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:
- 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;
- The PRC is a signatory country to both these
- 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
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
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.
Hiroshi Kato, Secretary General
Life Funds for North Korean Refugees