Exec. Dir. Global-Pac
Displaced North Koreans and misplaced aid workers: a few practical
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.
vigorous crackdown on displaced North Koreans, marked by searches
for those in hiding and joint NK-Chinese round-ups and repatriations,
equally vigorous tightening of border security,
blocking of websites publicising the plights of the displaced,
including children, in South Korea as well as China,
raising of risks confronting thousands of those displaced in
China, who might have otherwise quietly found their way to more
intimidation, arrest and imprisonment of aid workers,or suspected
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
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
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