Monday, January 26, 2004

An increasing number of North Korean refugees are fleeing to China, where they are detained and sent back to face harsh treatment in their home country, according to a human rights activist from the region.

Tim Peters, a South Korea-based Christian activist who is part of a network of aid groups helping North Koreans in China, also said the United Nations refugee relief group in China is ignoring the plight of the fleeing North Koreans.

Mr. Peters, founder of the group Helping Hands Korea, said officials from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Beijing have been banned from traveling to the Chinese-North Korean border, where they could assist the refugees.

The U.N. organization has the legal power under international law to help the fleeing North Koreans, but has failed to take action, Mr. Peters said.

“What is happening with the UNHCR is beyond disgusting,” Mr. Peters said. “They’ve allowed the government to keep them cooped up in a compound in Beijing.

“They have the title, the mission and the mandate,” Mr. Peters said. “And yet they seem more than happy just sitting on their hands.”

Mr. Peters said the United States — both the Bush administration and Congress — should pressure China and the UNHCR into “helping these forgotten people.”

Joung-ah Ghedini, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Washington, said China is not honoring a 1995 agreement that allows the UNHCR to help the fleeing North Koreans.

“We have not been able to access the border areas despite the agreement,” she said. “The issue has been brought up numerous times with the Chinese.”

Beijing has ignored the refugee problem by claiming that those fleeing are not properly classified as refugees.

Miss Ghedini said, however, there are refugees in the area.

“It is a difficult situation,” she said. “And there are refugees there that need our protection and assistance.”

Mr. Peters said many of the aid workers helping North Koreans who flee to China are Christians. “Most are strongly motivated by their Christian faith, he said.

At least five aid workers have been imprisoned in recent months, including Choi Bong-il, a South Korean recently sentenced to nine years in a Chinese labor camp.

To discourage the aid workers, China’s government recently announced it would pay bounties to Chinese residents in northeastern China who inform on them.

North Koreans who are sent back by the Chinese are questioned upon their return about whether they had contact in China with Christians, Mr. Peters said.

If they answer yes, he said, the repatriated North Koreans are then sent to prison camps for “incorrigibles” — labor camps designed to kill those categorized as unreformable under the communist system.

Reports from humanitarian groups indicate that North Koreans, many of them starving because of the North’s collapsed economy, are coming across the Chinese border in increasing numbers.

Several thousand North Koreans flee each year to China. They then are sent back under an agreement with the Pyongyang government.

In one recent case, more than a hundred North Koreans crossed the border and were picked up and placed in a detention camp by Chinese authorities, Mr. Peters said.

The refugee flow increases during the winter when the Yalu and Tumen rivers that delineate the North Korea-China border freeze over.

A report made public last week by Amnesty International stated that starving North Koreans have been executed for stealing food and have died of malnutrition in labor camps.

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