Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Film Club Introduces Americans to Global Issues

"Films for the curious" is the motto of Ironweed, a movie club that offers a monthly DVD selection to subscribers around the United States and Canada. The concept of a film club is not new in the United States, but Ironweed doesn't feature Hollywood blockbusters. Instead, it chooses films that encourage Americans to learn more about important social issues, mostly in other parts of the world.

Take, for example, Ironweed's featured film last February, Seoul Train. The title refers to the Underground Railroad, a secretive19th century network in the United States that smuggled slaves from the South to freedom in the North. Only, in this documentary, the Underground Railroad is the path of North Koreans who want to flee their country, to the south.

Over scenes of police bursting into refugee hiding places and trying to prevent their escape, activist Tim Peters says, "When you come face to face with the realities of what the refugees have to tell us, suddenly, that two million dead or three million dead in North Korea starts to penetrate to your heart and your conscience, and you realize that you have to do something."

The introduction to Seoul Train is given by U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, an outspoken champion of human rights around the world, who tells viewers, "Yes, we're concerned about nuclear weapons in North Korea and what it means to the rest of the world. But the North Korean people need us, advocating for them and their human rights."

Senator Brownback quotes a Biblical verse that urged believers to feel, themselves, the chains of those who are bound. He says, in the same way, he wants the audience to not only feel empathy with North Korean refugees, but also be inspired to take action. "Please," he says, "join in the cause. Advocate for the freedom of those who do not know freedom, whose chains continue to bind them today."

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

South Korea "sees no evil, speaks no evil”

Tim Peters takes it for granted that North Korea and China will be hostile to his efforts. Far more galling to him is the attitude of the U.S. and South Korea. President Roh Moo Hyun's government in Seoul pursues, in Peters' words, a policy of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" in its pursuit of engagement with the North.

The Seoul government, Peters says, does not want to do anything to upset North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, lest it reduce the chances for peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. "

Any systematic effort to bring North Koreans to freedom might turn what now amounts to a trickle of refugees into a destabilizing flood—and Roh wants no part of it, nor do most South Koreans," says a Western diplomat in Seoul.

Last year, the South Korean government slashed in half the cash portion of the subsidy it used to pay refugees who make it to the South from 6 million won ($6,320) to 3 million ($3,160). The defectors often used the money they were given to help finance efforts to get their relatives out—typically by paying middlemen who are in the people-smuggling business for profit.

[Excerpted from TIME magazine “Long Walk to Freedom”]

Monday, May 29, 2006

Great escape

With some 53,000 refugees a year finding new homes in the United States, one group of six in the crowd hardly seems worth noticing. But when they are North Koreans bearing fresh accounts of abuses committed by their communist state and the horrors undergone to escape them, they quickly grab attention.

The six touched down on American soil May 5, the first time in more than 50 years the United States has taken North Koreans as refugees. Protection surrounding them and their useful escape route was tight: no names, and no identifying the Southeast Asian nation they came through. Disclosing those details could endanger the refugees' families remaining in North Korea.

Nonetheless, they have told other parts of their stories. The group's path to freedom began when some members contacted South Korean pastor Chun Ki Won in 2003. Rev. Chun is a well-known activist on the Underground Railroad, which smuggles North Korean refugees to safety, often first through hostile territory such as China and then Southeast Asia.

At least two of the women crossed the peril-fraught border with China in 1998 and 2003 and then found themselves sold into forced marriages with Chinese men. According to The Wall Street Journal, one endured severe beatings from her husband. The other suffered farm labor so excruciating she injured her back and could not walk for almost a year. China later repatriated her and as punishment for absconding, North Korea cycled her through its network of prison camps, thought to hold some 200,000 inmates. She later escaped back into China.

Such harrowing stories are typical, by activist accounts. Tim Peters, another ardent underground railroader, heads the Seoul-based nonprofit Helping Hands Korea. He estimates almost three-quarters of women refugees fall prey to traffickers in China. His group focuses on aiding North Koreans in worst crisis in China, which repatriates captured North Koreans despite their almost certain risk of punishment and even execution.

[Excerpt of an article by Priya Abraham, WORLD Magazine]


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Hope we can make up for lost time

Conditions for the [Undergound Railroad] are getting tougher: In March, Tim Peters heard that bounties for captured North Koreans had tripled in China. Refugees are now bypassing urban Chinese areas altogether in favor of safer rural routes. So being able to seek asylum easily in the United States is an important safety valve, though it has been hard to use until now.

The [recent arrival of 6 North Korean refugees] represents a months-long political shift toward helping refugees. Until now the Bush administration has focused unsuccessfully on lackluster six-party talks, aimed at disarming North Korea's nuclear threat. When the latest round last November yielded few gains, activists who had been arguing that human rights should be top priority in U.S. policy began gaining traction.

"Our side is in the ascendancy now," said Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, a Virginia-based group that promotes human rights and democracy. "What happened is the people that were in the Bush administration who favored six-party talks—they've lost that argument."

Adding steam about the same time last October was Tim Peters' congressional testimony about how U.S. embassy workers in Vietnam, China, and Thailand were refusing to help North Korean refugees in danger, despite a 2004 law making it easier to do so.

Lawmakers wrote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in February to complain, pointing out that "not one North Korean (had) been offered asylum or refugee status in the 16 months since the unanimous passage of the legislation."

More North Korean refugees are expected in the United States now, though Mr. Peters remains cautious about the good news. "I'm happy that the six came through, and let's just hope we can make up for lost time."

