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Advocate for North Korean Refugees Urges Stronger US Steps

A key advocate for North Koreans fleeing difficult conditions in their country says the United States must take strong steps to assist them, and press China to ease pressure on North Koreans crossing the border.

Phillip Buck is actually John Yoon, a Korean refugee activist and pastor, who spoke to reporters in what were described as his first extensive public comments since being released from a Chinese jail this past August.

Born in North Korea, the 69-year-old Yoon was separated from his family during the Korean war, eventually making it to the south, and emigrated to the United States in 1982. He became a pastor in Seattle, in [the western U.S. state of] Washington.

Overseas missionary work in the early 1990's took Yoon to Russia, and then China where he began his efforts to help North Koreans fleeing the brutal regime of Kim il-Sung who died in 1994.

As part of those efforts, he adopted the name Phillip Buck, an effort to prevent Chinese authorities from uncovering an expanding underground railway bringing North Koreans to China and South Korea.

In 2005, Reverend Buck was arrested, along with nine refugees he was helping in China, and held for 15 months on charges of having violated Chinese law prohibiting the transportation of people out of the country.

Speaking through an interpreter, he says North Koreans fleeing their country face a double-edged sword - oppression, torture and starvation in their homeland, and mistreatment in China. "The North Korean refugees arrested with me have been tortured severely. They are tortured in China by Chinese police, [and] when sent back to North Korea they will be tortured three times worse than the torture that they will receive in China," he said.

Buck describes the kind of brutal steps taken in North Korea to intimidate people who might want to flee. "In North Korea, to prevent the refugees from running away, they crush the ankle bone, and they break the leg. And they torture refugees like tying someone up and just leaving them hanging there on the ceiling for three whole days without letting the person sleep, that is the way of torture," he said.

After his arrest, along with three pastors from the United States and South Korea, authorities tried Buck under Criminal Law 318, which carries a jail sentence of two to seven years for what it calls illegal transport of people out of China.

The other pastors were released. Yoon spent 15 months in a Chinese jail until August, when a combination of U.S. diplomatic pressure, and assistance from various non-government groups brought about his release. He is now permanently banned from re-entering China.

In an event sponsored by the Defense Forum Foundation, Buck reiterated what many North Korean refugees say when they are able to flee the country.

"When North Korean refugees escape North Korea, everyone says the same thing, that they have been deceived. That they have been leaving and [were] treated less than an animal. And they say they really did not know that the outside world is so [much] better off than North Korea," he said.

Suzanne Sholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, says efforts are underway to secure the release from Chinese jails of two other refugee activists, South Korean aid worker Choi Yong-hun, and New Yorker Steve Kim.

Choi Yong-hun was arrested in China's Shandong Province for attempting to assist a group of North Koreans escaping from China to South Korea and Japan on fishing boats, and has served 46 months of a five year sentence.

Although he is banned from returning to China legally, Reverend Buck says he intends to continue helping North Korean refugees who do manage to reach Chinese territory through financial and other support.

As it grapples with the ramifications of North Korea's recent nuclear weapons test, and tries to get Beijing's cooperation with sanctions and cargo searches, the Bush administration continues to press China and regional governments on the treatment and resettlement of North Korean refugees.

Korea experts and other regional analysts say the threat of a potentially huge refugee flow across the border from North Korea is behind China's reluctance to take stronger measures in response to Pyongyang's recent nuclear test.