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Activists Want to Raise Awareness of N.  Korean Asylum Seekers' Plight

Some international activists say they plan to use the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament in South Korea and Japan as a backdrop to call attention to the plight of North Korean refugees who try to flee their country through China. But others in the international community say such high-publicity campaigning could end up hurting refugees more than helping them.

Over the last month, more than 30 North Koreans have rushed or sneaked into foreign embassies or consulates in China in search of political asylum. They all have been transferred out of China to South Korea.

It is widely believed that international activists helped many of the North Koreans plan and carry out their escape attempts.

One outspoken activist, German doctor Norbert Vollertsen, says he and others may launch hunger strikes or take other action during the World Cup, which begins next Friday (5/31), to raise awareness of North Korean refugees. Dr. Vollertsen, who has practiced medicine in North Korea, is critical not only of the deprivation and repression in that country but also of the way Beijing treats North Koreans who flee across the border into China. He has publicized that message at events in Washington, European capitals, as well as Tokyo and Seoul.

More than 100,000, and perhaps as many as 300,000, North Koreans are hiding in northeastern China after fleeing from famine or persecution in their homeland. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, says the refugee flows were greatest five years ago when food was especially scarce in North Korea.

China has occasionally rounded up North Korean migrants and sent them back, but for the most part, Mr. Flake says, China has turned a blind eye to the cross-border traffic.

"Refugee flows across the Chinese border have actually been one of the lifelines for North Korea during its years of famine and economic collapse," added Mr. Flake. "And the most remarkable thing about that flow is that most of them tend to come out and then go back into North Korea with goods for their families."

Mr. Flake says the foreign activists may have good intentions, but, he says, orchestrating asylum bids at foreign missions in China may have helped only the three dozen or so individuals involved. In the end, he says, it may hurt the situation for thousands of Korean refugees in China and still others wanting to leave North Korea.

"I guess the concern I raise is that, at this point, given the nature of China being a non-democratic regime, do you help the refugees more by drawing attention to it, or do you actually hurt them more? Because you may, by embarrassing China through some high-profile cases, draw their attention to it, but my guess is in the long run you are actually going to hurt far more people in North Korea than you are going to help them. Because really all they have to do is shut down the border," Mr. Flake went on to say.

China considers the North Koreans economic migrants, not refugees fleeing political persecution, and has an agreement with North Korea to repatriate them. But because of the attention given to the recent asylum bids, China felt compelled to let the refugees go on to South Korea. Yet a Chinese Foreign Ministry official says that does not set a precedent for future would-be refugees.

Mr. Flake says China just wants the problem to go away. And humanitarian groups who work on refugee issues say in the weeks since the asylum attempts began, Chinese authorities have carried out sweeps along the North Korean-Chinese border, rounding up hundreds of illegal migrants and sending them back to North Korea.

Cathleen Newland is a director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. She notes it is often hard to distinguish between migrants looking for better economic conditions and refugees fleeing persecution. The distinction is especially unclear, she says, in North Korea where the economic crisis is the result of political decisions.

"The asylum seekers from North Korea are treated as the enemy by the North Korean government, so even people who may not have suffered persecution before they left North Korea are very likely to suffer persecution if they return after having been outside and tried to claim asylum," explains Ms. Newland. "So they become almost by definition eligible for refugee status if they have declared themselves to be asylum seekers outside of North Korea."

According to Gordon Flake, Chinese authorities want the problem to disappear not only because they do not want to encourage a larger flow of North Korean migrants. He says Beijing views the issue in a broader perspective.

"For them, I think that probably the nightmare scenario has nothing to do with North Korea, but what happens when Tibetans try to get into foreign consulates in Chengdu? What happens when any other minority group throughout the large country of China decides to use this same basic tactic of going for asylum in a local consulate, a local embassy?" asks Mr. Flake.

Refugee organizations say China has allowed international non-governmental groups to work along the North Korean border to meet the humanitarian needs of the migrants. But they say with the increased publicity on the issue, those aid workers are coming under increased scrutiny.

The U.S. embassy in Beijing says Chinese authorities have detained a Korean-American missionary working in northeast China, and news reports say he is suspected of helping North Korean refugees in their asylum bids.