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Recent Crackdown in China
Current Background - May 2002

Impact on Refugees Now in Hiding

Starting in March 2002, when 25 North Koreans dashed into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing, the world's attention was riveted on China, and its policy of forcibly returning all captured North Korean refugees to their home country.

At that point, China's "Strike Hard" policy was already a year old, and many asylum seekers had been repatriated, reportedly to face prison terms, torture and in many cases, charges of treason.

Then, in May, when another 5 North Koreans, all members of one family, were dragged from Japan's Consulate General in Shengyang and arrested, the world became even more fascinated with these people and their attempts to reach freedom.

Because of these events, our organization was flooded with requests for comments and information. E-mails and calls poured in from all around the world.

Among the many journalists who contacted us was Eric Baculinao of America's NBC news organization. The questions from Eric, who is based in Beijing, were excellent, so with his permission, here are the questions he asked, followed by our answers.


How serious is the problem of North Korean refugees hiding in China? What is your estimate of their total numbers? How does your organization help them? How do you describe the Chinese authorities's attitude and policy on the refugees' issue and on the work of your organization? Is the forcible repatriation of North Koreans getting worse?


There are ever fewer places remaining in China where North Korean refugees can live and survive in hiding. At the National Security Professionals Conference held in Beijing in April 2001, a plan for a so-called "Strike Hard Campaign" was set forth. The national leaders of China, including PRC President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, presented lectures emphasizing that "a severe blow must be given to offenders to reinforce security."

Each ministry will be guided by actual local conditions to implement the plan in more concrete terms. The document of the Longjin Security Office in Jilin Prov. specifies that it is positioning "another milestone in developing security," that "the security of society will be significantly improved within two years," and that "offenders will find themselves with absolutely no place left to hide."

The Chinese government steadfastly maintains its formal position that "there are no refugees from North Korea." Thus, as soon as such people are found, the government is arresting them as "illegal aliens" or "illegal sojourners." Then, following their arrest, custody, and interrogation, they are quickly repatriated.

Therefore, even if a North Korean in China qualifies as a refugee as defined by the international Convention on the Status of Refugees, Chinese municipal law is considered infringed. The North Korea refugees are termed illegal aliens and illegal sojourners. Ethnic Koreans living in China, who take care of refugees, are accused of abetting illegal immigration or aiding illegal stays.

Estimates point to at least 30,000 refugees from North Korea, and there may be as many as 100,000. No one knows exactly, because these refugees have been forsaken by the UNHCR; they are not internationally recognized like the people fleeing Afghanistan or Kosovo. The only available numbers are estimates by the NGOs on the scene.

Our own interviews reveal that the defectors fully qualify as refugees because, if they should be repatriated, they are almost certain to meet with reprisals.

We fully understand that, although our activities are in alignment with the international Convention on the Status of Refugees, our rescue operations contravene the stance of the Chinese government, and this attracts punishment under Chinese municipal law. In fact, our network has received such punishment a number of times. This year alone, we have been assessed fines totaling 50,000RMB. Paying these fines is cutting into our rescue funds. Meanwhile, the crackdown is growing more severe.

The shelters where we have been taking care of the North Korean refugees are being increasingly exposed under a policy that encourages citizens to turn information over to the security authorities. The Longjin Security Office in Jilin Prov., for instance, ordered each member to find and arrest at least two defectors from North Korea in January.

We cannot simply turn our faces away while knowing that the North Korean defectors are crying out for our help; every one of them will be severely punished if sent back to North Korea.

If our activists can help even one person, they will have no regrets, though they may be arrested and have their heads shaved as criminals. Even if our activists meet the persecution of inhumane treatment and become branded as criminals, we believe that there is no shame in this.

We do not know of any nations or international organizations currently extending help to these people in China. The fact is, the NGOs believe we must help those people, and we continue our mutual cooperation under flexible linkage and arrangements. Our respective groups are making all possible efforts to help the maximum number of people.

We understand that the Chinese government deems it important to guard their security, from a geopolitical standpoint. If that government ever hopes to play a role as a major nation, however, and win the respect of the world, it must implement humane measures and show that it respects human rights. We believe that in this way, the Chinese government will be putting itself more in step with international society.

