[EDITORIALS]North Korean Family Are Refugees

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[EDITORIALS]North Korean Family Are Refugees

People around the world are focusing their attention on the seven-member North Korean family demanding refugee status at the Beijing office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. How the United Nations and China handle the matter will be watched closely since the family in the spotlight is that of Jang Gil-suh, the 17-year-old boy who has been letting the world know about the tragic situation in North Korea through his paintings, produced during his exile in China over the last several years.

The story of Gil-suh's exodus out of North Korea in January 1997 is a tragic story. Initially, 17 North Koreans escaped together, but five were deported back to the North by the Chinese authorities. One of them later re-escaped. Three of them fled to Mongolia and the whereabouts of the other three are unknown. Of those who were deported to North Korea, two are held in a concentration camp for political prisoners.

The seven North Koreans walked into the United Nations office Tuesday thinking that was their last resort. They said they would not budge an inch unless they were granted refugee status and guaranteed safe passage to South Korea.

It is obvious the family will suffer horrible persecution if they are sent back to North Korea. They chose the United Nations office believing that the United Nations office was their "final shelter." While the United Nations said it hoped the North Koreans would not be forcibly sent back, it also said the decision was entirely up to the Chinese government. Even if the United Nations grants refugee status to the family, the status will not help if the Chinese government refuses to recognize it.

China must be extremely uncomfortable with the event that is unfolding. It has to take into consideration its relations with North Korea, since agreeing to recognize the family as refugees would set a burdensome precedent for the treatment of the estimated tens of thousands to a maximum 200,000 North Korean migrants in China. In addition, China and North Korea have signed an extradition treaty for illegal entrants.

We would like to emphasize there is a principled reaction to such a difficult problem. And the principle in this instance is that humanitarian concerns should prevail over political considerations. Gil-suh and his family are clearly refugees. The Chinese government should not turn a cold shoulder to their plea, taking lightly the lives of seven people. South Korea should persuade the Chinese government to send the family to a safe, third country.

This event should serve as an opportunity for the South Korean government to turn fresh attention to North Korean refugees in China, which it has neglected. The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea via China increased to 312 last year with the total number reaching 1,319. There is just one facility that helps them settle in South Korea, a facility called "Hanawon" in Ansan, Kyonggi province. This facility has already reached its capacity, housing 100 people.

Since the announcement of the first North-South summit in April last year, the statistics on North Koreans arriving in South Korea have not been released. While the government's intention seems to be not to rankle the North Korean government, the tragedy of North Korean refugees in China and elsewhere is a grave problem. With this event as a catalyst, North Korean refugees could start arriving in South Korea en masse. Humanitarian concerns should prevail even in the presence of the sunshine policy. There needs to be a comprehensive plan for the mass entry into South Korea of North Korean refugees.
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