rights problems.

We engage business firms in this human rights discussion. For example, the government of South Korea is developing industries in Southeast Asia, China and other third countries. Companies that hire North Korean refugees could be subsidized. This would allow North Korean defectors to be able to live in third countries as legal citizens just as they would in South Korea.

So businesses could evaluate ways to provide opportunities for a new start for North Korean defectors who flee to these same countries.

Daily NK Interview with Tim Peters (6)

Daily NK: Name an outstanding event from the past ten years of your work.

Tim Peters: Last December, we worked to rescue three North Korean women in China and managed to transport them to Southeast Asia. Among the three, two had experienced terrible things like forced abortion and were in a very fragile psychological state, unable to do normal daily activities.

Later in the month I was at an end of the year party, on December 25th, a get-together attended by a number of Koreans who had defected North Korea. Two teenage girls came up to me and thanked me. It turned out that one the three women who we had just smuggled to this Southeast Asian country was their mother. I will never forget the feeling of warmth inside of my heart at that moment.

There are still many North Korean defectors inside China. They live in cold and hunger, striving daily to survive. My activities will not stop until all these refugees are out from under the threat of repatriation and starvation.

[Interview with Ah Kyoung Hee, The Daily NK]

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Envoy to China: Treat Defectors Better

The U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea 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.

"We have called on China to live up to its own international obligations," Jay Lefkowitz told a news conference, saying Beijing should grant the U.N. refugee agency access to the border region. "We will continue to try to work cooperatively with the Chinese."

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.

At a Seoul conference on human rights in the North, activists repeats calls to China not to send North Korean defectors back to their communist homeland, where they can face harsh punishment.

Joel Charny, vice president of Washington-based Refugees International, said no solution will be possible unless China changes its policy - something critics expect is unlikely to happen in the near future. Still, he said tough measures - like sanctions and campaigns to either boycott or switch the venue of 2008 Beijing Olympics - would grab Chinese attention but also backfire.

Human rights activists also criticized the United States for being reluctant to accept ordinary North Korean defectors who sought asylum in American missions abroad.

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.

[Excerpted from Forbes magazine]

Saturday, January 21, 2006

U.S. Congressman Blasts North Korea

In a rare move, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde , sent a letter of encouragement to U.S. Ambassador to Korea Alexander Vershbow, who had criticized North Korea as a “criminal regime.”

Hyde’s letter can be interpreted as his public response to an official request from South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon to Ambassador Vershbow to restrain himself from making provocative statements, and to the mention of a resolution to recall Vershbow being put forward by some politicians.

In his letter, Hyde said, “People who are willing to defend a regime that threatens the safety and prosperity of the U.S. public and the international community by proliferating nuclear weapons, counterfeiting U.S. dollars, violating human rights in general, and committing other illegal acts are not friends of the U.S. or the U.S. people.”

Hyde said that the fate of U.S. is entwined with that of Korea for more than next 50 years and stated, “In this respect, I want to praise Ambassador Vershbow for strongly defending U.S. values, including democracy and human rights, and for calling those who systemically counterfeit U.S. dollars to threaten the U.S. economic security to account.”

In addition, Hyde criticized the South Korean and Chinese governments for improperly handling North Korean defections.

Hyde said, “The two governments should think of their brothers and fellow Koreans suffering from tyranny in North Korea this winter, and they should think of the refugees searching for shelter in China,” and said that those who cause innocent people pain are members of a criminal regime.

[Soon-Taek Kwon, donga.com]

Friday, January 20, 2006

U.S. Lawmaker Urges Faster Implementation of North Korean Human Rights Act

Representative James Leach, chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, is urging the Bush administration to speed implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act.

Leach said the United States has yet to receive a single application for refugee admission filed by a North Korean in the year since the measure became law. He said this situation was due to insufficient high-level diplomatic efforts.

"We are aware of cases where North Korean refugees hiding in third countries have approached U.S. diplomatic posts, unsuccessfully seeking assistance in relocating to the U.S. as refugees," he said. "Thus, an annual total of zero applications and zero admissions is clearly unacceptable."

The act requires the United States to share the burden of accepting North Korean refugees, Leach said, noting that the United States has the largest refugee resettlement program in the world and is home to the largest ethnic Korean population outside of Northeast Asia.

Among the witnesses who testified at a October 27 hearing on the subject were Kelu Chao, associate director for language programming at the Voice of America; Daniel Southerland, vice president for programming at Radio Free Asia; two North Korean refugees; and Tim Peters, the founder and director of a Christian relief project based in Seoul, South Korea, called Helping Hands Korea.

[Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov]

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Norway's heart for refugees

It is heartening to hear that Norway has admitted two North Korean refugees. It is particularly encouraging given the fact that nowadays, when it seems the entire international community talks about human rights conditions in the communist country, few actually take any action to alleviate the plight of its citizens.

In contrast, few of the vocal critics of the North's human rights abuses grant asylum or refugee status to North Korean deserters.

Take the United States for instance. Washington has received applications for either political asylum or refugee status from 13 North Koreans, including seven during fiscal 2005 that ended September. It rejected them all, as it did the six previous applications

The Norwegian government's welcome move to accept two North Koreans should be a reminder that you need humanitarian actions, not words, to help North Koreans.

Not only the United States, but other "gentlemen" countries like Japan and the European Union, which apparently care enough about North Korea to appoint a special envoy or rapporteur and author a U.N. resolution, should learn from the actions of Norway.

[From an editorial in the Korean Herald]

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

North Korean hunger for secrecy

Many Third World countries would have been driven to the wall by back-to-back years of floods and drought. North Korea, which suffered nature's disasters a decade ago, makes its problems worse with its leader's paranoid, Stalinist determination to isolate the nation from outsiders.

For 10 years, the United Nations' World Food Program has done what it could to limit the number of deaths by famine, providing millions of tons of food worth more than $1 billion.

When Pyongyang sometimes refused to let U.N. officials visit a province, the organization cut off the food. Its policy of "no access, no food aid" is necessary to ensure that dictators such as North Korea's Kim Jong Il don't take the milk and grain and give it to their soldiers and trusted civil servants, rather than those who need it most.

But now North Korea has forbidden private charities and the U.N. agency to deliver food.

Food aid, of course, is only part of the solution for North Korea's poverty problem.

[Excerpt of a L.A. Times editorial]

North Korean hunger for secrecy (2)

Pyongyang claims an improved harvest last year, and help from China and South Korea, will provide enough to feed its 23 million people. But outside experts are doubtful.

A more likely reason for stopping incoming food aid is to keep foreigners away and increase the already tight control by Kim's regime. That's clear from North Korea's offer to let the U.N. agency stay in the country if it helps with such things as building irrigation systems and reduces its staff of 35 foreigners to fewer than 10, all limited to Pyongyang. That would limit the agency's ability to serve much of the country.

Stopping the U.N. agency from distributing food is likely to send villagers back into the forests to find acorns and maize. The food that the agency supplied to schools was an incentive for parents to have their children educated; now that inducement is gone.

The agency also has established factories in North Korea to make biscuits fortified with extra vitamins and nutrients, which are given to the most vulnerable — children and pregnant women. But the country needs outside help to keep those factories operating.

Refusing U.N. help is a betrayal of the people most in need.

[Excerpt of a L.A. Times editorial]

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

US Criticizes North Korea for Halting UN Food Aid

The United States says it is being forced to suspend food aid to North Korea because of Pyongyang's decision to stop allowing the United Nations to distribute the food.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said U.S. policy requires that international relief workers be able to monitor the distribution of its food.

That safeguard disappeared when the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) stops distributing food in North Korea at the end of December 2005.

Mr. Ereli said it is a common practice for North Korea to "ignore the needs of its people" and "let them starve for inexplicable reasons."

North Korea announced last August that it no longer wanted U.N. food aid because it said domestic food production had improved, and the WFP should close all its food-processing plants in North Korea.

VOA News

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Gripping exposé Seoul Train

With its riveting footage of a secretive underground railroad, Seoul Train is a riveting documentary about the life and death of North Koreans as they try to escape their homeland. Seoul Train is the definitive exposé into this growing and potentially explosive humanitarian crisis.

By combining vérité footage, personal stories, and interviews with experts and government officials, Seoul Train depicts the flouting of international laws by major countries, the inaction and bureaucracy of the United Nations, and the heroics of activists who put themselves in harm's way to save the refugees.

Today, there are an estimated 250,000 North Korean refugees living underground in China. They escaped a food crisis and other persecutions at home that have claimed the lives of approximately 3 million in the past 10 years. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stands idly by, the Chinese government-in direct violation of international laws to which it's a party-systematically arrests and forcibly repatriates hundreds of these refugees each month.

Defecting from North Korea is a capital offense, and repatriated refugees face human rights abuses ranging from concentration camps and torture to forced abortion and summary executions. For a lucky few refugees, however, there is hope. A group of multinational activists has taken it upon themselves to create an underground railroad. Via a network of safe houses and escape routes, the activists-at great personal risk-help the refugees in daring escapes to freedom over thousands of miles of Chinese territory.

