Drifting defectors seek asylum in European nations

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Drifting defectors seek asylum in European nations

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Much has been written about North Korean defectors who find it difficult to adjust to their new lives in the South.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has busted a racket that offered the ultimate solution: It sent defectors to European countries like Belgium and Britain to apply for political asylum - while denying they ever spent time in South Korea.

The brokers made out well by making the defectors give them credit cards in their names, encouraging them to take out loans they’d never repay after leaving the country and giving them a cut, and also having them sell the apartments provided by the South Korean government. The brokers took a share of the proceeds.

The police have launched a probe into six brokers on suspicions they persuaded four North Korean defectors living in the South to seek asylum in Belgium and take out loans from South Korean banks in advance for their journey, which they didn’t intend to pay back.

Police also detained one of the four defectors, a 26-year-old surnamed Choe, who made the trip to Belgium but returned to South Korea fearing she’d be arrested by Belgian immigration officers. Three other defectors suspected to be in Belgium were put on Interpol’s wanted list.

“The brokers lured defectors to seek asylum abroad and take out loans or apply for credit cards from local banks before they left,” Won Chan-hee, director of the International Crime Investigation Bureau of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, told the Korea JoongAng Daily on June 5. “They set up a front company and issued fake certificates of their employment at the company to apply for the loans, taking a total of about 80 million won ($70,560) from the four defectors.”

In May 2012, the four defectors took a flight to France and then traveled to Belgium by train. At Belgian immigration, they hid their South Korean passports and said they had come from North Korea via China with the help of religious groups. They used fake names for themselves.

“Before they arrived in Belgium, they were coached by the brokers as to how they should answer questions from immigration,” Won said. “They lied that they came directly from North Korea via China and had never been to the South.”

Last August, however, one of the four defectors, the woman surnamed Choe, got cold feet and started to fear that she’d be arrested for illegal immigration. She returned to South Korea.

“In February, sources tipped us off to this case and her return,” police said. “Choe said she saw about 20 other North Korean defectors waiting to be given asylum in Belgium,” Won said. “It will take some time for us to confirm they attempted illegal immigration because they all used fake names and altered personal information.”

Under international law, the defectors would have to prove they suffered political persecution in South Korea to seek asylum abroad once they accepted South Korean citizenship and passports. Although many defectors suffer from discrimination and difficulty adjusting to the South, they aren’t politically oppressed.

According to an April report by Belgium’s Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons, the number of North Koreans applying for asylum in Belgium increased from 16 in 2010 to 83 in 2012. Up until April, there were a total of 24 North Korean applicants.

Another popular destination for the defectors is the United Kingdom. In 2007, a total of 602 North Koreans applied for asylum in the UK, but the number fell to 30 in 2012, according to statistics from British immigration given to the Korea JoongAng Daily.

In 2011, a total of 396 North Koreans applied for asylum in Canada or the United States, according to the UNHCR’s 2011 report “Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries.”

With an increasing number of North Koreans trying to flee their oppressed, poverty-stricken homeland, people who help them get away are coming up with new routes and techniques. Some of them are selfless humanitarians, and many are Christian.

But there are also less admirable members of that tribe, the so-called brokers, and they too are finding new ways to increase their profits from their unique form of human trafficking.

“Typical problems regarding brokers are that they demand too much of a commission from the defectors or they out-and-out steal money from them,” an official at the Ministry of Unification in charge of defectors told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Recently, we saw a new type of scam by brokers, who encourage defectors here in the South to flee to yet another country.”

In February, the Unification Ministry did a survey of defectors living in the South asking about the problems they faced in the capitalist country, and asked specifically if they had hassles from the brokers who helped them defect.

Out of 41 reports, 11 defectors said they were bullied for money by their brokers.

Four defectors reported that their brokers offered to help them apply for asylum in developed countries, which costs more than the typical escape from North Korea to South Korea via China.

“During the preparation for asylum, the brokers persuade defectors to sell the state-run residential apartments they received from the South Korean government,” the Unification Ministry official said. “They also tell defectors to apply for lots of credit cards under their own names, and the brokers use the cards for personal expenses, purchasing luxury cars or mobile phones.”

Basically, the brokers are trying to cash in on the subsidies given to defectors by the Southern government. The government offers an apartment for each family and 7 million won for each defector to help them settle down in their early days in the South.

“On average, most brokers who bring defectors from China to Seoul demand about 3 million won per person,” the official said. “Those who promote asylum to a third country can earn more.”

The brokers reportedly exaggerate how good lives are in developed countries - and how generous their welfare systems are. But the fact is that many of the defectors who go ahead with the asylum plan never make it in their new homes.

“It is not easy for North Koreans to settle down in a developed country,” a Chinese-Korean broker not involved in asylum petitions told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Most of them fail to adjust and return to the South.”

“Some defectors don’t settle down anywhere,” another Korean broker said. “They keep wandering around different countries, South Korea, the United States and Europe. They are literally drifting away.”

South Korea’s government says it can’t keep tabs on every overseas trip by a North Korean defector, although all defectors are under the watch of local government centers nationwide.

“We can’t monitor or restrict every single movement of North Korean defectors,” an official in charge of managing the defectors said. “It’s a matter of freedom of residential mobility.”

Cracking down on shady activities of brokers isn’t that easy either, officials say.

“For defectors, a broker is a life saver who helped them escape North Korea,” a source familiar with North Korean affairs said. “Most defectors never report their brokers to police. If they do, other defectors will call them ‘betrayers.’?”

For South Korea’s government, the issue of brokers is a tricky one. South Korea doesn’t provide any assistance to brokers or other civic groups to help North Koreans defect to the South.

“For us, brokers are a necessary evil,” a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Unification told the Korea JoongAng Daily by phone. “We can’t say all brokers are exploiting money from defectors because many ask for very reasonable fees for the dangerous journey and some even run charities for defectors.

Kim Yong-hwa, head of the NK Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea and a renowned facilitator of defectors escaping the North, says the government should support brokers to help more North Koreans escape and promote the collapse of the regime.

“I got phone calls from about 20 North Koreans in China asking me to bring them to the South every day,” Kim said. “But the government does nothing for them and I’m doing this job without any support.

“I ask the government to not just crack down on bad brokers, but officially educate them,” he said. “Let them have official meetings together and give direction to them.”

However, the Southern government can’t officially support brokers.

“In terms of the human rights of the North Korean people, you could say the government should help them safely escape to the South,” another government official said. “But from the point of view of North Korea and China, it’s a crime illegally taking people from their homeland.”

For South Korea, the best scenario would be fundamental change by the North Korean regime, the official said. “The best thing would be for North Korea to change in a way that it can feed more people,” the official said.

BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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