[Excerpt of an article by Priya Abraham, WORLD Magazine]

Friday, May 26, 2006

First Impressions: USA vs. North Korea

The [North Korean] refugees, four women and two men ranging in age from 20 to 36, got off the plane [at LAX] wearing vivid new clothes, jeans and brightly colored sweat gear they said would have been forbidden in North Korea.

Church officials ushered the new arrivals into a van and headed back to Bethel Korean Church for a banquet in the refugees' honor. [Then] the refugees [were] introduced to the rest of Bethel's 5,300-person congregation at the two regular Sunday services.

The refugees are trying to take it all in.

In Manhattan and in New Jersey, where they first stayed on arriving in the U.S. two weeks ago, Joseph Shin said he was struck by "people in all kinds of fashion and different colors. It hit us that we are in a different country."

The size of the houses where they stayed in a suburb of Washington, D.C. — a neighborhood much like Los Angeles' Hancock Park — astonished them too, a huge contrast to the single rooms of most North Korean families. The homes are "like a palace or a castle," said his sister, Chan Mi.

Refugee Johan Shin described it differently. "Wasteful," he said.

"Now that we've come here, it's hard to believe that such a world as North Korea can exist," another said.

[Excerpt of an article by Valerie Reitman, L.A. Times]

"Rice is a luxury in North Korea"

Choi, 24, who stands about 5 feet 7, is taller than the other [North Korean refugees, recently arrived in the U.S.] perhaps because her father, a Communist Party official, had a higher standard of living than most North Koreans. But after Choi's father was sent to prison for five years, the family was ostracized and Choi was banished from school.

She paid a broker to help her escape to China in 2004, but the agent instead sold her to a married man who confined her to a small room and raped her repeatedly for two years.

Omi's family was slowly starving when she fled to China. A man she hoped would help her instead sold her as a bride to a Chinese man, whose family treated her like a slave. She was eventually deported and spent time in a North Korean prison before once again crossing into China.

Like many defectors, new U.S. arrival Young Chul "Joseph" Shin, 32, the brother of fellow refugee Chan Mi Shin, went to China in 1997, during the famine, seeking food for his family.

He recalled his astonishment upon seeing the abundance of food even in the rural areas just across the river from North Korea. Dogs were being given rice porridge to eat, he recalls, "big bowls of it." Rice is a luxury in North Korea, he said, eaten only on one's birthday and New Year's.

[Excerpt of an article by Valerie Reitman, L.A. Times]

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Recently-Arrived North Korean Refugee Chan Mi Shin

In interviews with a reporter in Washington last week, group members told harrowing stories of their paths from North Korea to the U.S.

North Korean refugee Chan Mi Shin, 20, spoke of foraging for grasses, the only food her family could find, to make broth and of being so hungry during the famine that killed millions that she started hallucinating that an accordion's keys were cookies and candies.

Speaking through an interpreter, she and the three other women explained how each had been sold as brides or prostitutes to already married Chinese men who paid the equivalent of a few hundred dollars for them. Shin was sold into marriage three times within a year of turning 16.

[Her brother] said he was sent back to North Korea three times in six years, each time crossing the river back into China. He spent 18 months in labor camps, prison and torture facilities.

"The torture that I experienced, I didn't even know existed," he said. "They would take a wrench and clamp it on my finger and break it."

When asked by a reporter if he still has scars, he pulled up his shirt to reveal faint red marks on his back that remain from beatings with a steel whip.

[Excerpt of an article by Valerie Reitman, L.A. Times]

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

North Korean refugees now in California

Six North Korean defectors — the first refugees the U.S. has admitted from the totalitarian nation — arrived in Southern California on Saturday bearing accounts of famine, sexual enslavement, torture and repression.

The group was met at Los International Airport by leaders of four large Korean congregations in Southern California, all members of the Korean Church Coalition, which has pushed the government to take in North Korean refugees.

They hugged each of the refugees and handed them bouquets of fresh flowers as they emerged near the baggage area, accompanied by Chun Ki Won, the missionary who helped them escape via an underground railroad through China and Southeast Asia.

Before leaving the airport, church leaders joined hands with the defectors and prayed for North Koreans still living in the hermit kingdom or hiding in China.

"This is the moment we've been hoping and praying for for years," said Sam Kim, a lawyer and member of the Bethel Korean Church in Irvine.

Although it's not certain where the group will settle, church members have offered to help the defectors start new lives in California, home to the largest number of Koreans outside the Korean peninsula.

[Excerpt of an article by Valerie Reitman, L.A. Times]

The Underground Railroad link

Chun Ki-Won's Seoul-based Durihana Mission and others maintain a number of clandestine safe houses to hide defectors in northeastern China, where human rights groups estimate anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 North Koreans are living.

Chun spirits defectors out of China by train, bus, car or foot and into sympathetic countries that allow them to go to nations that will take them as refugees. South Korea has taken in about 8,000 North Korean refugees in the past few years, including about 1,400 this year.

During a few days in Washington last week, the refugees began many of their meetings with officials by thanking Bush, members of Congress and others who helped them reach the U.S.

"If it were not for their efforts, we'd still be in China being sold, experiencing severe r4acism," [one north Korean refugee] said.

Chun described a little of each refugee's experiences; the North Korean women sobbed as they listened.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who was instrumental in getting the refugees to the U.S., said the meeting he attended with the refugees "was one of the most profound I've ever had."

