LFNKR’s Kato Speaks Out on Government Policies

On April 2, 2008 in Korea…

Kato Hiroshi, Executive Director of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR), was invited by Korea Christian University to speak at its international conference. His speech was entitled “International Refugee Policy and Intervention & Training Plans for Specialized Social Workers.” The following is the script of the speech he presented at the conference on April 2, 2008.

“Japanese Policies on North Korean Refugees and Problems They Encounter when Settling in Japan”

1. Introduction

For two consecutive years, the UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution condemning the abuse of human rights in North Korea. The UN Human Rights Committee has issued three recommendations to North Korea, and the UN Board of Directors has issued two similar recommendations.

In addition, at the UN human rights board of directors held in March 2008, Dr. Vitit Muntabhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, reported severe abuse of human rights in North Korea and urged the North Korean government to accept a survey.

The situation, however, has shown no signs of changing.

The Chinese government still regards North Korean defectors as illegal immigrants, and, to this date, it continues to arrest and repatriate them, while the North Korean government continues its harsh punishment of North Korean defectors, including public executions of some. However, the North Korean refugees continue fleeing their country. This has caused serious security problems for neighboring countries, leading to an international issue.

The following discussion presents the Japanese government’s policies toward North Korean refugees.

2. North Korean defectors (refugees) are classified roughly into the following three groups:

The first group may be classified as “migrant workers.” They work in the agricultural industry, the timber industry, coal mining, etc. in China, then go back to North Korea with cash or food they have earned in China.

The second group may be classified as “settle-in” refugees. They flee from North Korea into China, then settle in China to survive.

The third group may be classified as “settle-in-a-third-country” refugees. They flee from North Korea into China, then attempt to move on to a third country after they find China an unsafe place in which to settle.

The discussion here will focus mainly on the North Korean refugees of the third group, those who try to move to a third country to survive. After fleeing from North Korea, most of them aim at destination nations to settle in, and they travel to their intended destination via neighboring countries, such as Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in Southeast Asia or Burma in Southwest Asia. The destination nations include South Korea, Japan, and the USA. Recently, the choice of destination nations has expanded to include Canada and EU nations, such as the UK, Germany and Scandinavian countries.

This means that North Korean refugees are no longer a local issue. They have now become an international issue. It also means that the serious human rights violations against North Korean refugees is directly connected to the security issue in Northeast Asia and also affects peace, security and order for the entire world.

3.Who qualifies as a North Korean refugee?

The border between North Korea and China has become more strictly guarded with each passing year as the number of North Korean defectors increases:

1) Barbed-wire fencing equipped with monitoring cameras has been installed along national roads at the border.

2) Border guard police patrol the border. Special check gates have been set up, and all vehicles passing through the gates are checked. The checks are very thorough, with drivers of the vehicles being required to open the trunks.

3)Special vigilance has been implemented through the use of mobile check gates by the Chinese border guard police.

4) Every village along the border has infantry platoons stationed. The troops are dispatched from the Shenyang Military District, Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

With such a strict border guard system, it is difficult to successfully escape from North Korea into China. This, however, does not prevent people from trying, even at the risk of their lives, to seek freedom of access to food. In recent years, the number of successful escapes seems to be decreasing.

North Korean refugees may have a chance to succeed in their escape if they:

1) are capable of bribing the border guard police on the North Korean side.

2)have somebody who will accept them in China.

3)are physically strong enough to cross the border.

4)are determined firmly enough to move into a third country whatever it takes.

5)are blessed with luck.

Very few are lucky enough to have all the above conditions that may lead to a successful escape. If they have connections in China, then their chance of success improves.

4.How many North Korean refugees have settled in?

Reportedly, the number of North Korean refugees who have settled in South Korea passed the 13,000 mark at the end of January 2008. Each year, the South Korean government’s Ministry of Unification officially announces the number of North Korean refugees who have successfully reached South Korea. The Japanese government does not announce the number of North Korean refugees who have settled in Japan due to “diplomatic considerations” for certain countries involved.

