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Gerald Thorns
Exec. Dir. Global-Pac

Displaced North Koreans and misplaced aid workers: a few practical suggestions:

First, let me thank the organizers for the privilege and duty of standing here to address the two issues of displaced North Koreans and targeting of aid workers.

Global-Pac, of which I am director, is a product of the Korean floods a few years ago. We arose largely in response to a need to protect the interests of displaced North Korean children being sought for adoption at that time. Global Protect All Children has now become an international non government group, dedicated to child protection.

The stated goal of this conference is to come up with a specific action plan to improve the situation for both the displaced and aid workers trying to assist them. Few, if any, would disagree with President Bush's comment's visiting Seoul in February, 2002, when he said that, "North Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed", but that is where most of the agreement ends. Drawing from UN reports of 2 year's before and Discovery Channel sources from less than a year ago, it can be estimated that up to 3 million North Korean's, mostly children, have either died of hunger or famine-related diseases in the last 10 years. Of the estimated 100,000+ North Korean refugees now displaced in China, it is children who are the most vulnerable to all imaginable forms of exploitation and abuse, as they cower in fear of discovery or betrayal.

The central issue I want to address, with some benefit of hindsight, is whether the actions of many with a part to play in the wider NGO coalition have helped or hindered the goal of getting displaced North Koreans, especially children, out of situations of extreme desperation.

No matter which way we look at the evidence, the practical outcomes of what were, undoubtedly, good intentions, are, at best mixed. NGO's don't work well together. Some demonstrate surprising political ignorance. As often as not, speaking in particular from Global-Pac's Cambodian experience,our collective efforts are overshadowed by the diversion of resources into "turf-wars", bitter-infighting and character assassinations.

Add to these divisions frequent failures to come up with practical action plans, tailored as closely as possible to the recognizable self-interests of those we target politically, results of our actions are as often counterproductive,or ineffectual, as they are effective. Three to four years ago, few would dispute that there was an effective "underground railroad" of guides and safehouses capable of moving thousands of displaced North Koreans out of China to South Korea,or other destination countries, via Mongolia, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Three or four years ago, Chinese authorities largely turned a blind eye to the efforts of aid workers helping to move the displaced on to third countries. Many were forcibly returned to North Korea, that is true, but it is also true that NGO's maintaining a low profile and working quietly were largely left alone.

The crunch point came when some acting for NGO's, decided pretty much unilaterally, that high profile attempts to force a change in China's behaviour, would be more effective. Both the Shenyang Japanese consulate and Beijing Spanish embassy incidents, of which South Korean media had prior notification, come to mind. The near-term consequences have been far from those which were intended.

    • A vigorous crackdown on displaced North Koreans, marked by searches for those in hiding and joint NK-Chinese round-ups and repatriations,

    • An equally vigorous tightening of border security,

    • The blocking of websites publicising the plights of the displaced, including children, in South Korea as well as China,

    • The raising of risks confronting thousands of those displaced in China, who might have otherwise quietly found their way to more secure destinations,

    • The intimidation, arrest and imprisonment of aid workers,or suspected aid workers.

What then are the solutions, practical suggestions?

Strategies and tactics to meet defined goals do not exist in a vacuum. To state an obvious example, it is naive to think that after China's fighting a bitter war to protect what were seen as threat's to it's more than 1500 km border with North Korea a little over 50 year's ago, that China would in any way assist in bringing about the collapse of North Korea now, especially if it brought a US-sponsored military alliance to this very same border. At the same time, it is not difficult to make the case that a nuclear North Korea, and especially a nuclear armed Japan and ROK, would also not be seen by the Chinese as being in their interest.

While a change may well occur and, indeed, this conference intends to push for it as a specific part of the action plan, it is clear that China does not wish to allow UNHCR and aid workers into the areas adjacent to its lengthy border with North Korea. Only a year ago, China promised Rudd Lubbers the UNHCR, that it would 'suspend' forcible repatriations to North Korea. China not only reneged on this promise, it is also failing to uphold it's commitments as a signatory to UN coventions for the protection of both refugees and of children as at the end of last year, one private group, the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, estimated that China was still repatriating up to 100 North Koreans every week, a plausible figure given that their are upwards of 100,000 already in China and a border of over 1500km in length, across which scores of refugees are likely still crossing every month, as they do from Mexico to the United States, often with similarly tragic consequences.

Suggestions that China should somehow allow the UNHCR and aid workers into the border areas to work unimpeded are very unlikely to ever be met. With no clear sunset for the North Korean regime yet visible and a lengthy porous border, the last thing China is likely to want is a significant UN and foreign NGO presence on its borders for an indeterminate period. Others have suggested that China declare an amnesty and assimilate those already in China into it's border areas where many are already ethnically Korean and Korean speaking, by granting full rights of citizenship. The granting of citizenship, even to those who have married Chinese, is as unlikely to happen in China, as it would be in Japan. Full and equal citizenship is not a practical suggestion because it simply won't happen.

Any "assimilation" would likely retain all of the elements of abuse and exploitation that exist now. In Global-Pac's view, a far more practical solution would be to take up the offer from governor Georgei Darkin of Russia's Pacific Far East, a view already expressed, following original research by Refugees International. Russia's lightly populated Far East faces a declining population and acute labour shortages. The offer is to accept up to 200,000 displaced North Koreans if they can be settled in an orderly way. According to RI this is a good solution because many of the displaced North Koreans would prefer to return to their homeland when political repression and famine conditions finally end. The ROK may well see merit in assisting to finance their orderly re-settlement, potentially a much cheaper and less disruptive process than accepting a similar number of displaced North Koreans into a crowded South Korea.

Russia at the federal level has a clear self-interest at stake in restoring economic vitality to its Pacific Far East at a time when the encroachment of Chinese across the border is steadily growing. An NGO coalition could hold out for a strengthened Euro-American alliance to try and pressure China into accepting a UNHCR and NGO aid worker presence in the border areas for an indeterminate period. However, in Global-Pac's view this is likely to be a complete waste of time. Historical events both recent and past are likely to conspire against either part one or two ever happening. Russia's Far East governor, supported by RI's original research, have come up with a practical suggestion which both South Korea and federal Russia have an interest in supporting, as does China, since it insists those fleeing North Korea are economic refugees, whereas UNHCR representatives, if allowed in, would likely wish to label many of them as political refugees. Russia's border of about 20km with North Korea can be policed relatively easily. Encouraging the ROK, Russian Federation and China to accept a practical solution in their combined interests, such as Russia's Far East has offered, is far more likely to succeed and it could occur relatively quickly.

Global-Pac supports this course of action as being the most practical and most likely to ease the suffering of refugee children in the quickest possible time.

Thank you for your attention.


Gerald Thorns: Executive Director
Global-PAC "Protect All Children"

P.O Box 633 Phomh Penh, 12202
Kingdom of Cambodia