Tens of thousands of North Koreans, fleeing the starving conditions in their country, have tried to make lives for themselves on the Chinese side of the Sino-Korean border. But the conditions there are also precarious. On Monday, panelists testified to a U.S. government commission that Washington should pressure Beijing to allow the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations to help the North Koreans.
The North Koreans began crossing into China in the mid-1990s, when a severe famine hit their country. Out of a population of less than 23 million people, it is estimated that as many as three million died. Tens of thousands of other North Koreans fled across the border to northeastern China to escape starvation and a repressive political system.
The Chinese government considers North Koreans on Chinese territory economic migrants, not refugees, which international aid workers say translates into two major problems. First of all, China forces many North Koreans captured on the Chinese side of the border to return home. Also, Beijing does not allow North Koreans to contact international organizations that might be able to help them.
Suzanne Scholte is president of the Defense Forum Foundation, a non-governmental organization that works to raise awareness of human rights issues in North Korea. In testimony to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Ms. Scholte said most of the North Koreans coming to China should be classified as refugees.
"China defends the repatriations by claiming that the refugees are "economic migrants." Yet as soon as a North Korean crosses the border [into China], they immediately fit the definition of a political asylum seeker because it is a crime against the state for a North Korean to leave the country," she said.
Ms. Scholte also rejected Beijing's fears that helping North Koreans in China will lead to a flood of refugees. "I fully acknowledge China's right to protect its borders and concern about the flood of refugees, but you have a wealth of humanitarian organizations who wish to alleviate this problem," said Ms. Scholte. "In fact, two years ago, we got letters of commitment from 12 humanitarian organizations that wished to help establish a refugee camp to help relieve China of any burdern for these refugees."
Another panelist, Joel Charny, of Refugees International, applauded legislative efforts by the U.S. Congress to address the issue of human rights in North Korea. But he added that tough talk about the human rights of North Koreans also needs to be addressed to China.
"It's basically symbolic politics without change from China," he said. "I mean, we can say we'll take 50,000 North Koreans in the United States, but until the Chinese allow us access to North Koreans in China, it's just a moot point. It's just a statement. It has no practical value."
Mr. Charny added that his group hopes the U.S. government, in its human rights discussions with Beijing, will devote more attention to the plight of North Koreans in China.
"There are so many issues we have on human rights with China that it's hard to move anything closer to the top because the agenda's so vast. Our plea is that this make it in the top five, that it be a subject for discussion when the vice-president goes to China or when the prime minister of China comes to the United States," he said.
Mr. Charny added that he would like to see the issue of North Koreans in China even on the U.S.-China agenda at all. He adds that at this point, he has the impression that it's not even discussed.