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Defectors: Pay More Attention to N. Korea - 2002-02-11

Defectors from North Korea and human rights activists are urging the global community to pay more attention to the treatment of people in the Stalinist country. Their call was part of a resolution adopted at the end of a two-day meeting, which brought together fifteen non-governmental organizations from eight nations.

Participants at the International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees want food donors to have full control over food aid in North Korea. Human rights advocates at the conference Sunday said that much of the aid donated by other nations does not reach ordinary people, and is saved for the North Korean military and leadership.

The call came on the same day as an appeal from the United Nation's World Food Program, which says it has received just 10 percent of the $216 million it needs to provide food aid to North Korea this year. The WFP and other aid groups estimate that one to two million North Koreans, out of a population of 24 million, have died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses since the mid-1990s.

The resolution adopted at the Tokyo meeting also urges Beijing to allow aid groups to assist North Korean defectors. Aid agency officials estimate that there are more than 100,000 North Korean refugees now in China.

Suzanne Scholte is the president of the Defense Forum Foundation, a U.S. non-profit organization. She says that North Koreans illegally in China live in constant fear of arrest and deportation. "We need to get relief organizations into China. We need to have people there. The Chinese will not even let observers go in there," she says. "We need to get people into China, helping those organizations directly, and we need to be sure that the aid that is going in will be consumed. ... Because we know that the aid is being diverted."

Human rights advocates at the meeting also are asking for the creation of refugee camps along the Chinese-North Korean border to shelter defectors, and eventually resettle them in third countries.

Defectors who have spent time in North Korean prisons described the conditions in the (prison) camps as deplorable. They said that some camps hold entire families, including young children, because one family member is accused of committing a political offense.