Debating the Humanitarian and Human Rights Problems of North Korea

WASHINGTON, 13 May 2005— Yesterday morning downtown, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) played host as Refugee International held their official press release of Acts of Betrayal: The Challenge of Protecting North Koreans in China, written by their own Mr. Joel Charny and based on his experiences interviewing NK refugees over the last few years. The event was moderated by Kurt Campbell, CSIS Senior VP and Director of the International Security Program, featured a panel of regional and policy experts, including the author, and was attended by a diverse group of politicos and activists from around town.

Recent developments in North Korea’s expanding nuclear arms stores have resulted in an explosion of interest in Kim Jong Il’s regime and the oppressed NK peoples, in Washington and around the world. The result has been the instillation of a collective sense of urgency regarding the NK situation among democratic governments and humanitarian activists worldwide, and especially among governments and activists in close proximity to North Korea.

At the start of the conference, they lamented in silence for a moment following the viewing of video footage from the North Korean border of two public executions, released in March by the Japanese Independent News Net Co. (Jin-Net).

Leaving the discussion of the egregious conditions the North Korean regime has subjected its citizens to for the last decade to Mr. Charny and Mr. Richard Ragan—World Food Program Country Director and Acting UN Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea—Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) opened the event with a discussion of critical policy issues regarding the treatment of NK refugees and the roles of the Chinese and US governments. While substantial numbers of refugees have sought asylum in South Korea, hundreds of thousands have fled to China and remain there in hiding, Sen. Brownback reported. He continued by confronting China’s treatment of the UN Refugee Convention and 1995 UN Human Rights Commission agreement with the Chinese government to guarantee the refugees safe passage and uninhibited access for UN personnel.

Because China has refused to recognize the North Koreans as refugees, instead labeling them ‘illegal immigrants’, UN personnel have been consistently denied access necessary to provide support. Illegal immigrant status in China, Sen. Brownback observed, has proved highly preferable to the NK refugees than the alternative option of returning to the starvation and torture of Kim’s regime and has caused many of the refugees to take desperate measures from within Chinese borders to gain the attention of the international community. The desperation of the refugees’ situation has only been amplified the Chinese government’s attempts to force their return to North Korea through incentives programs for Chinese citizens who report refugees’ locations to authorities. The Senator’s driving point was simply that the international community and the US cannot tolerate any longer Chinese defiance of its obligations to the UN, the international community it represents, and that which is paramount, to the citizens of North Korea.

Sen. Brownback is not alone in calling for Chinese realignment and unification with the international community on the issue; however, while unification of the forces, working to elevate both the human rights situation and the accountability of the government to its citizens in North Korea, has become the agenda of activists and governments worldwide, it has simultaneously become their biggest challenge.

Sen. Brownback commented that despite observation of the executions, infanticides, and other atrocious human rights abuses practiced by the NK regime, the UN has done little to change Chinese and NK policies. He proffered that the cause of the UN’s hesitancy lies in the fact that six of the world’s ‘most repressive societies’—including the Chinese—are members of the UN Human Rights Commission. Meaning the commission has become incapable of functioning at the levels necessary to accomplish the goals for which it was chartered. Sen. Brownback’s logic is difficult to dispute, yet, certain variables he glossed over in his presentation became increasingly definitive as the event progressed.

Mr. Hawk, who is also the author of The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps, discussed his experience interviewing NK refugees in China and South Korea during the past few years and emphasized that Chinese cooperation with the UN is essential to making any progress in the region. Mr. Charny and Mr. Ragan supplemented Mr. Hawk’s and Sen. Brownback’s arguments with stories of their own experiences with NK refugees and succeeded in their attempt to portray NK from a democratic perspective as a cesspool of terror and calculated oppression.

Though the nuclear arms issue lingered on the periphery of the discussion, all of the panelists acknowledged the sense of urgency that should be embraced in order to accomplish a unified humanitarian front as the weapons issue continues escalating.

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