As if the current problem were not bad enough, estimates are that upon the fall of Kim Jong-il's regime, millions of refugees will flood into China across the shallow Tumen and Yalu rivers that divide the two countries.


Gripping exposé Seoul Train - Activism

In Seoul Train, we meet the activists, learn of the risks they take for their refugees and for themselves, and see firsthand the toll their work takes on them. We also hear from the Chinese government, which articulates why the country claims the North Koreans are not refugees; from the UNHCR as to why it has failed to save even one North Korean refugee; from members of U.S. Congress that have publicly challenged both the People's Republic of China and the UNHCR; and from other experts (academics and NGOs) on the crisis at hand as they foretell the impending disaster. Among them:

Senator Sam Brownback, Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission. Brownback pushes for human rights reform throughout the world, including North Korea, China and Sudan. He's also the original sponsor and Senate champion of the recently enacted North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 (H.R. 4011) and the Darfur Accountability Act (S. 495).

Marine Buissonnière, Secretary General. Médecins Sans Frontières International, Doctors Without Borders (MSF/DWB). Now the Secretary General for all of MSF/DWB, until 2003, Buissonnière was the regional representative for MSF in Seoul.

Chun Ki-won, Underground Railroad Activist. This mysterious and secretive pastor works the underground railroad with more success than any other single activist. He has traveled and initiated new routes that have brought approximately 10 percent of the total number of North Koreans that have made it to South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. A former businessman, Chun was initiated into the North Korean refugee crisis during a business trip to the Yanbian area of China, near the North Korean border, where he saw the body of a North Korean that had been shot in the back trying to cross the Tumen River.

Dr. Chung Byung-ho, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Hanyang University, South Korea. As an anthropology professor, Dr. Chung is an unbiased, respected expert on the effect of the food crisis upon North Koreans. He describes the famine in North Korea as one of the worst in modern history. Dr. Chung is acutely aware of the crisis; he oversees the six-month reeducation program for North Korean children that have made it to South Korea.

Kim Sang-hun, Underground Railroad Activist. Possibly the most covert member of the underground railroad, Kim a retired U.N. official, specializes in facilitating the escape of "high value" North Korean defectors that provide evidence against the Kim Jong-il regime for a future International Criminal Court tribunal.

Moon Kook-han, Underground Railroad Activist. Moon Kook-han specializes in making political statements as he leads refugee groups out of China. In 2001, he rushed a family of seven into the UNHCR office in downtown Beijing. With the Han-mi family, he stormed the Japanese consulate gates in Shenyang, China. He was also helping the ill-fated MoFA Seven, who were arrested by the Chinese and sent back to North Korea, where it is presumed some, if not all, have since died in concentration camps.

Tim Peters, Underground Railroad Activist and Founder and Director, Helping Hands Korea. Gentle and soft-spoken, Tim Peters is the glue that holds much of the underground railroad together. The Michigan native is the moral compass of the effort, supporting the activities of the underground railroad with funding, organization and guidance. Peters has lived in South Korea off and on for more than 28 years, dedicating himself to the service of the North Koreans. He is the founder and director of Helping Hands Korea and the Ton-a-Month Club, which provides more than a ton of food per month to North Koreans in the remote northern reaches of the country. To date, he has far surpassed that goal and is, in fact, three years ahead of plan.

Tarik Radwan, Immigration Attorney. An immigration attorney specializing in refugee issues, Radwan has dissected the agreement between the UNHCR and China. He has concluded that there are several legal measures available to the UNHCR to force China's compliance with international refugee law, but that the UNHCR has chosen not to use them.

Ron Redmond, Chief, Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR. As the UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond attempts to explain the UNHCR's perceived apathy toward the growing crisis of North Korean refugees. He explains that without the support of U.N. member states, the UNHCR is rendered powerless, and he calls into question the political will of member states, namely the United States, to address the issue.

Suzanne Scholte, Vice-Chairman, North Korea Freedom CoalitionA human rights activist fighting on behalf of North Koreans, Suzanne Scholte has directed her relentless energy to marshal U.S. policymakers to care about this issue, and she was one of the instrumental behind-the-scenes players in the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 (H.R. 4011).

Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, Underground Railroad ActivistNorbert Vollertsen is a German medical doctor who has worked on numerous underground railroad operations. Prior to becoming an activist, Vollertsen provided medical relief within North Korea, stating, "Children were dying in front of my eyes." Notwithstanding his controversial tactics, his efforts have brought the plight of North Koreans to the world's attention.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Seoul Train: Life-Risking Escapes, Faith-Motivated Efforts

Raved as a "gripping" documentary with "raw emotional power" by news agencies and other media, the 60-minute documentary film Seoul Train has taken the world by storm with a painted reality of the plight of North Korean refugees.

