Film “Seoul Train” Screened

Film maker Jim Butterworth speaks about North Korean refugees

Jim Butterworth’s Documentary of Conscience

Thank you very much. First, I would like to thank the IPCNKR for this opportunity to show “Seoul Train” here today, but especially for your outstanding efforts to improve the human rights of North Koreans. It is indeed an honor to be here before such an esteemed audience and alongside other speakers that are truly heroes in this cause.

Many, including members of Japanese NGOs such as Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, have put themselves in harm’s way to help North Korean refugees, also known as the free emigrants from North Korea. It is their story that inspired my partner, Lisa Sleeth, and me to make “Seoul Train,” the film you just watched.

It was just over two years ago that we attended a presentation on North Korea and first learned of the plight of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees in China and the flouting of international laws in place to protect them. We were shocked to learn that this was going on, but moved by the selflessness of activists that help the refugees while many in the international community sit idly by. In short, we felt that this crisis needed global awareness if it ever were to be solved.

At that point, neither Lisa nor I had ever even touched a camcorder – much less made a film – but just over two months later we were on a plane to Korea and China. There, we spent several months living among the activists in the so-called “Underground Railroad.” It was their trust in us by giving us their own footage of refugees that makes “Seoul Train” as powerful as it is.

In these past two years Lisa and I have had unparalleled access to the most comprehensive number of people involved in North Korean human rights. We have interviewed countless refugees and activists, representatives of nearly a dozen governments as well as representatives of the UN, numerous NGO personnel, and hundreds of journalists and other observers of this issue.

As documentary filmmakers we have a responsibility to remain objective reporters. But as people, we also have a responsibility to speak out, especially given the urgency of the plight of North Koreans. As a result, we find ourselves morally obligated not just to offer a window into the crisis, as we have done with “Seoul Train,” but to share the conclusions we have drawn from our more than two years of intense study.

Although easier said than done, the only viable and durable solution to the prevailing security and human rights crises is for North Korea to join the international community.

A great example is Libya, a former pariah state that also sponsored global terrorism, dealt nuclear arms, flouted human rights and was ruthlessly controlled by a despotic dictator. But since 9/11 Khadafi found that there were more benefits to opening up than remaining an outlaw state. Although Libya today is far from being a democracy, it is no longer a threat to the world, and the structures for political and economic reform are developing.

Thus, energies must be focused on how to encourage similar reform in North Korea. Not only would it cease being a threat to others, but to itself as well. A robust North Korean economy is the best way to feed the people, stop the exodus of refugees and, long-term, promote political reform.

Many ask what carrots and sticks we have at our disposal to encourage Kim Jong-il to follow this path. For this, it is important to understand his main objective, which is to stay in power.

To this end, a security framework that includes a bona fide peace treaty is essential. We must look at the WMD issue as a subset of a general security framework, and all options must be put on the negotiating table. For example, after 53 years of armistice, the time is overdue for an actual peace treaty.

Additionally, we must cut off his trafficking of arms, drugs, counterfeit money and stolen goods, which account for an estimated 25-30% of North Korea’s income. In exchange, we must offer economic incentives, such as increased foreign direct investment, and possible inclusion into the Asian Development Bank.

Ultimately, whether or not regime change occurs is up to the North Korean people. But as one of our interviewees once told us “dictators fall when there is a gap between expectations and what the government delivers.” And there is no better way to increase expectations than for North Korea to open to the world.

Finally, our primary focus with “Seoul Train” has been the refugee crisis. It is worth repeating that there would be no refugee crisis if the economic and human rights issues inside North Korea are solved. Indeed, this is the ideal scenario. Until then, however, the focus must be on interim solutions.

Most importantly, in respect of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the forced repatriation of the refugees must stop immediately. This is particularly directed toward the Government of China, which systematically hunts down the refugees and sends them back, using its longstanding border agreement with North Korea as an excuse.

Moreover, the UN High Commissioner for Refugeesmust fulfill its mandate to protect the refugees. Admittedly, the Chinese Government has stymied their efforts, but certainly UNHCR has not pushed too hard either. For example, in its office agreement with China, UNHCR has the unilateral right to seek arbitration that would force China’s compliance with the Refugee Convention. Thus far, UNHCR has chosen not to seek such arbitration for one simple reason: they do not believe they have the necessary support from UN member states.

For instance, although many U.S. Government officials, including Senators and Congressmen, push UNHCR to arbitrate, many State Department officials actually say the opposite. They are afraid that by pushing China on this issue, that the Chinese Government will just close the UNHCR office in Beijing. This is ludicrous. China would not risk creating such an incident over this matter, and I have it on good faith from members of the Chinese Government that they would indeed not close the office.

Finally, absent any miraculous reform in North Korea, the international community must find a durable solution to the refugee crisis. For this to occur, China’s fears and goals must be respected. China is very concerned that any recognition of the rights of these North Koreans as refugees might prompt a mass exodus that could lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime. For a variety of reasons, mostly security-related, China wants the North Korean buffer intact.

At the same time, the Chinese Government would love for this issue to go away; it pales in comparison to China’s grander ambitions to which it poses a potential threat.

Thus, in the final analysis, I offer the following framework:

  1. China should establish a legitimate means, whether through UNHCR or its judiciary, by which North Koreans may seek asylum. This stops the forced repatriation of bona fide refugees, allows China to save face with North Korea by relying on international laws that are superior to its border agreement, and does not necessarily encourage a mass exodus from North Korea, especially in the context of the overall framework. Plus, if it takes UNHCR arbitration to achieve this, so be it. Privately, China may actually welcome being “forced,” per se, to comply, since it is even more face-saving for them.
  2. For those actually deemed as refugees, the international community, and especially the U.S., Canada, Japan, Mongolia, Russia and Southeast Asian countries, must help them resettle, and not put the entire burden on South Korea.
  3. We must increase our level of humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea, but do so only with thorough monitoring of the distribution of such aid. This will abate the desire and need for North Koreans to leave in the first place.
  4. We must implement the aforementioned steps toward North Korea’s joining the international community and opening its economy.
  5. Concerned countries should continue to pass legislation like the North Korean Human Rights Act. Moreover, the U.S. needs actually to implement this act as soon as possible by appropriating the funding and appointing the Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea. Acts such as this not only provide real benefits, but serve as a vital negotiating tool with North Korea. Needless to say, this is where you, as parliamentarians, play a critical role.
  6. Last, but not least, we must compel the North Korean regime not to imprison, torture, execute or otherwise persecute its people upon their return. Certainly this is in China’s interest, for it removes a necessary component in the definition of a refugee. And with a security guarantee and steps toward economic reform in place, North Korea might just agree to this. No doubt, most North Koreans do want to return home.

Consistent with this, North Korea must give unimpeded access to the UN Special Rapporteurs, especially the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, and to humanitarian non-governmental organizations, and return all abductees and prisoners of war.

In closing, I would like to remind each of you that the six-way talks and the various talks surrounding them provide the perfect fora to discuss these ideas. But talk is just that; this matter requires urgent action, as people are dying every day.

I commend you the IPCNKR for your concern, I congratulate you for your work, and together we can make a difference.

Thank you very much.