[Excerpt of an article by Valerie Reitman, L.A. Times]

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

UNHCR pledges greater support for North Koreans

This month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that it will step up efforts to protect and support North Korean refugees in China and Mongolia.

In particular, the UNHCR urged the Chinese government to prepare a proper law covering the refugee issue and strengthen its legal protection and aid for North Korean defectors applying for asylum.

High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said that although most of the defectors in China are illegal aliens who crossed the border not for political reasons, but for hunger and a better life, they shouldn’t be repatriated to North Korea.

Guterres further stated that the Korean government has agreed to accept all of defectors who initially wanted to head for U.S. but were denied access in the status determination process by the U.S. government. Guterres said, “The Korean government and the UNHCR agreed to make sure no defectors in Southeast Asia are abandoned without protection.”


Monday, May 22, 2006

Cost of bringing out North Korean refugees

North Korean refugees hiding in China can be brought out of the country by paying "brokers", a U.S. human rights advocate says.

Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, told Yonhap. News Agency, "You can get anybody out. It's all a matter of money."

"The price is usually between $500 and $2,000 a head, depending on whether they are high-profile or not."

She estimated dozens of North Koreans have come into the U.S., many under "witness protection" type programs, intentionally not publicized.

China, which shares a border with North Korea, is the primary escape route for the refugees who hope to reach South Korea or other countries to seek asylum. Tens of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be hiding in such border cities.

Human rights groups are trying to raise money from private sources in the U.S. and other countries to fund a North Korean refugee assistance program.

In what will be a two-phase disbursement, the privately gathered funds will be used to pay the "brokers" to get the refugees out of their hiding place, while U.S. government funds will be used to help them once they are out, Scholte said.

"We would like to see that funding used to help organizations that are feeding, clothing and sheltering North Korean refugees wherever they are," she said. "Most of them are on a shoestring budget."

[Yonhap News]

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The New Underground Railroad

"Hannah" and "Naomi" are the noms de liberté of the [North Korean refugee] women who were willing to savor a taste of their new freedom by meeting an American journalist. Even so, they remain fearful for the safety of the families they have left behind in North Korea. The relatives of defectors can simply disappear--sent to the gulag or worse. "North Korea has many spies," says Naomi, through an interpreter.

The women's new names were bestowed on them by Chun Ki-won, the South Korean pastor whose underground railroad led them, and four others, thousands of miles across China to sanctuary in Southeast Asia this spring.

Pastor Chun is a man of "miracles," the women say. Their own particular miracle is to have stepped off a plane in this country late last Friday, the first refugees to enter the U.S. under asylum rules set up under the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act. Naomi, Hannah and the four compatriots who traveled with them had spent years in virtual servitude in northeast China, along the North Korean border.

Hannah and Naomi are willing to share their stories, but first they wish to make a statement. Hannah settles herself in her chair, opens a small notebook, and reads in Korean the words she has prepared: "Before we begin this interview, I want to thank God for bringing us to this land of dreams. We sincerely thank President George Bush and the American government for letting us enter as refugees." She bows slightly, closes her notebook, and prepares to relive her ordeal.

[Excerpts of an article by Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal]

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Chanmi, North Korean Refugee was sold, jailed

A 21-year-old woman, who this month became one of the first six North Koreans granted U.S. asylum, has said she was sold repeatedly into marriage in China and jailed in North Korea before successfully seeking refuge in a U.S. embassy in Asia.

Chanmi is a pseudonym given to her by Rev. Chun Ki-Won, a South Korean national who helps North Koreans to escape their native country.

“I’ve been to Korean supermarkets here [in the United States], and I was surprised to find so many kinds of goods. … Wherever I go here, I’m treated to lots of good food, which makes me think about my mom in North Korea as well as our defectors in China.”

Chanmi said she first fled North Korea in September 2001, crossing the Chinese border to visit relatives and obtain food. Chinese police apprehended her and returned her to North Korea, where she spent 40 days in jail.

“I was freed in December 2002 and fled to China again, but this time I was sold off by Korean-Chinese brokers several times to Chinese men. I was sold at the price of 20,000 yuan,” she said. “So many North Korean women are sold like this in so many areas in China.”

In February 2004, “the third eldest of my brothers came to save me. He and I were caught by Chinese. After a trial in North Korea, my brother was confined to a political prison with no hope of being freed, and I was sentenced to three years. After serving 19 months in prison, I was freed, with my body bruised due to kicking and beating by prison guards.”

“While in prison, I witnessed some harrowing scenes. I saw three to five bodies being carried outside prisons every day, and the guards buried them with shovels under ground, breaking their necks and joints first. They died of hunger and malnutrition, I thought.”

“I came to know about God and Bible through my eldest brother who traveled a lot to China. Until then, I was so scared even to hear about ‘God.’ In North Korea, even uttering one word about God will send you to prison.”

[Radio Free Asia]

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hannah, North Korean refugee recently admitted to the U.S.

"My husband was an officer in the army," she begins, and "I was a teacher."

Her husband was seriously injured in a military exercise that left him unable to work. Without his salary, the family had difficulty making ends meet, so when the mother of one of Hannah's students offered her 300 won (about $136) to travel with her to a town along the Chinese border to pick up the fabric she used in her clothing business, Hannah accepted the job.

At the North Korean border town, the women were invited to dinner at the home of the middleman who was selling them the fabric. Halfway through the meal, Hannah fell asleep--there was a narcotic in the food--and she woke up later in a dark basement. "I was tied up," she says, "but I could hear my friend say, 'Teacher, I think we've been sold.' " They were no longer in North Korea, but in China.

