- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

SEOUL — A leading think tank warned yesterday of faminelike conditions in North Korea with the approach of winter and a growing exodus of refugees into northeastern China.

A crisis is occurring “almost invisibly” as the world focuses on North Korean’s nuclear test, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a 46-page report published yesterday, “Perilous Journeys: The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond.”

The report cites a combination of reduced aid because of the nuclear standoff and Pyongyang’s refusal to allow charities to monitor distribution. Summer floods also reduced North Korea’s harvest.

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“It is difficult to find a more draconian regime when it comes to treatment of those trying to leave — even Castro allowed tens of thousands of Cubans out,” said Peter Beck, ICG’s Korea representative.

“Responsibility rests squarely on [North Korea leader] Kim Jong-il, but the situation for North Koreans trying to leave would be much better if Beijing adopted a more enlightened approach,” Mr. Beck said.

The report estimates that 100,000 North Korean asylum seekers are already hiding in China, knowing if Chinese police catches them, they will be returned and face severe punishment.

Beijing offers rewards as high as $400 for turning in North Korean refugees, and it fines those who aid refugees up to $3,600, the report states.

Authorities sweep suspect neighborhoods. Crackdowns have pushed asylum seekers deep into rural China and their aid networks underground.

The report recommends that the world community, before the 2008 Olympics, nudge China toward humane policies, such as halting forced repatriations and the removal of fines and bounties.

It also urges Western governments such as the United States to accept more than a “handful” of defectors.

Hunger and poverty, rather than political repression, are the “push” factors propelling North Koreans abroad.

In terms of “pull” factors, recent defectors estimate that up to half of all North Koreans have watched black market South Korean videos.

Others hear Radio Free Asia or Voice of America broadcasts, or read leaflets published outside of North Korea, which draw attention because of the high-quality paper.

Increased cross-border trade is also disseminating information.

In 2005, an estimated 20,000 North Koreans had access to banned Chinese cell phones with signals reaching North Korea.

Refugees repatriated to North Korea face sentences as light as two weeks in detention centers — or as heavy as months in labor camps. Pregnant women who conceive abroad suffer forced abortions, the report states.

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