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US Congress Reviews the Fate of  North Korean Refugees - 2002-06-22


A U.S. Senate panel Friday examined the plight of North Korean refugees in China. The hearing comes as the Bush administration is reviewing its policy on the issue.

A human rights activist said the recent flow of North Korean refugees to diplomatic missions in China could increase to such a level that it could bring about the collapse of Kim Jong-Il's hardline communist government.

Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who works with North Korean refugees on the Chinese border, compares the current situation with the refugee exodus that prompted the collapse of East Germany. "This will go on for the next weeks, we are hoping for some mass escapes, like in the former East Germany, and we hope to repeat history, what will finally lead to the collapse of North Korea," he said.

Mr. Vollertsen's testimony to a Senate judiciary subcommittee came just hours after a North Korean refugee entered South Korea's consulate in Beijing, raising the number of asylum seekers there to 21.

Human rights groups say as many as 300,000 North Koreans have crossed the border into China, fleeing starvation and political repression in their homeland. Dozens of North Korean refugees have sought asylum at embassies in consulates in China in recent months.

China has an agreement with North Korea to repatriate refugees. But human rights groups say that puts China in violation of a United Nations convention on refugees, under which Beijing has agreed not to expel refugees to countries where their lives or freedom is threatened.

China has allowed 38 North Koreans to leave for South Korea, but last week it called on foreign missions to turn over any North Korean refugees to Chinese authorities.

It is an appeal that U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, Gene Dewey, stressed the United States will ignore. "We are not handing them over," he said.

Mr. Dewey told the Senate panel the administration is in the midst of a policy review on North Korean refugees.

U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, pressed the administration to do more to ease the suffering of North Koreans fleeing their country.

He said, "North Korea is today's killing fields, where millions of people, considered as politically hostile or agitators, or just being innocent children, starve to death, while those in power enjoy luxurious lifestyles, spending billions of dollars on weapons, and actively engaged in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian Affairs, told the committee the United States plans to raise the refugee issue when it holds another round of talks with North Korea in the coming weeks.

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