“How can this happen?. . . What would happen to my family, my child? . . . I felt like I was living in hell." She was soon sold to a farmer for 20,000 Chinese yuan, or $2,500.

North Korean "brides" are prized in China, where there is a shortage of young women thanks to Beijing's one-child policy, Chinese families' preference for sons, and the government's blind eye toward rampant female infanticide.

A North Korean in China--even one who is there against her own volition--quickly learns that there is a worse fate than being sold into sexual slavery: being captured by the Chinese authorities and repatriated. It is a crime to leave the North, and Koreans who are sent back end up in prison camps or worse. "I had no choice but to depend on the man" who bought her, Hannah says. But "for the first time in my life, I felt like a sinner, because I had a family in North Korea and I was living with this man."

Hannah's new "husband" beat her--once breaking her breastbone. He would threaten to kill her or turn her over to the police. "North Koreans like you are easier to kill than a chicken," he once told her. Hannah soon found herself pregnant, praying that her husband's abuse would cease once she gave him a child.

His behavior did not improve after the birth of their daughter, leading Hannah to consider suicide. But "I have two children, one in North Korea, one in China. . . . How sad my daughters would be to know that they didn't have a mother. I decided I had to live for my daughters."

That led to the decision to run away from her Chinese husband. He "had no other children, and he really did love the child, and he treated her well." She spoke to her mother-in-law and persuaded her to take care of her daughter until she came back. "So I left when my daughter was asleep." A missionary helped Hannah get to Beijing, where she connected with the underground railroad. It was more difficult to blend in in Beijing, where there were few ethnic Koreans, and Hannah was afraid she would be captured. "It's unspeakable, the fear."

Our interview over, Hannah relaxes and begins to talk about her first few days in America. "[I] still do feel lonely," says Hannah, "but my heart feels free."

[Excerpts of an article by Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal]

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Naomi, North Korean refugee, recently admitted to the U.S.

‘From 1994 there was a famine and it became very difficult to eat," Naomi begins. "Even though we all had jobs we did not get paid . . . and we had to pay the government [a tax]."

Naomi's father had been born in China, and in 1998, with the family in debt and still struggling for food, she decided to see if she could find her relatives there and ask for help. She was befriended by a Chinese traveling salesman, who offered to guide her to her relatives' address. She left in the middle of the night. "I didn't want my parents to know I was leaving," she says. "I thought I would go for a few days and come back."

The merchant led her across the Tumen River to an apartment in a city on the Chinese side. It was then that she realized that the wares her salesman-friend sold were human--and female. She was given to a farmer, exchanged for the Korean "wife" he had purchased a month earlier, but who had turned out to be ill. "The day after I arrived, a neighbor reported me so five or six security people came to the house. I was so frightened and confused." The family paid a 3,000-yuan fine for the authorities to pretend she wasn't there.

Naomi spent the next three years in hard farm labor, suffering a back injury so severe that she couldn't walk for nearly a year. The family refused to get medical treatment for her because they were afraid someone would find out they were harboring an illegal refugee. After she did not become pregnant, the family eventually allowed her to leave to search for her relatives. When she finally found them, they ordered her to marry a man they picked out for her. Six months later she became pregnant.

"When I was eight months pregnant, I was captured by the Chinese," she says. "Somebody from my neighborhood reported me. . . . [The Chinese] pay people to report North Koreans." Her relatives paid the fine, but seven months later, when her son was still nursing, she was captured again. This time she was sent back to North Korea. Her son was wrenched from her.

She spent the next period of her life in a succession of prison camps. "I went into the Musan Security Center. There if you even spoke a word, they would make you hold out your hands and beat you with a large wooden stick."

She did farm work in another camp. It was harvest season. "You start at 4 o'clock in the morning and work until 10 or 11 at night." When the guards moved prisoners from camp to camp, "they would use shoelaces to tie our thumbs together to the thumbs of the person next to us so tightly that our thumbs would swell up."

After she was released, she sneaked back in to China. "I had to go because of my son," she says. It was too dangerous to stay in the same town, so she tied her son on her back and moved to another city with her husband. Fearing discovery--and with a husband who kept threatening to report her--she switched jobs constantly. She worked as a cook, as an Internet chat girl, and even danced nude for a Webcast.

In 2004, when listening to the Voice of America, she learned about Pastor Chun's underground railroad. She used the Internet to find his organization's fax number and sent him a plea for help. Her mother-in-law agreed to take care of her son, and Naomi decided to make a run for it.

Our interview over, [Naomi] relaxes and begins to talk about her first few days in America. "When we were in China," Naomi says, "we always had to hide. Now we don't feel that way anymore."

[Excerpts of an article by Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal]

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

WFP resumes food aid to North Korea

The World Food Program will resume food aid to the hunger-stricken country of North Korea, but the operation will be smaller than it was before its suspension last December, the U.N. agency said.

The new program will feed 1.9 million of the "most needy" people in the North, Tony Banbury, the agency's Asia regional director, said at a news conference.

That is much less than the 6.5 million people the agency was feeding in past years.

North Korea has relied for more than a decade on foreign donations to feed its people. The WFP suspended aid in December after the North's government asked the agency to shift its focus to economic development aid. The two sides have been negotiating since then.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Underground Railroad “On the Right Side”

More than any other Westerner, Tim Peters has become the public face of a network of activists, many motivated by their Christian faith, who try against formidable odds to bring North Koreans to Seoul. Peters and others in the network do not shrink from the comparison to the Underground Railroad of the U.S. Civil War era

"When we look back at this era, at what [the North Korean government] has done to its people, I'm convinced the civilized world will be shocked—and also shamed," Peters says softly. Shamed, he means, by its inaction, and by its lack of attention. "In the meantime," he says, "we do what we can."

