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Keynote Speech
Hiroshi Kato, Sec. General, LFNKR


I welcome all the participants gathered here today and salute your shared interest in the plight of North Korean refugees as well as the difficulties faced by humanitarian aid workers. I believe we are all eager to discuss and find solutions that involve truly effective approaches.

I know you have already, all too often, heard about the miserable conditions of North Korean refugees living underground in China, and China’s efforts to make their lives even more wretched. So, I will not burden you with further details about their hardships and their struggles.

You may also have heard about the curious passivity of organizations like UNHCR, which should be leading the charge on behalf of these refugees, but which instead consistently avoid standing up for the refugees against the Chinese government.

This lapse by UNHCR has been causing serious problems also for the humanitarian aid workers trying to help North Korean refugees hiding in China.

Since the United Nations has no agency charged with helping humanitarian aid workers, it is entirely up to us—individually and as a group—to look after one another. It is also an unfortunate reality that we cannot rely on our own governments to defend us.

One of the South Korean aid workers, Kim Hee-tae, has been arbitrarily shut away in a Chinese prison, without trial for almost 2 years. He is a young man, an idealist whose only crime is his sense of responsibility to help people in need. He was arrested on 31 August 2002, in the Chinese city of Changchun while guiding a number of North Korean refugees to one of the foreign embassies in Beijing. He was charged with “organizing an illegal crossing of China’s border.”

On 10 December 2003, a Japanese humanitarian aid worker, Takayuki Noguchi, who was handling international relations for Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, was arrested. He was accompanied by two Japan-born North Koreans whose lives will be in serious jeopardy if they are sent back to North Korea. Noguchi was charged with illegally transporting people to cross the border (Article 312) and an attempt to illegally cross the border, under the same Article.

I believe we can all learn from the situations of Kim Hee-tae and Takayuki Noguchi. To this end, it’s important to recognize that they are being detained illegally.

Their detention is illegal for the following reasons:

  1. Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol thereto, the North Koreans associated with Kim Hee-tae must be classified as refugees;

  2. The PRC is a signatory country to both these instruments; and

  3. These instruments take precedence over Chinese domestic law, as the PRC has fully acknowledged.

In the case of Kim Hee-tae, the question of whether he organized a group of North Koreans for crossing China’s border is moot. Under international law these North Koreans are deemed refugees, thus by international law their border crossing was not illegal. Accordingly, there is simply no violation of Chinese law.

The next point is how the government, NGOs, and people in South Korea handled the case. The North Korean refugees who were with Mr. Kim were unfortunately imprisoned. South Korean aid workers said that they wished the South Korean people and government could effect Kim Hee-tae’s release, in a manner similar to that of the Japanese government and citizens on behalf of their aid workers.

For example, Professor F. Yamada and I, Hiroshi Kato, were both arrested and detained by Chinese officials on exactly the same charge levied against the South Korean humanitarian aid workers still being detained by the government of China. However, I was released after only 7 days and Professor Yamada after only 21 days. The South Korean NGO members believe that the difference was a result of action by the Japanese government and citizens, their NGOs, and numerous colleagues, all of whom leaped to their rescue and took a firm stance in dealing with China.

I am not sure that their comments are completely accurate, but I am convinced of the double-standard on China’s part.

I believe that the only effective way to deal with China is with directness and persistence. No visible results will be obtained unless we are fully resolved to stand up to the Chinese government for the sake of justice. We should not follow the extremely passive approach of UNHCR.

What exactly have Kim Hee-tae’s supporters done for him? A great number of appeals have been made to the Government of China on his behalf by non-Korean individuals, governments and international NGOs, but every one of these appeals has been ignored by China as it defies international law and the international community. While their efforts and everything they are doing to secure his release are appreciated, I respectfully submit that their methods up to this point have been too weak. Some South Korean aid workers are now insisting that, instead of begging China, a firm and direct approach is the only proven way to deal effectively with China, as in the case of Japanese citizens.

Takayuki Noguchi was sentenced to 8 months in prison, although the Chinese spokesman originally threatened a sentence of up to 10 years. I believe that the international lobbying activities we developed to win quick release of Noguchi worked well. Lobbying activities included US congressmen, members of the European Parliament, European Commission members, the UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the House of Lords in UK, and the Belgian Parliament. When China’s detention of our member, Takayuki Noguchi, was brought up at a regular consultation between the Members of the European Parliament and China, this, I am convinced, shook the Chinese government. Although not directly connected, another factor may be that the UN Commission on Human Rights approved special rapporteurs for North Korea in the 60th session this year.

I regret that quite a few people, including myself, believe that one of the major causes of Noguchi’s prosecution and sentencing to 8 months is the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its poor awareness of human rights and humanitarian matters. It is shameful that the fate of humanitarian aid workers should fall victim to such undeveloped awareness of human rights. This limited awareness is demonstrated by one of the Ministry’s remarks. They said, and I quote, “Noguchi has violated the Chinese law, and there is nothing we can do to help him except ask the Chinese government for leniency.”

Being fully aware of these shameful realities, we need to work together to create action plans based on an international framework of NGOs and grass roots activities.

I trust that our efforts in this conference will produce this sorely needed action plan.

Thank you.

Hiroshi Kato, Secretary General
Life Funds for North Korean Refugees