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How to Improve
Human Rights in North Korea

Speech by Hiroshi Kato
       Executive Director
       Life Funds for North Korean Refugees

North Korea has a serious human rights issue. The primary cause of this issue is the continuing military dictatorship, and its tight-fisted control of the people. In maintaining its hold on the country, the government mercilessly violates the basic right to life of its citizens.

Meanwhile, we have recently begun seeing another type of human rights violation, one that preys on desperate North Korean defectors fleeing from their country's ruthless regime. Criminals introduce themselves as NGO members who help North Korean refugees. In some cases, when they approach the defectors, they identify themselves as Christian missionaries or ministers, then rob the defectors of the small amounts of money they carry. In addition, some missionaries appear to be unfairly pressuring desperate defectors to adopt Christianity as a condition of receiving help.

Today, I will first discuss the problem with such self-proclaimed NGO members or Christian missionaries and ministers that take advantage of the vulnerable people who request help after having fled human rights violations in their fatherland. Then, I will discuss how we can improve these continuing human rights violations.

It is widely accepted that no improvement in the current human rights situation can be expected until North Korea's military dictatorship is replaced by a better, possibly democratic, government. Improvements in the human rights situation might even conceivably lead to rejection of the dictatorship and collapse of the regime.

It is particularly important, I believe, to continually remind the world community of the human rights violations being perpetrated by the North Korean government and to urge that government to respect universal human rights by pressuring them to discuss the issue internationally. Without such efforts, it will be difficult to gain worldwide support and sympathy in addressing the abduction issue. Addressing that issue only from the standpoint of infringement of national sovereignty will only lead to clashes or possible war between state powers. Even if it does not lead to clashes or war, the issue will be regarded only as a problem between two nations, thus adversely affecting any solution.

In North Korea, if anyone chances to question, criticize or complain about the current regime in casual conversation, he or she can be immediately arrested and imprisoned by a national security agent, or at least marked for monitoring by an agent. Once stigmatized as a person to be monitored, they will be taken away to a remote labor camp, prison or concentration camp, primitive places without electricity or running water. Allegedly, more than 2 million people are victims of the security agent networks in North Korea, and currently more than 200,000 are reportedly detained in political prisoner concentration camps. There, they live in terror.

Further, North Korea's regime is based on a system that discriminates according to class. Those who rule are the so-called “faithful” class, the middle class are called the “wavering” class, and all the rest are called the “hostile” class. The hostile class includes, for example, former land owners, factory owners, shop owners or people with one or more relatives who fled to South Korea during the Korean War. The moment you are born in North Korea, you belong to one of the classes, like it or not. And no matter how hard you may try, you will never be allowed to rise out of the hostile class up into the faithful class.

The approximately two million people in the faithful class enjoy preferential treatment in their daily lives. They are assured of food and housing. Those in the wavering and hostile classes face constant difficulties finding food, a violation of one of their basic human rights. These people are forced to live with a constant struggle for food and survival every single day. Thus, many are forced by circumstances to flee from their fatherland into China, seeking food and freedom of life. They risk their lives in crossing this 4000 kilometer-long border.

The most serious violation of North Korean human rights may be the human trafficking. This refers, more specifically, to the tragedy of female North Koreans, who can find few other ways to survive and thus end up yielding themselves to human traffickers.

The youngest victim of human trafficking whom LFNKR has so far met was an eight-year-old girl. She was sold with her mother, but the two were kept together for only 10 days at the house of a human trafficking broker in Helong, Jilin in China. Then the mother was sold to someone in another area. The girl was too young to be sold, so she was raised at the broker’s house until she reached age 14. The girl was then sold for 2000RMB to a Han Chinese farmer in Baoding City, Hebei Province.

The girl became a mother at the age of 16. Eventually, she could not stand the marriage, as it was devoid of hope, love, or future. She fled her Chinese husband, leaving their child, who was 4 years old at that time. But the only option she could find was the same path her mother took. She turned to a human trafficking broker, who immediately sold her to another Han Chinese farmer. What a tragic way to survive. She could not stay with her family, and yet, had no choice but to knowingly become a victim of human trafficking, because that was the only way she knew to survive.

Her case is no exception. Even female defectors in their 50s are often sold to farmers, so what hope is there for younger women?