The Japanese NGOs concerned, including LFNKR, estimate the number of North Korean refugees to settle in Japan by the end of February 2008 is approximately 170.

Since the United States passed its North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, the US had accepted 43 North Korean refugees by March 2008. In Europe, Germany has the largest number of North Korean refugees, already exceeding 1300. Among them, more than 580 have been granted refugee status.

The Belgian authorities granted refugee status to 8 North Korean defectors between 1993 and 2006. As of January 2008, over 30 North Korean defectors were waiting to apply for the Status of Refugee in Belgium.

The British government granted refugee status and right of residency to 130 out of 425 North Korean defectors who submitted their asylum applications last year.

The Canadian Immigration and Refugees Bureau began accepting asylum applications from North Korean refugees in 1996. During the period from 1996 to 2007, over 170 North Korean defectors applied for asylum, but only four people were granted the right of residency and refugee status in Canada.

5. The barrier of “avoiding the irritation” of concerned countries

There are many barriers in Japan that need to be removed in order to help North Korean refugees. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Immigration Bureau of the Ministry of Justice in Japan have accurate numbers related to North Korean refugees, but they refuse to publicly reveal that information. They insist it would “offend the concerned nations.”

Meanwhile, Japanese NGOs are required by law to keep themselves nonpolitical and nonreligious, meaning that potential financial resources for funding their activities are limited to individual donations. It is difficult to attract donations when it is impossible to provide prospective donors with specific information, including the number of North Korean refugees, and the kinds of difficulties and suffering they endure when escaping from their country.

We should be able to know at least how many people have reached Japan, because this is some of the most basic and important information. The policy of the Japanese government not to release this most basic information, saying that it would offend the nations concerned, adversely affects the activity of NGOs in this field.

The exception to this pattern was a bit of information disclosed regarding the number of North Korean defectors who have settled in Japan. One of the diet lawmakers, a member of the opposition Democratic Party, asked during a congressional session in 2000 how many North Korean defectors have settled in Japan. In replying to this question, the deputy secretary, the second highest official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “We cannot give you an accurate number, because it would cause difficulty for the people concerned. Also, it involves the privacy of individuals.” This was an obvious attempt to avoid answering.

The lawmaker repeatedly asked the same question in different forms until finally the deputy secretary disclosed that a few dozen have acquired special residency permission. Hoping for more accurate data, the questioner responded “According to the information I have, twenty-odd North Korean defectors have obtained special residency permission. Is this number accurate?” To this the deputy secretary replied, “Yes, almost accurate.”

In this case, according to the government’s theory, it was not the government who disclosed the figure; it was the lawmaker who did. The deputy secretary tried hard to stay within the government’s policy of “never offend the related countries.”

The Japanese government is especially nervous about China and North Korea, among its neighboring countries. Although South Korea is also a neighboring country, South Korea and Japan share the same basic sense of values toward democracy, so that they would arguably find it easier to solve any bilateral problem, should such a problem arise, than it would with the other two countries.

But the Japanese government is not the only one that hates to see incidents develop into diplomatic issues. The governments of almost all countries try hard to follow the basic diplomatic stance of “diplomacy behind a curtain” or “never offend related nations.”

Japan has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, but if a stable peace and security in Northeast Asia is to be achieved, it will be necessary to restore diplomatic relations between these two countries. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to advance negotiations to restore relations, and therefore it closely adheres to its “make-no-waves” policy. This is, however, preventing the Japanese government from taking the lead in finding a solution.

In addition, the widespread negative feelings in Japan toward North Korea because of the abductee issue seems to be prompting the Japanese government to be even more careful. Moreover, the Japanese government obviously wishes to avoid making an issue of its acceptance of North Koreans who formerly lived in Japan as long as there are still serious ongoing violations of the human rights of North Korean defectors in China. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs worries that if the news media begin reporting on this issue, it will complicate the already sensitive issues among China, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea.

In cases where serious human rights or humanitarian issues have developed into political issues, NGOs generally urge a broader based treatment. Rather than limiting the issues to bilateral handling, it would generally be better to establish an international framework in order to assure local peace and security.