Doing "what we can" is getting riskier by the day. Two governments—North Korea and China—actively seek to put the Seoul Train, as it has been called, out of business.

The result, says Peters, "is that the whole paradigm of our operations has been changed." Refugees now avoid cities in the northeast of China, hiding instead in forest caves they have dug out for themselves.

The activists running the railroad are often caught in such sweeps. Another South Korean activist …his nom de guerre, "Hite" spent a year and a half in a Chinese prison for helping North Koreans. Upon his release, says Tim Peters, Hite "headed right back into the fight."

His "faith," Hite now says, was only "reinforced while I was in prison. I knew I was on the right side."

[Excerpted from TIME magazine “Long Walk to Freedom”]

Monday, May 15, 2006

Real Life Dangers for Underground Railroad Activists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Missionary's calling requires security measures

Tim Peters first arrived in Korea in 1973, a year after first making the life-changing decision to be a missionary. During the Chun Doo-hwan administration he was thrown out of the country for distributing leaflets that were critical of the government's stance on human rights.

Today, he faces a battle in getting the spotlight on the issue of North Korean human rights. When asked if there are people who are out to discredit him or even threaten his life, he gave an answer related to his calling, how he wants his work to glorify God and his critics will be proven wrong with the evidence.

"But I do lock the door at night." And he keeps his back to the wall in restaurants so he can "watch the door" and doesn't stand close to the edge of the platform in subway stations. Asked if he thinks there are North Korean agents watching him or if someone would want to push him over the edge of the platform, he said, "it's in the realm of possibility."

He assumes his phone is tapped and the organization takes basic security precautions such as operating in a cell structure so that he doesn't know all of the people involved.

"You have to be aware as you can. And pray," he said.

[Excerpt of an article by Jane Cooper, The Korea Herald]

Tim Peters credits his wife

During his interview with The Korea Herald, Tim Peters spoke of a successful rescue that happened the day before. For that individual North Korean to be "delivered" to a safe haven, he didn't need to be there in the "battlefield" himself. Instead, he coordinated the effort through his Asian partners.

Peters founded Helping Hands Korea in 1996 on his third stint in Korea. At that time there was a famine in the North and he realized that his mission was to help "North Koreans in crisis."

Now that his organization is gaining recognition, he says the credit should go to his wife. He describes her as "unique person" for being able to put up with the challenges of being a missionary's wife. "My wife is a saint," he said. During their marriage, he estimates that they have had to move houses 50 times. During other periods, they had to do visa runs every 90 days with all five children in tow.

"She could have so easily given up on me in the last 30 years," he said, adding that she has sacrificed and endured so much. He said that she always had a deep respect for his calling and probably bit her lip every time she doubted what they were doing.

[Excerpt of an article by Jane Cooper, The Korea Herald]

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Missionary becomes ‘Seoul Saver’

For years as an underground activist Tim Peters was a voice in the wilderness, but now people are taking notice. Last week Time magazine dubbed him a "Seoul Saver" and splashed his image across the cover of its Asia edition.

"I guess the days of me being underground are long gone," he joked. "It's out there, you can't put the worms back in the can!"

Like his apartment, he explained, he was half underground anyway, "But this takes visibility to a whole new level," Peters said.

While that exposure means that he has to be more careful in choosing his trips to China, he is glad that the plight of North Koreans is being "put on the radar."

Now his days are taken up giving interviews, writing speeches and raising the profile of his work. He describes himself as a "facilitator, an appropriator of funds."

[Excerpt of an article by Jane Cooper, The Korea Herald]

Missionary's calling not 'peaches and cream'

On [May 9th] in 1972 Tim Peters walked out of a university tutorial on Shakespeare and made a decision that changed his life.

To the confusion of his professor who thought the tutorial went well, he never went back to study at Michigan State University. But he wasn't an ordinary dropout - it was a "profound religious experience" that led him to dedicate his life to missionary work.

That calling brought him to Seoul where he is now the coordinator of an underground railroad that helps North Korean refugees escape. In China, the refugees live in constant fear of being repatriated to North Korea where they face internment in prison camps or even execution for trying to escape. A "strike hard campaign" by the Chinese authorities means that Peters' work has become more difficult, and those helping North Koreans risk being thrown into Chinese jails.

"Never underestimate the power of prayer," he told The Korea Herald.

And in the South, there are those that are hostile to his work, "I don't want to dwell on that," he said, explaining that if you are prominent and take a stand on a sensitive issue "you've got to expect it's not going to be peaches and cream."

[Excerpt of an article by Jane Cooper, The Korea Herald]

Friday, May 12, 2006

The highlighting of North Korean refugee problem

In April, U.S. President George W. Bush met families of North Korean refugee Kim Han-mi and Japanese kidnap victim Megumi Yokota in the White House. Megumi was 13 when North Koreans kidnapped her in 1977.

Kim was 2 years old when she was captured by Chinese authorities as she and her parents tried to run into the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China, in 2002.

The meeting crowned a weeklong series of events dubbed North Korea Freedom Week, organized by the North Korea Freedom Coalition.

Tim Peters, project manager for Helping Hands, a Christian organization dedicated to advancing human rights in North Korea, said while the public attention North Korean human rights is getting is great, more concrete action has to accompany it.

