LFNKR’s Activities — What We Accomplished in 2004

Current Situation of North Korean Refugees 

Recently, the world has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of North Korean refugees who, rather than continuing to hide in China, are choosing to escape to other Asian countries. Escape destinations include Mongolia, Russia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.

A sample of incidents illustrates the trend. In August 2003, several North Korean defectors rushed into the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok. The next year, 496 North Korean asylum-seekers boarded two chartered jets in Vietnam bound for Seoul. Just one month earlier, in September 2004, a group of 29 North Korean refugees, including 11 men, 15 women and 3 children, dashed into a Japanese school in Beijing seeking asylum. In an inner Mongolian autonomous region of China, a North Korean boy was shot dead by Chinese border guards while attempting to cross into Mongolia.

Additionally, the large numbers of North Korean defectors fleeing to China shows no sign of abating. Accurate statistics, however, remain elusive, since refugees must stay in hiding to avoid discovery by Chinese authorities.

Repression, poverty and famine in the rural areas of North Korea continue to drive many to risk their lives in attempts to defect. Alongside the famine, meanwhile, well-connected families in the ruling and wealthy classes enjoy artificial prosperity in Pyongyang under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il.

A sharp rise in defections can be deduced, however, in light of the amounts of food and clothing that LFNKR has provided in the last year.

At our shelters in May 2003, LFNKR distributed approximately 300 sets of summer clothing, and over 400 sets of winter wear in October. In May 2004, just one year later, we provided 500 sets of summer garments, approximately a 1.6-fold increase over the previous year.

The North Korean refugee situation is no longer a mere bilateral problem between China and North Korea, but must be seen and dealt with as an international problem that demands international recognition, international resolution, and international intervention.

Official statements of the Chinese government continue to claim that “there are no ‘refugees’ from North Korea” and that North Koreans living in China are merely “illegal aliens and residents”. Yet the numerous defections and attempts to defect all across Asia clearly reveal the inconsistency in Chinese political rhetoric.

In addition to these claims, the Chinese government has begun a campaign to denounce humanitarian aid workers and NGOs, claiming that they operate a ‘Snake Head’ business of human trafficking for economic gain that urges North Koreans to defect to neighboring countries, foreign embassies and institutions. The government has stated that, “If there were no NGOs, we would not have these problems.”

Concerning the Arrest of Humanitarian Aid Worker Takayuki Noguchi

Chinese authorities arrested the humanitarian activist Takayuki Noguchi of LFNKR on December 10, 2003, during his attempt to help two refugees escape to Vietnam. Both refugees were Japanese-born North Koreans who were fleeing China lest they be repatriated to North Korea, which would mean certain imprisonment and the possibility of capital punishment.

LFNKR demanded the immediate release of Noguchi and both refugees under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967. Since China is signatory to these treaties, international law should have taken precedence over Chinese national laws.

Although the Beijing office of UNHCR bears responsibility for protecting refugees in China, it appears that from the outset they have never been able to intervene on the behalf of even one asylum-seeker from North Korea. Despite desperate appeals from both LFNKR and family members, UNHCR was unable to prevent the repatriation of both refugees at the hands of Chinese authorities. Now their fate may never be known.

To date, the Japanese Foreign Ministry still declines to pressure China in regard to its obligation to abide by the 1951 convention and 1967 protocol concerning refugees, human rights, humanitarian ethics and dignity. During Noguchi’s arrest and imprisonment, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintained that Noguchi had violated domestic Chinese law. Furthermore, the Japanese Foreign Ministry denounced LFNKR’s approach, claiming it jeopardized the relationship of mutual trust with the Chinese government. The ministry spurned coordination with LFNKR and withheld information regarding Noguchi’s trial and his health throughout the entire length of the ordeal.

Since the Japanese Foreign Ministry seemed to lack awareness of the possibility of cooperating with NGOs, LFNKR was left with no alternative for resolving the situation other than collaboration with other international humanitarian and human rights NGOs. As a result, LFNKR was forced to spend enormous amounts of time and money to gain information about Noguchi’s trial and physical condition. The psychological strain was likewise immense.