Why are such tragedies allowed to continue? Human trafficking is illegal in China; it is a crime. North Korean female defectors are forced to become victims of human trafficking in China because the Chinese government still insists, as their official position, that all escapees from North Korea are illegal immigrants. This long-continuing issue is attributable directly to the Chinese government. That government persists in repatriating defectors back to North Korea, knowing that when sent back, they face dire punishment under charges of treason, as specified under Article 47 of North Korean criminal law.

It is obvious that the international convention on the status of refugees applies to these North Korea defectors. The tragedy is clearly attributable to China’s ignoring of the convention. As long as the defectors remain classed as “illegal immigrants,” they cannot turn to the Chinese police to report the harm they incur in China. Contacting the Chinese police equals repatriation to North Korea. The Chinese government has an obligation to observe the convention on refugees, to which it is signatory nation. The international community, meanwhile, must step up its efforts in urging China to observe the convention.

If the Chinese government observes international law and accepts North Korean defectors as refugees, then the collusive relationship between human trafficking brokers and Chinese police will disappear. The North Korean refugees will be entitled to choose destinations where they can re-settle with freedom and hope.

In addition to these serious issues, there is a further problem involving the children born between Chinese men and North Korean women. The marriage of illegal North Korean women to Chinese men leads to a second-generation tragedy. Marrying a Chinese man does not protect a North Korean woman from being sent back. Often, the Chinese fathers are incapable of supporting their children, so that many of the children become homeless when the North Korean wives are repatriated.

According to conservative estimates, at least 100,000 North Korean defectors are hiding in China, 70% of whom are women. This means that if each of these women gives birth to a child, then 70,000 children are forbidden by law to be officially registered and therefore have no nationality. If these children are repatriated with their mothers, they are rejected as “foreign seed” by the North Korean government. It is estimated that 50,000 to 70,000 children without nationality have been born in China since 2000, and that they are living without the most basic human rights. These children are likely to end up as victims of human traffickers or organ traffickers. This only strengthens black marketers in China and will eventually lead to a serious social issue in the future.

The Chinese government should give legal status to female North Korean defectors in China rather than repatriating them, especially if they bear children with legally registered Chinese men. If China is courageous enough to do that, then international society will cease stigmatizing China as a nation allowing human trafficking. This will effectively improve the impression that China has stepped out of the group of undeveloped countries, in terms of human rights.

To this end, I suggest that we work with lawmakers and parliamentary members in many countries and with organizations that are on good terms with China.

Regarding the North Korean women being arrested by Chinese police and repatriated, many of those women re-escape from North Korea to rejoin their husbands in China. Unfortunately, however, it is virtually impossible for them to safely stay in China. The only practical choice remaining to them is escape from China into third countries if they are to survive.

Humanitarian aid workers, such as NGO members and Korean Christian missionaries and ministers, are expected to help those suffering North Korean women escape into third countries. Many reports reach us, however, of problems caused by those who should be helping.

Increasing numbers of former North Koreans are now in the business of helping North Korean defectors reach third countries. The former North Koreans in this business are people who have escaped from North Korea, acquired South Korean citizenship, then re-entered China as paid guides leading North Korean defectors out of China. They often pass themselves off as NGO members or Korean Christian missionaries. They ask female North Koreans if they can pay 3 to 10 million won. If the woman says yes, they will do business. If the woman says no, then they make her sign an IOU against the money she will receive from the re-settlement fund provided by the South Korean government once they reach South Korea.

The IOUs are handed over to gangsters in South Korea, who stalk and harass the North Korean women until the IOU is paid off. For this reason, some North Korean women who have finally made it to South Korea cannot make living and surrender to demands for prostitution.

In some cases, South Korean Christian missionaries working in China pressure the vulnerable defectors, telling them “I will not take you to South Korea unless you study Christianity for two months at a church.” In other cases, missionaries have been known to force them to repeatedly recite every day “I will contribute one percent of my monthly income to the church,” or they drill them on questions such as, “How much is one percent of a million won?” They pressure the defectors in their care, using a variety of slick tactics, while holding out promises of higher priority in being taken out to safety.

Sadly, the South Korean missionaries described here are also infringing the human rights of the North Korean defectors by taking advantage of their vulnerable situations. It is my hope that conscientious South Korean Christians will correct the disgraceful behavior of their brothers, so that the human rights of the weak will be truly protected.

Thank you.
Hiroshi Kato
Dec. 14, 2007