The U.S. passed the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004, but $24 million designated to help North Korean refugees has not materialized, Peters said.

Major powers, including the U.S., are too afraid of upsetting trade relations with China to take action necessary to help North Koreans, he said.

Peters said he was glad the congressional hearings brought attention to 82,000 South Korean citizens abducted in a three-month period in 1950, during the Korean War, adding that very little is heard from the South Korean government about the abductees.

“I am delighted that the Korean War Abductees Family Union is getting recognition and attention for the incredibly huge heartbreak they have been going through for decades,'' he said.

Peters said the U.S. State Department needed to “get out of neutral'' and allow large numbers of refugees to enter the country.

“Lip service is great, and jawboning is great, but the fact is that these people are being ground into the dirt,'' by both the North Korean and the Chinese governments, Peters said.

[Excerpt of article by Christopher Carpenter, The Korea Times]

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Increasingly desperate plight of North Korean refugees

The plight of North Korea’s refugees is increasingly desperate as China steps up a "strike-hard" campaign to crack down on refugees in the border area between China and North Korea, says Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea.

Peters, who is part of the "underground railroad" that gives refugees passage to a third country, says his job is becoming more difficult. Previously, North Koreans escaping famine and political repression were able to hide out in shelters on the border, but now these safe houses are disappearing.

Added to this is the constant fear of being repatriated by the Chinese authorities who regard them as "economic migrants" and not refugees. Back in North Korea they face prison camps or even execution.

The North Korean Human Rights Act offered hope of getting people in such a predicament to safety. Peters says that while the act was a good "symbolic gesture," it has little effect.

In theory, the act makes it easier for North Koreans to enter the United States as refugees, but Peters said when he has taken urgent cases to U.S. Embassies, he has been turned away.

When he took a "17-year-old North Korean girl who lost her father to a firing squad, her mother to the gulag and her sister to a Chinese police sweep," he felt her case was urgent because she could be picked up by a human trafficker. He approached a U.S. Embassy but was "startled by the response of one of the political officers of the embassy" who told him that there was nothing he could do.

This is just one of many cases Peters has dealt with.

He said the embassies don’t want to get involved for fear of causing problems with the host country. Also, the bigger picture of maintaining good diplomatic relations with China is given a higher priority.

The U.N. refugee agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has an office in Beijing, but Peters says that they are also are unwilling to help him get North Koreans to a third country. He mentioned another case where someone who had legitimate reason to believe that his life was in danger "fell through the bureaucratic cracks" between the UNHCR and the U.S. Embassy.

[Excerpt of an article in the Korean Herald, by Claudia Rosett, Jane Cooper]

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

UNHCR and plight of North Korean refugees

The purpose of the UNHCR is to protect displaced persons under the agreements of the 1951 U.N. Convention and 1967 Protocol on refugees.

Under this international law, fleeing North Koreans are considered refugees, but China - even though it is a signatory of the U.N. human rights declaration - sends them back to North Korea on the basis of them being illegal "economic migrants."

There are many others who are critical of the UNHCR`s handling of North Korean refugees. In a February 2005 editorial for the Wall Street Journal, Claudia Rosett wrote:

"The true horror is the way in which the well-mannered nuances of U.N. bureaucracy, structure and management have combined to dismiss demurely the desperate needs of hundreds of thousands of human beings fleeing famine and repression in the world’s worst totalitarian state."

The UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, Ron Redmond, said on CNN that the UNHCR has had its hands tied by China and for years has been a "voice in the wilderness."

Tim Peters says that the UNHCR should make a "conspicuous departure rather than maintain a passive presence" and should make it an international issue.

The UNHCR`s seemingly passive stance toward China has been defended as a method of "quiet diplomacy" that deals with the problem without stirring up fragile diplomatic relations with China.

Tim Peters says that the implication of "quiet diplomacy" is that the refugees are being taken care of, but Peters estimates that 200-300 North Koreans are being sent back across the border each week.

He says, though, that the good news is that people are still getting across. With all the odds stacked against them, "it’s a miracle that people can get through," he said.

[Excerpt of an article in the Korean Herald, by Claudia Rosett, Jane Cooper]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Diplomatic License: UNHCR and Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 08, 2006

North Korea & United Nations High Commission for Refugees

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

RICHARD ROTH, CNN: Tim Peters, is the United Nations and the governments in the United Nations doing enough and doing the right thing concerning the refugees fleeing North Korea?

TIM PETERS: Well, Richard, in my opinion the United Nations, the members thereof, could be likened to bystanders or spectators sitting in the bleachers, kind of watching the drama down below on the playing field.

As far as the activist community is concerned, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on the field there in China is not an actor and quite frankly we are puzzled why the United Nations, UNHCR, continues to even keep an office in Beijing, because we feel -- I feel in some ways that their departure in protest would have a far more conspicuous and powerful statement than a silent and passive remaining in China where, as Ron mentioned, the Chinese government has consistently not even allowed them to go to the border area.

RON REDMOND: Believe me, we're not in the bleachers. UNHCR has been a voice in the wilderness for the last five or six years on this issue. It's only recently that people have begun to pay attention to this issue. International attention has been focused on nuclear nonproliferation issues and other issues on the Korean peninsula. This thing has really been on the back burner, but it's not because UNHCR has not been trying to force this issue.

