The South Korean government says it will take tougher action against its own citizens who commit crimes in the process of assisting North Korean defectors in other countries. Allegations of rape by one young girl waiting to come to South Korea highlight the vulnerability many North Koreans face during their illegal journey through China.
South Korean lawmaker Park Sun-young paints a dire portrait of a 16-year-old female North Korean defector she met recently in a Southeast Asian country.
She says the young girl is so traumatized, she has bitten away all of her fingernails, exposing raw flesh beneath. When she starts to talk, says Park, the girl begins to shiver and cry.
The girl Park is describing is one of tens of thousands of North Koreans who have crossed into China to flee hunger, deprivation, and political repression at home. Because China, an ally of the North, does not recognize them as refugees, the defectors endure a harrowing period of hiding out from police as they travel to a Southeast Asian country where they can seek asylum.
On top of that trauma, this young girl told Park she was locked away and raped many times over a period of about half-a-month by a South Korean who told her he was there to help. The girl reached a third country thanks to a different person's help, and is expected to receive medical attention and mental counselling when she arrives here in South Korea later this month.
The South Korean under investigation for rape is one of many so-called "brokers" who travel to China for the purpose of helping North Korean defectors arrange passage to the South. He has helped other North Koreans in the past.
Many brokers come from South Korean Christian churches. Others may belong to civic groups, or simply be acting privately.
South Korean government officials believe abuses like the alleged rape case probably happen more often, and say they are committed to dealing with the problem.
Moon Tae-young, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, says the government recognizes the problem, and feels the need to react strongly to human rights violations and illegal acts carried out by some refugee brokers.
The problem, North Korean human rights activists say, is a "blind spot" in which the defectors exist in China before they achieve legal refugee status elsewhere. Because they are so helpless, said one activist privately, the brokers have "absolute power" over them.
Lee Young-hwan, a researcher at the Seoul-based Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights says abuses by brokers are an "open secret."
He says people who seem to have good intentions are discovered to have committed evil acts without hesitation, and many cases have gone unpunished. He says he thinks enforcement should be strict enough to protect the reputation of good-willed activists who do not abuse the defectors.