Already shown at more than 70 film festivals and screened before eight parliamentary bodies around the world, Seoul Train made what many human rights reports had touched upon into a more grappling shot of truth.

"The intention was to raise awareness," said film director and producer Jim Butterworth. "We had no idea that anyone other than our parents would see it ... that it would be seen by millions of people around the world."

The documentary takes the camera lens to the bare feet of starving children in North Korea, to refugee families moving through Asia's Underground Railroad and living in China, and to escape attempts that are sometimes successful and sometimes not. The first-hand accounts allow viewers to feel the fears and hopes through each minute.

Refugees are not able to make it to freedom all on their own. Seoul Train reveals the supporting hands of activists who place their lives on the line to help North Korean children and families gain a life where their human rights are protected. More often than not, the Underground Railroad activists were Christian.

"It turned out that men involved in the Underground Railroad are Christian and their efforts are Christian-based," said Butterworth. "You have people like Tim Peters and Chun Ki-won who are very faith motivated."

Peters, an evangelical Christian, is the founder and director of Helping Hands Korea and Chun is a pastor who has had the most success than any other activist with the Underground Railroad.

Butterworth mentioned that each person involved and risking their lives for the refugees was motivated at an individual level, whether faith-based or passion-driven.

Screenings of Seoul Train have been held throughout the world with the most recent U.S. one having taken place in Washington, D.C. The film had its television premiere in the United States on PBS' "Independent Lens" on Dec. 13 at 10 p.m.

"This is the watershed event," commented Butterworth about the premiere. "This is what is going to take a relatively obscure crisis and bring it into the mainstream so that everyone has the chance to know about it, not just the people who are involved in it today."

[From an article by Lillian Kwon, The Christian Post]

Thursday, January 12, 2006

North Korean Documentary Seoul Train Airs on PBS

Seoul Train is a gripping documentary exposé into the life-and-death struggle faced by North Korean refugees as they flee their homeland through China, which does not recognize their legal status as refugees. Combining verité and hidden camera footage with personal stories and interviews, the film brings to light this humanitarian tragedy of a neglected people risking—and often losing—their lives for freedom.

Due to the North Korean regime's human rights abuses, persecuted and hungry North Koreans find that their only option is to flee to China. The North Korean government also prohibits the UN special rapporteur on human rights from visiting the country and stymies the efforts of NGOs remaining in North Korea.

Kim Jung-il has ordered the World Food Program (WFP) to cease its operations—upon which one-third of the population depends—by December 31, 2005. In addition, other governments are reluctant to put human rights on the agenda in their discussions with North Korea for fear that North Korea will withdraw from the six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

As depicted in Seoul Train, the refugees flee to China, where the Chinese government flouts international law, to which it is a party, by forcibly repatriating refugees who will face known persecutions in North Korea (a practice known as “refoulement”). The Chinese government also prohibits access to the refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as other humanitarian groups. Moreover, the UNHCR refuses to do everything it can to gain access to the refugees, including taking legal action against the Chinese government to force its compliance with international refugee law.

Source: PBS

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Tales of North Korea's Underground Railroad

Seoul Train is an earnest and enterprising project, if not a brilliant documentary. Ms. Sleeth and Mr. Butterworth managed to acquire film shot by refugees and activists of the Asian Underground Railroad. These sequences - images of what Human Rights Watch has called "the world's largest prison camp" - are what make the film: they show improvised encampments of children scrabbling for food, far from the absurdist pageantry of Kim Jong Il

Similarly absorbing is film shot with smuggled cameras during harrowing escape attempts. In one attempt, the refugees, led by a handsome hero of the Underground Railroad called Chun Ki-won, make it to a safe house in Yanji, China; they also give interviews to the camera. They appear to be taking a breath before their next sprint - one would hope to Mongolia, where the authorities are less apt than the Chinese to return them to North Korea.

A 17-year-old girl is shown calling her grandmother in South Korea, promising to see her soon. The others talk about their religious faith. "I can't feel good or bad," one woman says. "Everything now is up to God."

Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, appears as a prophet here, saying: "We're going to look back in 10 years after North Korea opens up. We're going to see millions of people dead. And we're going say: 'Why didn't you act? Why didn't you do something?' "

[Excerpt from an article by Virginia Heffernan, New York Times]

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

North Korea Underground Railroad

In China, a few fortunate North Korean refugees discover Asia’s own Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and hidden routes set up to lead refugees to freedom in South Korea.

The Underground Railroad ... is made up of covert multinational cells of relief workers and volunteers who have led hundreds of refugees to freedom over vast stretches of unforgiving Chinese territory.