UNHCR, if we were to leave China, we would actually be leaving as one of the few human rights agencies that are in China. We also get refugees, asylum seekers, 200 or so a year, coming to our office in Beijing. Over the past six years there have been about 6,400 North Koreans who have ended up in South Korea. They didn't just drop in out of thin air. UNHCR helped a lot of those North Koreans get to the south.

ROTH: Suzanne, what's your thought on government action?

SUZANNE SCHOLTE: I do think that the UNHCR has been a failure and I don't think they've been aggressive enough. I think a lot of the people that have escaped have escaped under tremendous peril, going through several countries. It's people like Tim Peters who have been rescuing these refugees and getting them out through this underground railroad.

ROTH: OK. Tim Peters, you said -- very briefly -- you said they're doing it like pest control, the government in China, removing refugees and hunting them down?

PETERS: Absolutely, Richard. There is a stepped up program, a crackdown or strike hard campaign by the Chinese to send back the North Korean refugees as soon as they find them. There is no filtering process, no interview by the Chinese to determine if -- who and what is a refugee. It's simply shipped back by the truckload, sometimes as many as 300 or 400 a week.The fact that the international community is not coming forward and giving an outcry is so perplexing and extraordinarily frustrating for those of us that are trying to rescue these people.

ROTH: I have to stop our interview there. Tim Peters, with Helping Hands Korea, on the phone from South Korea, thank you very much.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

First North Koreans granted official refugee status

Six refugees from North Korea, including four women who say they were victims of sexual slavery or forced marriages, have fled to the United States.

The group is the first from North Korea to be given official refugee status since passage of a 2004 law that makes it easier for North Koreans to apply for such status.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, said the six refugees arrived at an undisclosed U.S. location Friday night from a Southeast Asian nation.

"This is a great act of compassion by the United States and the other countries involved," said Brownback, a co-sponsor of the law. He said that the refugees' arrival in the United States showed "the act is working" by making the refugees' human rights a part of U.S. policy toward the North.

In 2004, Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, part of which specified that the State Department would make it easier for North Koreans to try for refugee status in the United States.

North Korea long has been accused of torture, public executions and other atrocities against its people. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are believed to be held in prison camps for political reasons, the State Department said in a report last year.

Human rights activists have said that U.S. Embassy workers in Asian countries have refused to help North Korean refugees.

Last year, Timothy Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, told lawmakers at a hearing that U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing rebuffed him when he tried to arrange help for a 17-year-old North Korean refugee.

"I thought to myself, 'Is this the State Department's implementation of the North Korean Human Rights Act?"' he said.

[Associated Press]

Saturday, May 06, 2006

North Koreans Find Life Less Than Ideal in South

For North Koreans who manage to flee their repressive homeland and move to the South, reality can be cold. More than 7,000 North Koreans live in the South - most arrived in the past six years. Tens of thousands more are believed to be in China, awaiting the chance to make the journey.

North Koreans living [in South Korea] are called "sae tomin", or "new settlers". For sae tomin, aggressively capitalist South Korea is jarringly different from the home they left behind.

New arrivals spend their first three months in South Korea in a facility learning to cope with their new home. They are spoon-fed the most basic principles of life in a modern, capitalist country: from handling cash and using an automatic teller machine, to grocery shopping and seeking a job.

They then receive a one-time resettlement stipend of about $36,000.

This training and aid, though a tiny part of the government budget, causes some resentment among many South Koreans, who view the defectors as a drain of public resources.

Tim Peters is a Christian activist who works with North Korean arrivals. He says many are shocked to discover that they must now compete to be hired - and that it can be too easy to be fired. In the North, jobs are assigned by the state, and partly because of inadequate electricity and raw materials, many workers actually do little work.

"In North Korea, the culture of work is you don't do a darn thing unless you're told to do it," he said. "In South Korea, if you are not doing something, the boss is saying, 'why don't you take initiative, why don't you do that?' Well, you take six months of this in a Korean workplace, and this guy is out on his ear, because he looks like a sloucher, a loafer."

[Excerpt of an article by Kurt Achin, Voice of America]

Friday, May 05, 2006

Refugee Kim Myong Suk’s Escape

Kim told her husband she was planning to leave China. Their relationship had deteriorated since he learned she could not conceive, but he agreed to accompany Kim to the Laotian border. That was critical; it meant there was no need for safe houses, since the authorities would see just an ordinary couple traveling through the country. "My husband accompanying me gave [the trip] stability," Kim says. "I am very grateful to him for that."

On December 9, they boarded a train in Mudanjiang, bound for Harbin and eventually Kunming, in Yunnan province. When they arrived in the south, they were greeted by a man named Jiang, a broker with whom Hite had worked before. The organizers had paid him 500 yuan ($62.50) upfront; Jiang promptly asked for 500 yuan more, then took Kim and her husband to a hotel where they stayed for three days. Then Jiang put them on a bus for a 20-hour trip to a town close by the Laotian border.

Kim was now just four hours from Laos. She thanked her husband, said goodbye, and climbed into a taxi that headed for the heavily guarded border, deep in the mountainous terrain where Laos, China and Burma meet. Kim and her guide got out at a remote spot—again, the activists won't say exactly where—and walked into Laos undetected. For two hours they trekked through the mountains until they met a car, which took them to Vientiane, where Hite was waiting.

On December 24, Kim called her mother in Seoul, and Hite called Kim Sang Hun and Tim Peters. For Peters, the call from Hite was "the best Christmas present we could have gotten."

Then it was on to Bangkok. On March 26, Kim flew to Seoul, for a tearful reunion with her mother, before being sent to a debriefing center, where she will answer questions from South Korean intelligence agents and learn what to expect in her new life.

