Human rights organizations say the diplomatic showdown between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear weapons program is drawing much-needed attention away from dire living conditions in North Korea. The nuclear threat has also overshadowed the plight of North Korean refugees who have fled across the border into China.
More than 11 months after North Korea broke off six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. government continues to work with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to persuade Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, human rights organizations say the nuclear crisis has eclipsed the humanitarian crisis that is afflicting North Koreans and leading thousands of them to cross illegally into China where they face further persecution and deportation. Earlier this month, human rights advocates gathered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization, to discuss ways to help North Korean refugees.
Joel Charny, vice president of policy at Refugees International, says if the United States is unwilling or unable to pressure North Korea to improve its human rights record, it should at least encourage the Chinese government to stop deporting North Koreans who flee into China.
"Obviously China is not responsible fundamentally for the conditions that drive people to leave, but they do have it in their power to take steps that would allow North Koreans to remain in China and live peacefully and in safety in China," said Joel Charny. "I think the challenge that we face is how do you move China on any human rights issue and especially one where there are such close historic ties between China and North Korea?"
The U.S. State Department has criticized the Chinese policy of repatriating North Koreans found in its territory and for preventing defectors from gaining access to the United Nations refugee agency. The U.S. government estimates there are 30,000 to 50,000 North Korean refugees living illegally in China, although it notes that human rights groups have placed that figure even higher.
The Chinese government fears that granting refugee status to these North Koreans would provoke a flood of refugees across the border. This, in turn, could lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime, which many fear would destabilize the region.
Instead, China considers all North Koreans in northeast China to be "illegal economic migrants" and forcibly repatriates them. Mr. Charny, with Refugees International, argues they should be considered refugees for two fundamental reasons.
"First, the nature of the North Korean political system and its impact on access to public goods, especially food," he said. "The second rationale for refugee status is the North Korean treatment of those arrested and deported from China as mandated by the country's criminal code."
According to human rights activists, North Korean refugees who are repatriated are tried, convicted, and sentenced to labor camps, where they face torture and inhumane treatment, or are sometimes sentenced to death.
The United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees includes a definition of a refugee as someone who will face persecution if they return to their home country. U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, a strong advocate for human rights and a frequent critic of the totalitarian regime in North Korea, notes that China is a party to the U.N. convention and as such should immediately cease its practice of sending home North Korean refugees.
"If China doesn't meet work on the human rights and refugee situation in North Korea, if it continues this repatriation then we would consider putting on a series of economic sanctions against China if they continue to refuse to deal with this situation that is clear and present and well-known," Sen. Brownback said.
Although the Bush administration has criticized China's policy, some analysts say the government has been reluctant to threaten China with sanctions over the issue. Kurt Campbell, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that's because the United States needs Beijing's help on the nuclear issue - and a host of other issues as well.
"Let's make a laundry list of the things that we're going to be asking China to do over the next couple of weeks," Mr. Campbell said. "We want them to revalue their currency. We have great concerns about what we think are uncompetitive trading practices. We want them to assist with reining in Iran. We'd like them to assist us in making sure that North Korea doesn't test a nuclear weapon. We want them generally to be supportive in the global war on terror, and that's just the beginning."
Even if the United States made the treatment of North Korean refugees a priority, Mr. Campbell says the U.S. government can't exactly tell China what to do.
"China in many respects is the great power of Asia," he said. "And so it is not just the case that we dictate to China and tell China what we want. China has enormous power and influence and they have their own interests."
While outright demands might not work, Joel Charny of Refugees International recommends that the Bush Administration appoint a former high-ranking U.S. government official, perhaps even the President's father, the first President Bush, to serve as a presidential envoy to press China discretely on the North Korean human rights issue. He says this might encourage China to take quiet, humanitarian steps such as stopping the arrest and deportation of law abiding North Koreans in China or granting humanitarian status or legal residence to North Korean spouses of Chinese citizens.