The government’s stance of maintaining “quiet diplomacy” does aid some refugees in moving safely to their destination countries, so their policy may deserve some respect; however, this approach seldom leads to the permanent solution of issues.

6. Relationship between the government and NGOs

Although it is important for the government and NGOs to work together in resolving problems, cooperation between them is not always smooth or successful.

From the viewpoint of NGOs, the government should not continue to hold too stringently to its “make-no-waves” policy. This policy frequently conflicts with the basic stance of NGOs whose important purpose is to seek a permanent solution. This is a fact. NGOs frequently disagree with the government’s stance, which is based on seeking solutions in “a quiet environment.” Confrontations usually come from differences of assessment by nations involved.

For example, in the past, there have been confrontations between the Japanese government and LFNKR when this organization’s humanitarian aid workers were detained by the Chinese authorities. Anyone who attempts to help or protect North Korean refugees in China is punished under the Chinese criminal code Article 318 related to illegal immigrants.

At that time, the Japanese government insisted that LFNKR should absolutely not hold a press conference, since it would irritate the Chinese government. On the other hand, LFNKR decided that keeping quiet would be tacitly accepting the Japanese government’s stance, which held that the humanitarian aid workers, by engaging in the rescue activities, had violated Chinese domestic law, and should of course be punished under their domestic law. NGOs, including LFNKR, basically support the opinion that humanitarian aid workers are engaged in the rescue of refugees as specified by the Refugees Convention, which is an international law, and that if a domestic law conflicts with an international law, the international law takes precedence over the domestic law. For this reason, LFNKR continues to urge the Japanese government to deal with the Chinese government more resolutely and to firmly call for the immediate release of humanitarian aid workers from unjustifiable restraint.

The Japanese government seems unwilling to actively come to the aid of humanitarian workers or human rights activists if they are arrested; the best they have done in the past has been “begging the arresting government for clemency.” This has never worked. Instead, the Chinese government sentenced one worker to 8 months of imprisonment while another received a 2-year prison sentence. This result is absolutely unacceptable.

7. Problems remaining for rescuers to resolve

Not every North Korean refugee can go to a third country such as South Korea or Japan.

LFNKR has never decided to rescue or protect any North Korean refugee according to their social status in the North Korean society. It does not matter whether they were military officers, top officials of the Labor Party, actual laborers or farmers. LFNKR has also never decided to rescue someone because they have money or whether or not they happen to belong to a particular faith.

Some Korean NGOs supported by Christian churches in South Korea impose conditions on North Korean refugees when deciding which ones to help and protect. For example, people who have more successfully achieved the assignments given to them by pastors or missionaries receive tickets to third countries sooner. Specific conditions that North Korean refugees must meet if they are to qualify include the following:

1) Does he/she have enough money (3000RMB in Chinese currency) to travel to their destination third country?

2) If he/she does not have money, does he/she go to a Christian church in China and eagerly engage in morning and evening prayer services?

3) Does he/she attend the Bible study meetings to deepen their understanding of the Bible?

4) Can he/she actually demonstrate a pattern of giving to the church in China?

5) If he/she wishes to settle in South Korea, will they promise to donate 10% of his/her income once settled in South Korea?

The North Korean refugees have no alternative. They must obey the dictates of South Korean pastors or missionaries while they are in China because they need the church’s help to hide from Chinese police. If they fail to obey, they are very likely to be ushered out of the shelters. Since they are in such a vulnerable position, they frequently have to obey against their will.

Korean pastors complain that North Korean refugees are enthusiastic Christians while they are in China, but they quit coming to churches after they make it to South Korea. This is no surprise. Most of the refugees had to chose to be Christians in order to survive in China. Thus, they often lose interest once they reach a free society. Unless anyone chooses to be a believer in any religion, of their own free will, it constitutes forced belief. This violates their freedom to believe as their conscience guides them, and it also violates their human rights.

