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LFNKR Speech in Seoul
September 3, 2002

Speech Presented at the Public Forum for Solutions to the North Korean Defector's Problem Held in Seoul, South Korea

Report on Our Group's Activities

Life Funds for North Korean Refugees is a Japanese NGO formally founded in 1997 and dedicated to the rescue of North Korean refugees. We would like to express our deepest appreciation for this opportunity to deliver our message here today.

When we started our activities for helping North Korean refugees, North Korea was in a tragic situation. Two to three million people were dying from starvation, and there was a constant flow of North Koreans crossing the border in search of food and freedom. It has been impossible to monitor the effectiveness of international humanitarian aid, including the supply of food, provided through the North Korean government because of the nature of the North Korean regime.

From the beginning, our activities have been guided by a policy of always handing the food, medicines, clothing, and other supplies directly to the North Korean refugees themselves.

Here are some specifics about our primary rescue activities.

Our first major activity is to provide shelters for refugees. We have been providing small shelters in China, Russia, and Southeast Asian countries by working together with local people who are interested in the task. As you know, North Korean refugees have not yet been granted refugee status by UNHCR, and have not been properly protected by international society. They are constantly exposed to the danger of capture by Chinese security police and repatriation to North Korea. At one time, our shelters were providing protection to more than one hundred people.

Our second major activity is a foster parent plan to provide care for refugee orphans. We recruit foster parents from among the members of our NGO in Japan to provide those North Korean children with safe shelters and the opportunity to receive minimum education. Every month, a foster parent sends 15,000 yen (150,000 won) per child.

Our third major activity is establishing and maintaining secret routes for delivering food directly to the starving people; this does not go through the North Korean government. This project requires, of course, working together with local supporters. We have been successfully carrying food into North Korea through several routes. Although we are a very small NGO group, we have continually been supplying food, clothing and medicines, and even medical treatment.

This year, the situation of the North Korean refugees dramatically changed. In March, twenty-five refugees dashed into the Spanish Embassy. One of those 25 is a foster child we had been caring for. Immediately before this incident, we received a message from an international NGO ally asking for help, and we assisted them in publicizing this to as many mass media outlets as possible. Following that incident, we have seen a steady flow of other incidents in which North Korean refugees are dashing into diplomatic establishments in China, and requesting asylum in South Korea. The most dramatic of these was the case involving the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang.

We deeply regret that some people are labeling these actions by the North Korean refugees and aided by NGOs as "planned defections." They tend to downplay the gravity of the refugees' problem, dismissing it as simply the refugees' desire for economic affluence, even though the refugees are suffering under severe persecution and inhumane circumstances. They support the claim by the Chinese government who insist that there are no North Korean refugees in China. They mislead people into believing that North Korean refugees are just economic migrants rather than seriously suffering refugees. This is sure to misdirect well-meaning people who would otherwise be willing to help the North Korean refugees.

We must emphasize that this series of incidents in which North Korean refugees seek asylum in foreign embassies or consulates clearly indicates that this is the last resort left to them for their survival. They have no other choice in their current situation. Judging from our interviews with the refugees over the past few years, people in need have been receiving far too little food. This means that no drastic change has been made to improve the starvation and oppression in North Korea, and this is causing the continuing flow of refugees.

The Chinese government repeatedly claims that China has no refugee issue, and the vice-premier in charge of diplomacy officially stated that China has not been forcibly sending North Koreans back, or that they will receive only light punishment even if they are sent back to North Korea. He has been saying that it is the basic policy of the Chinese government to let those North Koreans stay in China unless they break the law. This, however, is far from what the Chinese government is actually doing to the North Korean refugees. The Chinese government, in further reinforcing its "Strike hard" campaign which began in April 2001, has been attempting to track down all North Koreans hiding in China at all provincial and city levels. They actually reward informers that tell where refugees are hiding, and they are ruthless in fining the Chinese Koreans or NGO members who help and protect the refugees. The amount of fines ranges from 20,000 to 50,000 RMB, amounts that equal a university professor's salary for 20 to 50 months. To make doubly sure that every policeman is seriously working to arrest the refugees, the security police carry out strict internal monitoring to punish any policeman showing signs of sympathy toward refugees. Furthermore, they mete out harsh punishments, including torture and violence, to instill fear throughout the entire region.