Violation of the Human Rights of North Korean Refugees and Humanitarian Supporters in China

At the 60th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights held in Geneva in March 2004, UN special rapporteurs were appointed to assess human rights conditions in North Korea and China. The rapporteurs will submit their findings at the 61st session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

The European Union has also expressed concern about the condition of human rights in North Korea, and the topic has been raised in the European Parliament and the EU Convention of Committees. In June 2004 at the Periodical Conference in China, EU representatives spoke about human rights violations in China committed against North Korean asylum-seekers and the humanitarian activists who provide them assistance.

In the United States, Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, submitted to Congress the North Korean Freedom Act in 2003. Renamed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, it has now been approved and passed by both houses of the US Congress. With its recent signing by President Bush, it is only a matter of time before the bill is enacted.

Additionally, many other countries are re-considering their actions toward North Korea in the light of the regime’s likely eventual collapse.

The neighboring governments of Russia, China, South Korea and Japan are not eager to receive masses of refugees. The United States has been considering both scenarios and has taken the hard-line position that the whether or not the regime collapses or continues, the North must abandon their nuclear weapons programs.

As the likelihood of the regime’s collapse rapidly rises to exceed neighboring countries’ expectations and their ability to prepare for a massive influx of refugees, we as NGOs should be fully prepared for the worst possible scenario in order to maximize our ability to help refugees.

1. Developing an International Framework for Solving the North Korean Refugee Problem

(a) Interaction with UNHCR

In August 2003, LFNKR reached an agreement to hold a public conference with UNHCR Representative Rudd Lubbers in order to establish a common agenda for solving the North Korean refugee problem. However, UNHCR unexpectedly reneged on the initial agreement, insisting that their representative could not participate in the conference, nor meet at the location LFNKR originally proposed.

It certainly appears that UNHCR has adopted a lukewarm approach toward improving the North Korean refugee crisis, despite having full knowledge of the situation. Sadly, UNHCR seems unwilling to take action where risk is involved. Results of our interactions with UNHCR have led us to cease expecting them to take an active part, since bureaucracy seems unable to respond adequately without a great deal of pressure.

Preparation for the conference was greatly delayed by the arrest, trial, and eight-month imprisonment of LFNKR’s Takayuki Noguchi in China for assisting North Korean asylum-seekers. Notwithstanding this blow to our activities, our international conference successfully took place in Tokyo on July 18-19. Approximately 100 people from six countries (Japan, Korea, China, United States, New Zealand and France) participated in the conference; Belgium also joined the conference via electronic mail.

Although the goal of holding a joint convention with UNHCR was not realized, the Tokyo conference was not unproductive in the least as the assembled parties reached agreement upon “The Plan for an International Action Program for North Korean Refugees & Humanitarian Aid”.

(b) Pressuring the Chinese Government to Respect Human Rights

LFNKR has consistently aimed to pressure the Chinese government, and considerable efficiency has been achieved in cooperation with other NGOs, as well as in lobbying U.S. and European governments to pressure China. An unforeseen benefit of Noguchi’s arrest was the opportunity to work and develop cooperative relationships with lawyers active in international affairs. Nevertheless, the Chinese government remains obstinate in its intolerance of human rights in regards to North Korean refugees, and we have yet to discover a channel for discourse over this issue. Creating such a dialogue should be a top priority.

(c) Creating a Coalition for Boycotting the Beijing Olympic Games

Our initiative to create an international boycott of the Beijing Olympics has gone through some alterations as we evaluate whether a tough or soft approach would better effect change for North Korean refugees. Although this effort must proceed with international cooperation, we have not yet approached enough co-sponsors of the Olympic games.

2. Campaign to Secure Safety and Protection for North Korean Refugees

(a) LFNKR is currently operating a number of much-needed shelters for refugees

(b) High Distribution of Summer and Winter Clothes

In 2003, LFNKR distributed winter clothes for 400 people, and in 2004, summer clothes for 500 people. These figures exceed the number of people LFNKR can reasonably protect. Urgent dispersion of this crisis is necessary in order to ensure the safety and security of existing shelters and refugees.

(c) Helping Refugees Return to North Korea

Due to the traumatic intensity of the Chinese government’s crackdown on refugees, some escapees would prefer to return to North Korea. Adding to the pressure upon refugees, the government offers local Chinese residents bounties for turning in refugees. Furthermore, those who are caught running shelters, harboring or assisting North Korean refugees are arrested and fined by Chinese security authorities. Admittedly, LFNKR had not planned for this scenario in the previous year. While escapees would be free from the anxiety of capture by Chinese police or Chinese residents looking to collect rewards for their capture, the return to North Korea is not without its own life-threatening risks. However, should refugees choose this course, they are given three to four months living allowance.