8.Settle-in support provided by the Japanese government

In 2002, the Japanese government established a policy to extend protection to North Korean refugees provided that they meet Japanese nationality requirements. This policy was established after the Han-mi incident (the Han-mi family, who had a 3-year-old daughter at that time, daringly dashed into a Japanese consulate in Shenyang in China).

The shocking scene of the Han-mi incident was videotaped, and that footage was repeatedly broadcast worldwide by most major news media. This disclosed the ongoing violation of human rights in China and also the existence of North Korean refugees. It also disclosed the shameful behavior of the Japanese consul, and prompted strong criticism in Japan of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a result of that incident, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was urged to announce that the Japanese government would extend protection to North Korean refugees who meet the Japanese nationality requirements and would urge the government of an involved country to provide humanitarian treatment.

Following that incident, a group of North Korean refugees dashed into a Japanese school in Beijing. This time, the Japanese consulate promptly took protective action by sending them to the Japanese Embassy. As soon as the refugees expressed their wish to go to South Korea, the Japanese Embassy immediately handed their custody over to the South Korean Embassy in Beijing. This incident demonstrated an improvement in the handling of North Korean refugees. More specifically, a system has now been established whereby refugees who meet the Japanese nationality requirements are unconditionally protected by the Japanese government, while those who express their wish to go to specific countries are handed over to the governments of the countries with relative promptness.

The North Korean refugees who meet the Japanese nationality requirements and who are qualified to settle in Japan are those who are either ethnic Koreans formerly residing in Japan under the qualification of special permanent residents or who are relatives of up to third degree.

From 1959 to 1976, there were 187 boat-loads of ethnic Korean residents in Japan, including Japanese spouses of ethnic Koreans (more than 93,000 people in total) who traveled to the northern part of the Korean peninsula.

In 1945, Japan was defeated in World War II, and lost its colonies. The ethnic Korean residents living in Japan back then lost their Japanese nationality and reverted to Korean nationality. Some returned to South Korea, which had regained its sovereignty, while those who chose to stay in Japan became foreigners with Korean nationality. This was defined as “special permanent residents.” After the Korean War broke out in 1950, Korean blockade runners who fled to Japan acquired special residence permits, which later were turned into special permanent resident permits.

The special permanent residents living in Japan have polarized into two groups, reflecting the political climate in the Korean Peninsula. One group is Mindan (Korean Residents Union in Japan), which supports the South Korean government. The other group is Chosen Soren (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), which supports the North Korean government. Then beginning in about 1959, many Chosen Soren supporters left Japan and emigrated to North Korea, believing the propaganda of “Come to the paradise on earth.”

Because of this past “return campaign” history, the Japanese government has come to accept the resettlement of former special permanent residents back into Japan. The 93,000 returnees to North Korea also include Japanese spouses of those ethnic Koreans. These North Korea returnees now have families in that country, and the population of their families is estimated to be about 300,000.

9. Procedure of settling in Japan

When a North Korean defector asks the Japanese government through a Japanese Embassy or Japanese consulate for asylum, the Japanese government first examines whether he or she is qualified to settle in Japan. The time required by diplomatic missions to finally decide on the qualification varies from one case to another, but it usually ranges from 30 to 90 days on the short side, to as much as 11 months. Recently, the required time seems to be longer.

LFNKR, before it decides to rescue and protect a North Korean refugee, asks the following questions:

1) Is he or she firmly determined to settle in Japan?

2) Why did he or she have to flee from North Korea?

3) Is he or she a former special resident, or a family member of a former special resident?

4) Which returning shuttle boat did he or she take when moving from Japan to North Korea (to make sure that he or she is a former special resident in Japan).

5) Does he or she have a guarantor in Japan?

In addition to the above questions, LFNKR also asks the following questions to further confirm that he or she is serious and determined enough to settle in Japan.

1) What were his or her living conditions in North Korea.

2) Specific reason(s) for escaping from North Korea.

3) Specific reasons(s) why he or she cannot go back to North Korea.

4) Specific reason(s) why he or she cannot stay in China.

5) What he or she expects from Japan.

Answers to these questions will be very important for advisors who try to assist them once they reach Japan to resettle.

