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US Senator Calls for Evaluation of N. Korean Refugees' Status - 2002-12-18

A U.S. senator calls on China to allow the United Nations to evaluate the status of North Koreans fleeing persecution at home.

Senator Sam Brownback says North Korean citizens continue to endure horrific persecution at home and urges China not to turn a blind eye to the suffering of its neighbors.

Mr. Brownback, who is a majority member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke to reporters in Beijing Wednesday, after spending three days meeting officials in Chinese towns bordering North Korea. "I have seen nothing on this trip to dissuade me that the testimony that we have received in the United States is false, namely that incredible persecution, executions, government-manipulated starvation has occurred and continues to occur inside North Korea," he said.

Mr. Brownback, a Republican from the state of Kansas, says he was refused access to North Koreans who had crossed the border into China. He added that aid groups helping refugees were too afraid to speak to him, for fear of reprisal from the Chinese government.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled into neighboring China in recent years, escaping famine and repression at home. But Beijing considers them to be economic migrants, not refugees. China has a treaty with ally Pyongyang requiring it to return North Koreans refugees.

But Mr. Brownback says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should be allowed to assess the status of North Koreans seeking refuge in China. "I'm asking them, let the UNHCR in and then let them differentiate," said Senator Brownback. "There is going to be a certain group that are clearly refugees and there will be others that are economic migrants. But that is for UNHCR to determine, under an international agreement that China has entered into."

The UNHCR says Beijing denies the agency permission to interview North Koreans in China.

Despite China's hard-line stance on the refugees, Beijing has allowed more than one-hundred North Koreans to travel to South Korea. Most of them had sought refuge at foreign diplomatic missions in China.

On Wednesday, diplomats in Beijing confirmed that two North Koreans had entered the German embassy Tuesday. They joined two other asylum seekers who have been sheltering in the embassy for more than a week. German officials are discussing their fate with the Chinese government.