[VIEWPOINT]More help needed for the refugeesA series of events marking North Korea Freedom Week were held in the United States last week. On April 28, North Korea Freedom Day, U.S. President George W. Bush met with five North Korean defectors and stressed the duty of the United States to help North Korean residents who have no human rights and freedom.
The meeting was attended by the family of Kim Han-mi, who was born during her family’s escape, the head of Freedom North Korea Broadcast who left the North after listening to the Voice of America, and the director of Yoduk Story, which is a musical presently being performed in South Korea about human rights abuses in a political concentration camp in North Korea. In a contribution to the Wall Street Journal, Jay Lefkowitz, the Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea, raised concerns about the need to monitor the distribution process after making donations to North Korea, the North Korean defectors and the exploitation of labor in the Kaeseong Industrial Complex.
In addition, on April 27 the Immigration Court in Los Angeles granted unprecedented “political asylum” to a North Korean defector with South Korean citizenship.
While some worry that the manifestation of the United States’ interests in North Korean human rights might make the resumption of the six-party meeting about the country’s nuclear weapons more difficult, others say the court decision may encourage more North Korean defectors to come to the United States.
Does the decision mean a changed U.S. policy on North Korean defectors? According to a report on North Korean defectors published by the Department of State in February 2005, there had not been a North Korean who settled down in the United States through the refugee admission program in the past five years. However, a total of nine North Koreans were granted refugee status after illegally entering the United States.
The report clearly states that due to security reasons, including potential terrorist threats, the U.S. government does not allow defectors to apply for refugee status by entering the country. Moreover, considering the fact that the Korean government has the duty to protect the defectors, the United States would only grant asylum to those who have “desperate reasons” to resettle in the United States.
In other words, when North Korean defectors who have already been in the South seek refuge in the United States, they must have clear reasons, such as political persecution by the Korean government. Thererefore, asylum has not been allowed for defectors whose nationality is South Korean.
Washington has mentioned it would consult with Seoul in the course of the background check and screening process and has expressed a special interest in the number of the North Korean defectors who are related to U.S. citizens.
The Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security were more prudent about granting refugee status to North Korean defectors in a congressional report published in October, saying that when North Korean defectors were allowed to come to the United States, it created a “magnet effect” of drawing North Koreans to the country.
Therefore, it is unreasonable to conclude that the Los Angeles Immigration Court ruling will bring changes to the U.S. policy on the defectors. We need to clearly understand the policy on the North Korean defectors will be a part of the general refugee admission procedure.
However, we should pay attention to the fact that the human rights activists, Christian organizations, Korean American and North Korean defector groups in the United States have been growing in political influence as they stress the moral responsibility of the United States to respond to abuses in political concentration camps and human rights infringement in North Korea.
Moreover, Washington’s policy on North Korean human rights is linked to the U.S. government’s foreign policy basis of proliferation of freedom and democracy.
There is a possibility that the political pressure demanding a prompt implementation of a North Korean human rights law in the U.S. would bring a visible action of admitting some defectors within the frame of the refugee admission procedure and the human rights law.
Therefore, regardless of political inclination, Korean society should trace defectors and human rights conditions more systematically and come up with more specific improvement plans through dialogue and cooperation with international society.
There can be many approaches to improve the human rights of people in North Korea. We should evolve from a mere political debate and have a productive discussion to correct the limitations and bring synergy effects.
To protect the human rights of the North Korean defectors, we should continue to encourage them to come to the South by cooperating with related nations and, at the same time, prepare a more realistic protective measure to help the defectors who have created families during the prolonged stay in a third country.
* The writer is a senior research fellow at Korea Institute for National Unification.
by Lee Keum-soon