10. Japanese government’s policy for North Korean defectors to settle in Japan

The Japanese government does not have specific policies for North Korean refugees who have fled from their fatherland.

The South Korean government has a resettlement system for North Korean defectors. According to the system, North Korean defectors first undergo a thorough 30-day investigation of personal identification carried out by Dae Song Kong Sa (an organization for joint investigation of North Korean defectors by intelligence agencies, such as the National Intelligence Service, National Police Agency, and the Military Intelligence Headquarters). They then stay in Hanawon for about 2 months to receive training for resettlement. When they graduate from Hanawon to join the South Korean society, they are given a place to live and are referred to potential workplaces.

The Japanese government has no specific agency responsible for such investigations, resettlement training and education. This means that North Korean defectors have to look for jobs on their own or depend on assistance extended by NGOs.

The South Korean government provides North Korean defectors with money for their resettlement, whereas the Japanese government provides them with no such money. In other words, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responsible for protecting them until they reach Japan, but once they arrive in this country, they have to depend on guarantors, or on NGOs if no guarantor is available.

The Japanese government’s policy is to accept special permanent residents and their relatives up to the third degree on a humanitarian basis, but it extends no official aid to North Korean refugees.

The most daunting challenge that North Korean defectors face when they try to settle in Japan is the language. If they cannot speak Japanese, it is extremely difficult to settle in Japan. The first-generation defectors may be familiar with the Japanese language, but it should be expected that second-generation defectors are not. Some first-generation defectors may not be at all familiar if they were taken to North Korea when they were only 1 year old, so these people also may not be familiar with the language.

The third-generation refugees moving into Japan are mostly in their late teens to twenties, so they learn the Japanese language relatively quickly, and find it easier to secure jobs, which makes their resettlement easier. The second-generation defectors require more time to learn the language since they are much older. Volunteers currently help them with the language, but this is inadequate for fully mastering Japanese. Most defectors moving back to Japan possess very few assets and cannot afford to go to private Japanese language schools.

11. Supplying welfare benefits instead of resettlement money

Miscellaneous expenses, including the transportation fees for going from the airport to the place where they wish to resettle, are to be borne by their legal guarantors. If their guarantors cannot come to meet them at the airports, NGOs bear the expenses. If their guarantors are senior citizens living on pensions and cannot provide the defectors with housing, then the guarantors are very often unable to pay housing expenses for their defector relative. In such cases, and in cases where there is no guarantor, the refugee must apply for welfare benefits, since there is no system for providing money specifically for resettlement.

Before North Korean defectors can apply for welfare benefits in the district where they choose to reside, they must complete their resident registration in that district. It is almost impossible for them to do this all by themselves, because most of them arrive in Japan penniless.

Meanwhile, the law irrationally stipulates that if an NGO pays the necessary expenses to secure the defector’s housing, so that he or she can be accepted as a welfare recipient, then the defector is legally regarded as an income earner. This automatically disqualifies them from receiving the welfare benefits, including the housing expenses for which they are applying.

When they are approved to receive welfare benefits, they receive the amount of money for rent specified in each administrative district (e.g., up to 68,000 yen (approx. US$650) in Tokyo) and 86,000 yen (approx. US$840) as living expenses. It is extremely difficult, however, to find an apartment or a house within the specified price range, indicating that the specified rent standard itself is unrealistic, as it does not match reality.

Another difficulty in finding a living place is that North Korean defectors who do not speak Japanese are regarded by landlords as foreigners, which makes it difficult to find lessors who will accept them. Thus, they must find lessors who are sympathatic toward the background of North Korean refugees. If they cannot find an apartment to rent, they must go to facilities for rehabilitating them back into society.

Regarding the need for medical treatment, once they are approved for welfare benefits, they will automatically be entitled to free medical treatment.

Aged North Korean refugees face difficulties in finding jobs. In addition, since they do not have pensions, it is all the more difficult for them to live independent lives. Another problem is that even working-age refugees frequently find it difficult to move beyond the life style supported by their welfare benefits.