[Excerpted from a TIME magazine article, “Running Out of the Darkness”]

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Kim Myong Suk & the Underground Railroad

In October 2005 she met Kim Sang Hun—a prominent Underground-Railroad activist in Seoul who brought the case to Tim Peters. The two of them started working on the logistics of Kim's flight to freedom.

The Seoul Train is little different from any other operation where a person—a spy, say—needs to be moved out of hostile territory. A successful operation needs money, a meticulous plan and reliable people. The operatives working inside China are critical; Tim Peters and Kim Sang Hun prefer to depend on fellow Christian activists, but will work with trustworthy brokers.

There's no magic formula for knowing how many people or how much money is needed. "It varies every time," Peters says. Nor can the route be specified in advance, though right now there are two "hot" roads out of China, one through Mongolia, another through Laos.

On Nov. 15, 2005, Kim told her mother she was ready to go. Tim Peters had raised $1,500 for the operation, and he and Kim Sang Hun had recruited four people to help. The Mongolian route was too risky in winter. One of the network's most effective activists in China is a former North Korean refugee whose son died in the snow trying to make it to a Mongolian border. So Hite, who can no longer get into China legally, would coordinate the operation from Laos.

[Excerpted from a TIME magazine article, “Running Out of the Darkness”]

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kim Myong Suk’s Refugee Story

Something in Kim's family's environment, however, had changed. When she was sent back to North Korea the first time, her mother had begun attending a church for ethnic Koreans. "I started to pray for her all the time there," she says. But in February 2004, Chinese police raided the church, shutting it down and arresting 12 North Korean refugees.

Kim's mother said that she no longer wanted to live in fear, and told her daughters that she planned to leave China. She said a friend from the church had introduced her to a 'people broker' who would help get them out of China. Her older daughter, who spoke Chinese, had married an ethnic Korean Chinese whose brother-in-law was a police officer. He got fake identity cards for the two women. They then paid the broker 2,000 yuan ($250), and one week later, the two crossed into Vietnam, later arriving in Cambodia, from where the South Korean government flew them on to Seoul.

Kim, having just married, did not want to follow. "I was frightened by what had happened to me the first time I was sent back to North Korea," she says. "I didn't want to try to get out and risk getting caught."

Her mother reluctantly agreed, fearing that Kim would be killed if she were caught. For the next year, Kim lived a quiet life with her husband. But the fear of arrest gnawed at her. Her Chinese was not fluent, and in 2005 the crackdown on refugees intensified. Because of her forced abortion, she could not have children. Her husband was bitterly disappointed by that, says Kim's mother, who was determined to do what she could to help.

[Excerpted from a TIME magazine article, “Running Out of the Darkness”]

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Kim Myong Suk’s China Refugee Story

Kim went to live in Onsong, a town near the border with China, and quickly decided that she would try to flee again. Her mother and an older sister had followed her out of North Korea, and they were now living in Heilongjiang. Occasionally Kim's mother sent a Chinese courier back into North Korea with some money and messages. Kim gave one of the couriers a note telling her mother she would try to escape again. "My motivation was hunger, and also there is no freedom in North Korea," she says. "It is a closed society. Even though we were out of the [labor] camp, we felt like we were locked up in that country. I wanted to find a way to get out again."

So on a bitterly cold night in early March 2002, she went for it. "My head and my heart were pounding," Kim remembers. If caught—either in the attempt or in China—Kim would have received, at the least, a long prison sentence, and could quite possibly have been executed. At 2 a.m., with no guards in sight and clutching just one small bag with a change of clothes in it, she hustled across the frozen Tumen River, and into China for the second time.

Kim says she had no thoughts then of going beyond China, no thoughts of making it to Seoul. She hooked up with her mother and older sister again in the city of Mudanjiang, and after a while met an ethnic Korean-Chinese who worked as a translator. The two married in early 2003.

[Excerpted from TIME magazine article, “Running Out of the Darkness”]

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Story of North Korean Refugee, Kim Myong Suk

With the aid of American Christians, North Koreans are risking their lives to reach freedom. The inside tale of one escape.

On a winter's day in late 1998, Kim Myong Suk, 20, lay shivering and weak from hunger on the cold concrete floor of a cell in a prison camp in North Korea, not far from the Chinese border. She was five months pregnant, and about to lose her unborn child.

In February 1998, Kim had fled from North Korea into China. Her welcome was hardly comfortable. She was immediately "sold off" into marriage by one of the criminal gangs in the northeast of China that prey upon refugees. China's one-child policy, and the intense cultural preference for sons rather than daughters, has left the country with a huge number of single men. Kim's "husband,'' she says, was a Chinese peasant from a small town in Heilongjiang province. At first they didn't have much of a relationship, but over time, Kim's mother says, she grew to have affection for him. "He turned out to be a simple, kind man," says her mother. When Kim got pregnant, her mother explains, "she decided she wanted to have the baby."

In October 1998, however, Chinese police conducted one of their periodic raids in search of refugees from the North. Kim tried to hide, but two policemen discovered her. She was arrested and sent back across the Tumen River to North Korea, where she was sentenced to three years in a labor camp. Food, she says, was scarce: "We were so hungry in the camps that we used to pick up and eat the remains of apples that the guards had thrown away." After a year and a half, Kim says, she was released under a special amnesty decree.

[Excerpted from a TIME magazine article, “Running Out of the Darkness”]