If, however, the Chinese government continues in its present policy and fails to recognize the image it is projecting, it runs the risk of being seen by the international community as no better than North Korea, with which China is associating itself.


How do you explain the recent series of asylum bids using foreign diplomatic missions in China? Why is this happening now? Is this indication of worsening conditions in North Korea? Is this indication of the worsening conditions in the livesof North Korean refugees hiding in China? Do you expect more such asylum attempts taking place given the coming World Cup co-hosted by South Korea?


The recent scenes of defectors dashing into foreign diplomatic compounds demonstrates how severe the crackdown in China is, as the defectors hiding in China are quickly being shut out of places where they can survive. Even when defectors are repatriated to North Korea, they try to escape again, since they can find no way to survive other than re- entering China. Awaiting them in North Korea is punishment for treason under Criminal Code No. 47 as described treason. They can find no way to live either in North Korea or in China. They have no choice, therefore, but to escape to a third country from China.

Incidents of North Korean defectors running into foreign diplomatic compounds will continue because there is no place left for them to survive.


Do you expect that there will be North Korean refugees who will request asylum in the United States, not South Korea? How true is the report that those who made the asylum bids in Shenyang through the consular mssions of the United States and Japan actually wish to seek asylum in the United States? If true, why choose the United States over South Korea?


It is likely that some defectors may seek to settle in the United States. In Los Angeles, the Korean community is 600,000 strong. Many soldiers taken prisoners by South Korean Army during the Korean War in the 1950s moved to the United States, and they probably have relatives in North Korea. It is highly likely, therefore, that the defectors will express a desire to move to the United States, expecting help from their relatives.

The defectors who recently attempted to enter the Japanese consulate in Shenyang carried letters written in English asking the US for asylum. According to one South Korean NGO involved in this case, the defectors explained that they fear murder or injury at the hands of North Korea agents who operate covertly in South Korea.

Although the defectors probably know little about the US, they may believe that they will be safer there than in South Korea, and that they may be protected by their relatives living in the US.


How long have you been involved in helping North Korean refugees, and personally, why did you decide to get involved in this work? How long has the Life Fund for North Korean refugees been helping the North Korean refugees? What are the main difficulties of your organization, in China or even in North Korea itself?


The NGO, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR) was established in September 1998.

One activist member of LFNKR has been engaged in the rescue activities for ten years, the longest term of service, while most other activists average about four years.

In the 1960s, a propaganda campaign promised that "North Korea is an earthly paradise," and 100,000 Korean residents in Japan along with many Japanese spouses went over to North Korea. Many refugees were among those 100,000. These people are now fleeing to China, with the aim of returning to Japan or reaching South Korea. Our role is to give those people hope.

Our greatest challenge is the severe lack of funds in comparison with the seriousness of the issue and the magnitude of our task. As we strive to continue our activities in China, we are constantly faced with the tragedies caused by refugee hunting and forced repatriation by the Chinese Security authorities.

However, our food supply network, which we developed in North Korea, is still operating effectively.


What are your hopes and dreams for North Korean refugees? Do you expect that the mounting refugee problem and the campaign for human rights will add to pressures that will help bring about changes within North Korea itself?


I hope that the issue of North Korean Refugees will help create greater awareness of the current situation, so that the North Korean refugees may receive international recognition.

Without the light of international publicity, no one will realize that the aid being provided by the United Nations, EU, and other Western countries is helping the ruling class, while the common people in North Korea are being tortured. Without this widespread awareness, the tragedy of the defectors from North Korea will never end. We believe that a truly international campaign is the only way to bring about drastic changes in the policies of North Korea and China.

Since the root of the issue is the military dictatorship of Kim Jong-il of North Korea, it is obvious that, unless it is replaced with a better political rule, no fundamental solution will ever be achieved. This is all the more reason to stress the importance of the campaign.

We must not forget, however, aid unaccompanied by monitoring will only prolong the life of the present government, which continues its oppression of humanity and human rights. We again direct your attention to this issue.