(d) Distribution of Provisions
I) Distribution to Shelters in China

We have been distributing provisions to an undisclosed number of shelters in three provinces: Jilin Province, Heilongjiang Province and Liaoning Province, as well as other regions, both rural and urban. Approximately 300g of rice per person and 2.7 tons per month have been allocated.

II) Distribution in North Korea

Distribution inside North Korea to especially needy cases is possible through influential persons within the country. New temporary ration lines have been set up to replace the ones lost when Mr. Kato, secretary-general of LFNKR, was illegally restrained by Chinese authorities. Multiple lines of distribution function regularly and irregularly, sending aid to those who are in extreme need and are not of the privileged elite or responsible for human rights violations. An experimental ration of provisions was given this year for a school and schoolteacher, and the total amount of distribution totaled 24 tons.

e) Rescuing Refugees from Human Trafficking

A 16-year-old girl who escaped from North Korea was sold by traffickers to a farm worker living in the suburbs of Beijing. We were able to rescue her by paying the farm worker 3000 yuan. This case is only the tip of the iceberg. Similar incidents abound, particularly those of many female refugees who have no choice but to marry into local villages or be sold as prostitutes throughout the region. Though human trafficking is illegal under both international and Chinese law, North Korean refugees are considered illegal immigrants in China and so have little or no possibility of appealing to Chinese authorities for protection from traffickers.

3. Medical Aid

LFNKR has provided support for refugees’ medical expenses, including funding one woman’s hospitalization for frostbite. While engaged in ‘Operation Food Supply’ in North Korea, LFNKR has also supplied digestive medicine, gastrointestinal medicine, antifebrile and anti-inflammatory medicine as well as food supplies.

4. Self-Support Program

LFNKR has continued to help refugees produce colorful knit “zabuton” cushion covers, which are sold in Japan and overseas for 500 yen (about $5). The buyers are informed that even such a small amount can buy 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of rice, enabling a refugee to eat for three weeks.

5. Foster Parent Program

The Chinese government appears to have intensified its crackdown against North Korean refugees and humanitarian aid workers, causing a devastating impact on our foster parent program.

In one particular case, one of our foster children barely survived a surprise raid on his shelter by Chinese border guards. Although we lost contact with him for some time, we were later able to receive him back into our care.

When LFNKR started the fostering program Chinese authorities had not been hunting refugees so intensely, and we were able to entertain hopes that our foster children could receive basic and even higher education. However, after struggling in our activities for six years under the Chinese government’s tight system of control, we are coming to realize that our hopes will likely never be attained.

Additionally, a new issue arose at LFNKR’s sixth annual meeting—how we will support foster children as they reach adulthood. After prolonged deliberation and panning, we have so far managed to help some of them escape from China to South Korea. They are now under the protection and care of a local NGO in South Korea, and their resettlement seems to be progressing well according to regular reports.

LFNKR also gave medical aid and covered expenses for one foster child who was in danger of losing his sight after an assault. We are pleased to report that he has fully recovered.

Despite the severe repression towards refugees from the Chinese authorities, the number of children seeking our support and educational help has increased rather than decreased, and the total number of foster children in our program has reached 35.

We are also very grateful that the number of foster parents supporting the children has been steadily increasing as well.

6. Supporting Immigration and Settlements

The failure of last December’s operation cost LFNKR the arrest of Noguchi and probably the lives of two North Korean asylum-seekers. It is possible that these types of operations may no longer be feasible, as it is quite difficult to re-establish the structural side of such operations. Although LFNKR does not wish to turn down requests from refugees seeking escape from China and resettlement abroad, the difficulty of the task has greatly increased due to the recent governmental crackdown, the failure of Noguchi’s mission and the negative publicity that followed.

(a) Resettlement plan for ethnic Koreans born in Japan and their families

LFNKR has been aiding the resettlement of Japanese-born ethnic North Koreans who have been able to return to Japan, assisting them in acquiring proper job and housing contracts, and providing them with counselors in order to aid their readjustment to daily life in Japan. The Korean Residents Union in Japan has also aided LFNKR’s efforts to resettle ethnic Koreans by organizing the ‘Center for North Korean Defectors’.

It is necessary for LFNKR members to assist and cooperate in every way with the Center for North Korean Defectors in order to help maximize their efficiency.

