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Desperate N Koreans Seek Asylum In China

by Antoaneta Bezlova

Up to 300,000 N Koreans believed in hiding
[Editor's note: Virtually ignored by the Western press, this story dominated Asian news media for weeks. The Jung family, described in this article, arrived in South Korea on June 30, after China allowed the family to leave Beijing for "humanitarian reasons." By using that excuse, the Chinese government attempted to deflect a confrontation with its close ally, North Korea. China watchers believe that a crucial factor is the importance of world opinion to China at the moment, as it seeks to host the 2008 Olympics.]

(IPS) BEIJING -- Seven North Koreans fleeing their homeland entered a United Nations office here in late June and refused to leave until they were granted asylum, preferably in South Korea.

"We ask on behalf of thousands of other North Koreans hiding in China that the world pay more attention to our situation," the family of seven said in a statement.

Apart from putting Beijing in a quandary, the incident highlights the plight of thousands of North Koreans fleeing repression and famine in their Stalinist country and crossing the border into China to seek food and refuge.

International aid groups estimate that from 150,000 and 300,000 North Korean refugees are hiding in northeast China and Mongolia.

More than six years of severe food shortages, due to agricultural mismanagement and natural disasters, have caused devastating malnutrition in North Korea. As many as three million have died.

A 1998 study by international aid organizations reported that 62 percent of children under 7 suffer from stunted growth. This means that a generation of North Koreans are likely to be mentally and physically impaired because of long-term malnutrition.

The number of North Koreans fleeing their destitute country has increased markedly in recent years. South Korea's National intelligence Service (NIS) said in May that 1,470 North Koreans had defected to South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean war.

About half of them have escaped the North in the past five years.

Almost all reached the South via third countries. The defectors usually sneak into China across the Tumen River and from there try to reach a Southeast Asian country, where they seek asylum at a South Korean embassy.

But the family that stepped into the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on June 26 chose a different tack.

The seven North Koreans, ranging in age from 15 to 69, entered the UNHCR office and refused to leave, the Japan-based group Rescue the North Korean People (RENK) said in a statement faxed to reporters in Beijing.

Reports say the family -- the first North Korean defectors to seek refuge in a UN mission in China -- had wanted to go to South Korea through Mongolia, but decided to go to the UN office after that exit route became difficult.

Now, China faces a diplomatic quandary in whether to allow the family to be granted refugee status and safe passage to South Korea.

China is obligated by treaty to return North Korean defectors to their homeland. In the past, Beijing, worried by the possibility of tens of thousands of refugees crossing the North Korea-China border, has forcibly repatriated many of them, drawing protests from UNHCR and human rights groups.

Family had published drawings of N Korea famine and political oppression
Ties between Pyongyang and Beijing have improved significantly in the past two years and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has come to visit twice, Beijing would be reluctant to offend its long-standing ally.

Moreover, granting refugee status to the fleeing family -- the first North Korean defectors to have sought refuge in a UN mission in China -- creates a precedent that may prompt other North Koreans to follow their lead.

Yet turning the group of family members back to North Korean authorities would tarnish China's image just weeks before the International Olympic Committee decides on whether to grant Beijing the right to host the 2008 Olympic games.

The North Korean family came to China in 1999 by sneaking across the North Korean border, according to the Korean group RENK and Jiro Ishimaru, a Japanese reporter who accompanied the group to the UNCHR office.

Members of the family were a grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, son, daughter and a cousin, according to Ishimaru. The family decided to seek refuge because they had published a book of drawings depicting the famine and political oppression in North Korea.

RENK said North Korean agents were now looking for the defectors inside China and if not given refugee status, the family would likely be sent back to North Korea where they faced cruel punishment.

Under Article 47 of the North Korean criminal code, defectors are political prisoners and liable to a minimum seven years in jail or even execution.

"Until our requests are accepted, we are here to stay. We will not move. We are not afraid of dying anymore," said the family in a statement carried by RENK.

While the UNCHR recognizes North Koreans fleeing the country in recent years as refugees fleeing persecution under the 1951 Convention on Refugees, of which China is a signatory, Beijing insists those are economic migrants that have to be deported under North Korea-China treaty.

On June 26, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue denied that they were refugees. It also remained unclear whether Beijing accords the UNHCR office the diplomatic immunity that foreign missions have.

As it is, the latest diplomatic incident comes on the heels of an embarrassing revelation for both Beijing and Pyongyang.

Last month, a North Korean who was one of seven refugees forcibly repatriated from China against the protests of UNHCR in January 2000 and had managed to escape, gave lengthy testimony to human rights groups in Bangkok about how they were imprisoned and tortured upon their return to the North.

Twenty-three-year-old Park Chong-il, who previously used the pseudonym Kim Kuk-chol, said the seven were sent to an underground prison in Chongjin, run by North Korea's state security agency. He said he was repeatedly interrogated in a torture chamber.

"There were two tortures for each victim under a spotlight. I saw beatings with all kinds of instruments -- iron chains, rubber belts, large wooden sticks, etc. Often I saw victims hung upside down," Park said in his testimony.

He survived but he says he attempted several times to commit suicide before making his way to the Chinese border again. He did not know what happened to the others as they were separated soon after their repatriation.

In January 2000, Beijing's decision to deport the group of seven stirred anger in Seoul and prompted then UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata to issue a rare public condemnation of China's behavior.

Last month, the UNHCR was presented with a petition signed by 11 million South Koreans, a quarter of South Korea's 48 million people, demanding that so-called "defectors" from North Korea be granted refugee status in their adopted lands.

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Albion Monitor July 9, 2001 (

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