- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

Six refugees from North Korea, including four women who say they were victims of sexual slavery or forced marriages, have fled to the United States, a senator said yesterday.

The group is the first from North Korea to be given official refugee status since passage of a 2004 law that makes it easier for North Koreans to apply for such status.

Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said the six refugees arrived at an undisclosed U.S. location Friday night from a Southeast Asian nation. He would not identify from which nation they came because of worries about security for their families and to avoid diplomatic complications with the country that sent them.

“This is a great act of compassion by the United States and the other countries involved,” said Mr. Brownback, a co-sponsor of the law. He said that the refugees’ arrival in the United States showed “the act is working” by making the refugees’ human rights a part of U.S. policy toward the North.

Reuters news agency, citing South Korean KBS television and Yonhap news agency, reported last week that a group of North Koreas were staying at U.S. embassies in Southeast Asia, waiting to make a rare defection to the United States.

North Korean defectors typically head to South Korea, where they are granted automatic citizenship and given assistance to help them settle in the country.

The issue of North Korean human rights has gained attention in Washington as international diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea’s self-announced nuclear weapons production program have stalled.

President Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, branded North Korea one of the three members of the “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq.

In 2004, Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, part of which specified that the State Department would make it easier for North Koreans to try for refugee status in the United States.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are thought to have fled across their border into China.

The U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, told a congressional hearing last week: “We need to do more — and we can and will do more — for the North Korean refugees.”

“We will press to make it clear to our friends and allies in the region that we are prepared to accept North Korean refugees for resettlement here,” Mr. Lefkowitz said.

Mr. Bush appointed Mr. Lefkowitz last year, tasking him with raising the human rights issue and providing help for refugees fleeing the North.

North Korea long has been accused of torture, public executions and other atrocities against its people. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are thought to be held in prison camps for political reasons, the State Department said in a report last year.

Human rights activists have said that U.S. Embassy workers in Asian countries have refused to help North Korean refugees.

Last year, Timothy Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, told lawmakers at a hearing that U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing rebuffed him when he tried to arrange help for a 17-year-old North Korean refugee.

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