In aiding the resettlement of defectors, LFNKR must give special attention to the degree and extent of its assistance in order to help defectors secure their own independence. Increasing defectors’ dependence on assistance from NGOs would be counterproductive to all parties involved.

The members of LFNKR believe that defectors and asylum-seekers should be aided in their resettlement regardless of their cultural backgrounds, family structures and reasons for resettling. Members are to treat resettling ethnic Koreans both with great compassion and with complete respect as equals.

7. Building an International Framework and Procedure

(a) LFNKR’s International Conference for Protecting Human Rights and the Pursuit of Refugee Status for North Korean Asylum-Seekers

Among those whom LFNKR originally expected to attend the conference were the Chief Director of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) and the International Parliamentarians’ Coalition, as well as various international NGOs. The Chief Director of UNHCR, however, was not able to attend, and our schedule was unworkable for the International Parliamentarians’ Coalition due to elections and campaigns. Although the size and dimensions of the conference were, as a result, reduced, the collaborations between international NGOs and LFNKR were extremely productive and signify that cooperation among groups with shared objectives can do much to advance human rights in North Korea and across the world.

(b) LFNKR English Website

Our English language website has received international attention from journalists and NGOs as a reliable source of information on the condition and plight of North Korean refugees. LFNKR often receives direct phone calls from a variety of foreign media services asking for interviews and comments on issues related to North Korea. Other sources that have shown interest include three of the largest U.S. networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) as well as FRA and VOA broadcasting, BBC radio, German national broadcasting network ARD, Le Monde of France and API.

(c) Donations from Overseas

LFNKR has adopted the PayPal online system for receiving donations from overseas. The PayPal system is well suited even for small donations, which have been steadily growing.

(d) LFNKR Staff Education and Expansion

One of LFNKR’s primary goals for its staff has been to improve their education so as to efficiently convey our message all over the world. While this aspect has been seeing increasing success, the need for more native speakers of other languages on the staff has also grown.

8. Lobbying Activities

(a) Lobbying Japanese Diet members

For some time LFNKR has been lobbying members of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). This has had measurable effect; in the International Committee of the Diet’s Upper House, the DPJ Association of Parliamentarians for North Korean Refugees and Human Rights has brought up the issue of protection for NGO activists. LFNKR has also been building a mutually cooperative relationship with members of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), although the relationship has not yet reached a point enabling us to carry out more complex cooperative activities with them. Having too few people to aggressively lobby the LDP has likely been a hindrance to greater relations in this area.

(b) Resettlement of Defectors in Japan

If ethnic Korean defectors are to be resettled in Japan, top priority must be given to lobbying for new legislation to assist their adjustment in securing job training, general education, Japanese language training and housing. Lobbying personnel as described in subsection (a) should be considered necessary and indispensable.

(c) Lobbying the U.S. Congress and European Parliament

Among the groups LFNKR has cooperated with have been Defense Forum, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and other NGOs in activities at the office of the European Parliament in Ireland, as well as at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office for Asia and for Human Rights. LFNKR received strong support from U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) in applying pressure to the Chinese government over human rights violations when Noguchi was arrested and for his release. Here again the number of personnel available for lobbying the U.S. Congress and E.U. Parliament is crucially insufficient.

9. Publishing Books

“Are They Telling the Truth?” has been translated into English and one thousand copies have been published. The book, a collection of heart-rending accounts from North Korean prison camp survivors, is an important part of our efforts to let the world know about North Korean refugees and the human rights violations committed by Kim Jong Il’s regime. LFNKR originally asked for a 2,500 yen (U.S. $24) donation for the paper-bound book, however the electronic version of the book is also available in PDF format that can be downloaded from the LFNKR website. LFNKR has also sent books throughout the world in response to requests from NGOs, research organizations, and college libraries. All of the places we have sent the book have replied with letters of appreciation.

10. Holding Supporting Conferences, Debriefing Sessions and Educational Meetings

Initially the purpose of holding meetings and conferences was to present information about the situation of North Korean refugees in China. However, the meetings have not met our expectations chiefly due to the arrest of core member Noguchi. Notwithstanding this, LFNKR was able to give speeches, presentations and seminars at Kawasaki Lion’s Club, Tokyo University Law School, the College for Elderly in Kawagoe-kita Public Center, and Amnesty International in Kawasaki.