A key U.S. senator has spoken with six North Korean refugees who arrived in the United States last week. They are the first North Koreans to be given U.S. asylum, and they likely will not be the last.
Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and outspoken human rights advocate, spoke by phone with the North Korean refugees Wednesday, just five days after they arrived in the United States:
"They are in good spirits, they are excited to be in the United States. I said to them, 'Welcome to America,'" said Mr. Brownback. "They are ready to begin a life anew, a life of freedom, a life of pursuing what they seek to do with their own lives and not being ordered around, and not being in fear."
Brownback, citing a request from the U.S. State Department to protect the safety and privacy of the refugees, would not say where they are living.
The refugees are the first North Koreans to be granted asylum in the United States under a law passed two years ago aimed at promoting human rights in Communist-led North Korea.
The Los Angeles Times quoted human rights activists saying the refugees are four women and two men who had been living secretly in China. The paper says the women had been forced into prostitution.
Human rights groups say some 100,000 North Koreans are hiding in China after fleeing their impoverished country.
Speaking at a news conference, Brownback noted that South Korea also has given asylum to North Koreans in recent years, and he expressed hope that other governments, particularly China, would follow suit.
He called on Beijing to end its policy of returning North Korean refugees, whom China views as economic migrants.
"China, I believe, must understand that they have obligations under international law not to repatriate North Korean refugees within their borders," said Mr. Brownback. "China must respect international standards regarding the care and sheltering of refugees who face certain fear of persecution in their country of origin."
The senator also called on China to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to assess the situation along the Chinese border with North Korea.
He said North Korea remains plagued by food shortages, and that fears of another famine like the one that claimed more than a million lives nearly a decade ago could result in many more North Koreans fleeing to China.
Brownback says he expects more North Korean refugees to be granted U.S. asylum, although he would not predict when or how many.
The arrival in the United States of the six North Koreans comes as six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear program are at a stalemate.
China and South Korea had expressed concern that U.S. asylum for North Korean refugees could hurt the six-party talks.
But Brownback argued otherwise.
"Our experience in the past is that these two [issues] run in tandem, when you talk about how a country treats its own people and its nuclear aspirations," he added. "I think it will actually help in putting more impetus on the six-party talks, that if you are not going to talk with us in the six-party [arrangement], we are going to take these forms of unilateral actions, not about a nuclear issue but about the human rights of your own people."
The State Department says North Korea has one of the worst human rights records in the world, citing reports of extrajudicial killings and the imprisonment of many people for political reasons.