Currently, the Chinese government is intensifying its crackdown by making use of their legal framework, including apartments for rent management provisions. They are never generous to North Korean refugees. This means that those who have defected to China from North Korea lose their basic freedom to breathe and much of their chance to survive. The defectors all know what awaits them if they are sent back to their own country. They know that they will be punished under Article 47 of the North Korean Law, which stipulates that they may be subjected to forced labor for seven years or more, or even receive the death penalty plus confiscation of all assets. Whatever reasons they may have for leaving, they know they face severe punishment for crossing the boarder without permission if they are sent back.

Simply going to China to look for food for survival makes them political criminals under North Korea's legal system. The refugees enter China in a desperate attempt to survive, but now it is becoming harder to stay alive in China, too. Our investigation reveals that any refugee arrested in China and repatriated three times will be treated as a political criminal and executed without trial.

Recently, we published in Japan a book containing the memos written by one North Korean refugee. That refugee was repatriated to North Korea and tortured to death. According to the testimony received from many refugees, especially severe treatment is reserved for those who have had any contact with Korean NGO members or Christian NGO members. This includes cruel torture or imprisonment. Therefore, those defectors face great difficulty and have no choice but to escape from China if they are to survive. They must either sneak into a third country sharing a border with China or dash into a foreign diplomatic establishment.

Ironically, as the Chinese government intensifies its crackdown, more defectors feel cornered and choose to run into foreign consulates or embassies, because it is their last chance for survival. Seeking asylum in foreign embassies or consulates is their desperate choice to protect their lives and human rights, and it should not be diminished as something termed mere "planned defections."

The official opinion of the Chinese government has already collapsed. As the crackdown tightens, more refugees are trying to run into foreign establishments. Making the surrounding fences taller or adding to the number of security guards is just a temporary solution. Such a superficial solution will surely be met by even larger incidents. As a result, China will have to deal with humanitarian and human rights issues in the international community, and will lose its national credibility. China would see the Beijing Olympics in 2008 held under a cloud of international accusations and an atmosphere of discomfort. In addition, now that China has joined the WTO, if China's awareness of human rights and democracy is internationally questioned, then the national prestige of China could be damaged.

We hope that China will change its policy for dealing with the North Korean refugees, which is increasingly attracting international attention, and achieve a soft landing on this issue.

If the countries involved in the North Korean refugee issue repeat their diplomatic clashes each time a problem arises, it could threaten the security of the whole northeast Asian region. Then, it would no longer be merely a humanitarian or human rights issue; it could jeopardize the peace and security of all of east Asia. We definitely believe, therefore, that we must initiate international teamwork as soon as possible for dealing with the issue.

We must immediately halt the tragedy of the North Korean refugees. Since China shows no intention of protecting the North Korean refugees, we would very much like to urge the countries involved to reach prompt agreement on setting up a refugee camp for protecting them in a country neighboring China. To do this, first, we suggest establishing collaboration among South Korea, Japan, and the United States to prompt their governments to take the initiative in creating international teamwork. We of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees suggest that 11 countries would be involved in the project; they are China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. Desirably, each of these countries would actively commit itself to the project.

Second, we need to urge the Chinese government to grant North Korean refugees the right to pass through China, giving them access to the refugee camp in a neighboring country.

Third, in granting such access to the refugee camp, we must urge China to grant UNHCR and related NGOs the access and freedom of activities to survey the actual conditions and accurately determine the number of refugees in China.

Fourth, we suggest that discussion be started among related international organizations and involved countries and NGOs to set up refugee camps in Mongolia and in Far East Russia to accommodate the North Korean refugees.

Fifth, once the refugee camp project is secured financially, politically, and legally, we will be able to actively engage in the management of the refugee camp, in cooperation with other NGOs, by drawing upon the know-how we have built up during the past several years in our rescue activities.

In July, the Senate Foreign Operations Committee added $80 million to the amount requested by the administration for the refugee assistance account, and added this language in its report: "The Committee recommends the State Department utilize increased funding provided in the Act to safeguard the human rights and dignity of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, whether through the establishment of camps, contributions to organizations or other means."

This means that the United States is officially ready to start the rescue of North Korean refugees. In Japan, Diet members have inaugurated the "Board of Democratic Party members for North Korean refugees and humanitarian issues" to establish a network with South Korean Diet members and members of both houses of the US Congress. In addition, eight NGO groups have submitted written commitments to support the management of the refugee camp in Mongolia.

We hope that active international discussions will be held at both congressional and NGO levels to solve the North Korean refugee problem. We look forward to seeing the opening of the refugee camp as soon as possible. Meanwhile, we continue our activities to help and guide the refugees to a safe zone.

We are ready to try any means to help as many refugees as possible until our mission is no longer necessary.

Thank you.