International activists are calling for China to stop returning refugees to North Korea, where they face prison and, in many cases, death. Activists, who recently attended a conference at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, want the international community to put pressure on China to improve its treatment of North Korean refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have fled starvation in their homeland in recent years and crossed into northeast China. Many hope to find work and wait until circumstances back home improve to return. Many others want to travel to South Korea where they hope to be granted political asylum.
Yu Sang Jun escaped from North Korea in 1998, after two years of surviving on grass roots and tree bark, and witnessing the death of his mother and son. At a recent Washington conference, Mr. Yu, speaking through a translator, said his life did not get easier when he fled to China.
He said that after he went to China, there was not a single day when he could live in peace. He was in fear of being arrested by the Chinese police and also by North Korean agents.
China has allowed a few dozen North Koreans who have sought asylum in western embassies to be transported to South Korea. But mostly, as Mr. Yu says, Chinese police round up North Koreans and send them back.
He said some North Korean women inside China are forced into prostitution or sold as wives for Chinese men.
Another refugee, Choi Young-Hwa, says she first escaped to China in 1998. While working in a restaurant, she was reported to the Chinese police and sent to a detention center in North Korea. Ms. Choi says it was common for officials at the detention center to kill babies born to women prisoners repatriated from China.
Ms. Choi said that when the baby was born they put a red towel on the face of the baby and suffocated him to death. That was done right in front of the mother who delivered the baby, and they said any Chinese seeds have to be eliminated.
Ms. Choi escaped to China again in late 2000, and made her way through Burma, Laos, and Thailand, eventually reaching South Korea early this year.
South Korean missionary and human rights activist, Pastor Chun Ki-won, has worked to get more than 240 North Korean refugees out of China to South Korea. He was arrested in China last December and spent seven months in jail. Pastor Chun says Chinese authorities released him only after pressure from Congress.
He said he is a South Korean national, but he did not feel his own country, the South Korean government or National Assembly made any efforts to rescue him from prison. But he knows when the (U.S.) House and the Senate passed a resolution, the resolution included his name demanding the Chinese goverment to release Pastor Chun. He believes if the U.S. government and the Congress does not help, the Chinese government would not do anything about this refugee situation.
Senator Sam Brownback says he and others have written letters and met with Chinese officials to save the lives of those North Koreans whose names are known. But the senator says thousands more are suffering.
"It is not enough to have a few token refugees be given safe passage to a third country, while many, many more in detention are being forcefully repatriated back to North Korea," he said. "It is time now for the Chinese authorities to give serious attention to this human rights disaster and take affirmative steps to work with the UNHCR and other NGO groups in developing a regularized process for helping the refugees."
China gives some non-governmental humanitarian groups access to the border area near North Korea. But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has not been allowed to visit.
Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, says South Korea should do more to rescue North Korean refugees in China. That is the only humanitarian thing to do, Mr. Eberstadt says, and it would also put pressure on the North to improve life for those who have not fled.
"One of the most strange and perverse developments that we have seen over the past five years has been a South Korean government which seems to have totally lost its voice or courage in dealing with the question of human rights in North Korea," Mr. Eberstadt said. "And the situation is all the more peculiar since the leading exponent of human rights in the Korean peninsula and Nobel laureate for human rights is the current president, Kim Dae Jung."
The president of the National Endowment for Democracy, Carl Gershman, says North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated face execution if they have tried repeated crossings into China, if they have had contact with missionaries or journalists, gotten married while in China, or if they tried to gain asylum in South Korea.
Mr. Gershman says China is complicit because it has two secret agreements with the North about returning migrants, in violation of the 1967 U.N. Protocol on Refugees which Beijing has signed. He says every country that has relations with China should include the North Korean refugee issue in its regular dialogue with Beijing.
Mr. Gershman says North Korea must be stopped from destroying its people.
"I am not exaggerating when I say this is a terrible crime against humanity that is taking place there. And it has to be ended," he said. "However it is ended, it has to be ended. This cannot go on and international pressure has to be brought to bear on North Koreans. They cannot get away with this anymore. They cannot hide behind the wall which they have constructed, the wall of secrecy, the wall of totalitarianism."
Carl Gershman says the international community is more aware of the plight of the North Korean people than it was just a few years ago, but he says not enough action is being taken.