South Koreans make up the bulk of the volunteers, others are Japanese, Western or ethnic Koreans living in the U.S. or Europe. These networks provide refugees with a place to hide from authorities, as well as money, clothing, transportation and sometimes fake identification papers. Activists also prepare refugees for their journey by showing them videotaped footage of escape routes and teaching them how to get past suspicious citizens or border guards. The network uses drug traffickers and human smugglers who have connections with Chinese border guards, paying them up to $1,000 per person to sneak North Koreans across.

Every Underground Railroad worker, even those who help refugees across the smallest distances of two to three kilometers, operates in constant danger of discovery by North Korean agents and Chinese authorities. In desperate attempts to save themselves, refugees sometimes even inform upon the very workers who risk their lives to smuggle them out of China.

The chain of secret safe houses and hidden routes of the Underground Railroad evolved in the mid-1990s, when a deadly famine caused many North Koreans to leave their homes for neighboring China in search of food. In 1997, refugees poured into China when the effects of the famine hit their peak. Today, experts estimate that there are 250,000 North Korean refugees living underground in China.

Source: PBS

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

NK Underground Railroad Routes

Refugees who make contact with members of the Underground Railroad are brought to a safe house, where they are nursed back to health (many refugees arrive in China starved or injured), clothed and questioned about their reasons for leaving North Korea.

Railroad workers, as activists call themselves, then choose small groups of refugees to attempt a highly organized journey according to conditions and gut instinct. Before leaving, refugees are instructed how to pass as South Korean tourists in China. Most carry nothing with them.

The most popular path along the Underground Railroad runs from China’s Jilin province across the Gobi Desert to Mongolia. It is a rough, four-day trip by train, car and foot. Once refugees reach the border, they must crawl under a seven-foot barbed wire fence to reach Mongolia. Activists bribe guards along the border to ensure that the defectors will be allowed to reach the South Korean embassy in the Mongolian capitol of Ulan Bator.

A “Southeast Asian route” has existed since 1997 but, until recent security crackdowns near the Mongolian border, was seldom used due to its long distance. It takes three to ten days to travel from the Chinese-North Korean border to Southeast China, and trains are one of the few modes of travel available. Activists may also hire drivers to ferry refugees from point to point.

Each moment of the journey out of China is a risk for the refugees and those who help them along the Underground Railroad. Anyone—including a refugee—could be a government agent sent to gather information for authorities who want to break down activist cells. Tension among refugees can also cause trouble. Safe houses have been raided because neighbors have overheard refugees arguing.

Source:: PBS

Monday, January 02, 2006

Background: Underground Railroad Activists

Chun Ki-won - Underground Railroad Activist
Chun has continued to rebuild his Underground Railroad networks, and has recently opened a liaison office in Washington, D.C.

Moon Kook-han - Underground Railroad Activist
Moon has really felt the weight of loss over the MoFA Seven. He has since created a traveling exhibit that portrays and documents the human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean government.

Tim Peters - Underground Railroad Activist
Tim continues to send food aid to North Korea, and conducts various Underground Railroad activities. He recently had an incident in Bangkok where he tried to bring a North Korean refugee to both the U.S. Embassy and UNHCR, and was turned away from both (and testified to this before a House subcommittee).

Suzanne Scholte - Vice-Chairman, North Korea Freedom Coalition
Suzanne has the energy and drive of a dozen people; she’s completely relentless. She was extremely instrumental in the passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act [2004], and continues to lobby on Capitol Hill on issues related to North Korea human rights and refugees.

Dr. Norbert Vollertsen - Underground Railroad Activist Norbert was ordered to leave South Korea by the South Korean government by June of 2005, but was allowed to return in November. In addition to pursuing his uniquely public activism for North Koreans, he spent much of 2005 flying around the world providing emergency medical relief in tsunami, earthquake and other disaster zones.

Source: PBS

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Kang Chol Hwan on “Seoul Train”

Kang Chol Hwan recounts in The Aquariums of Pyongyang [which he authored] harrowing tales of the camp in which the human spirit, tested, gives way to sub-primal behavior, like when parents begin taking food from their children.

“Seoul Train,” the documentary about the underground railroad that ushers North Korean defectors across China into receptive third countries, "is but a glimpse", Kang says, "of what defectors actually endure to gain their freedom."

“That was only about one-tenth of the story,” he says.

North Koreans, once safe in South Korea, may feel more physically secure, “but their minds are uneasy, their hearts are not comfortable,” Kang says. They think about those left behind, stricken by survivor’s guilt.

[From "A View From Inside" by Grace E. Jang, published in KoreAm Journal]