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. Hunger Driving North Korea Refugees, World Must Open Doors

A North Korean woman sits in a bus on her way to court in Bangkok 26 October 2006 after she was transported from a police station located in Pathum Thani province. Thai authorities charged 76 North Koreans with illegally entering the kingdom after 91 suspected defectors, most of them women and children, were arrested in Bangkok, police said. Photo courtesy of Chumsak Kanoknan and AFP.
by Staff Writers
Seoul (AFP) Oct 26, 2006
Hunger is driving increasing numbers of North Koreans to risk their lives fleeing over the border in a humanitarian tragedy overshadowed by the nuclear crisis, a leading think-tank said Thursday. In a report, the International Crisis Group urged China to halt its policy of repatriating the refugees back to face persecution and risk of execution, and called on the outside world to open its doors too.

The Brussels-based group said the numbers fleeing the Stalinist state were likely to grow amid threats of a new famine, and "humanity demands" a proper global response.

It said the "humanitarian challenge ... is playing out almost invisibly as the world focuses on North Korea's nuclear programme."

While scores of thousands had fled hardships in search of a better life, only just over 9,000 had made it to safety, mostly in South Korea but also in Japan, Europe and the United States.

"Many more live in hiding from crackdowns and forcible repatriations by China and neighbouring countries, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

"If repatriated to the North, they face harsh punishment, including possibly execution," the report said.

The ICG said China and South Korea were not putting maximum pressure on the North to scrap its nuclear programme because they feared a torrent of refugees if the economy collapsed.

But it warned that even without UN sanctions imposed after Pyongyang tested its first atom bomb October 9, "the perfect storm may be brewing for a return to famine in the North."

Last year, Pyongyang reintroduced the same public distribution system for food that collapsed in the 1990s and rejected international aid, demanding instead unmonitored assistance. Summer floods further damaged crops.

The World Food Programme last month launched an urgent appeal for funds, saying more than a third of children in the North were badly malnourished.

It said then it had received just eight percent of the 102 million dollars it needs to provide 150,000 tonnes of food over the next two years.

North Korea suffered famine for several years starting in 1995 during which hundreds of thousands died.

The ICG said hunger and lack of economic opportunity, rather than political oppression, was prompting North Koreans to leave.

However lack of information, fear of being forcibly repatriated from China, harsh punishment back home and lack of cash were more significant barriers than any border controls.

"China compensates for the virtual absence of border guards with a relentless search for North Koreans in hiding," the report said.

It added: "Despite these formidable obstacles, the willingness among North Koreans to risk their lives to escape is growing stronger, and arrivals in the South are likely to hit a record this year."

Responding to the report, Beijing said it would not change its policy on repatriating illegal North Korean immigrants. "We do not agree with the views of this international organization, we do not see them as refugees, we believe that they are illegal immigrants," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

When they are discovered, China had handled them in accordance with international and domestic law and through humanitarian principles, Liu added.

The report said the most important factor for North Koreans considering fleeing was the presence of family members in China and, increasingly, in South Korea where defectors could send cash and information.

"To a lesser but significant extent, information is beginning to spread in the North through smuggled South Korean videos, American and South Korean radio broadcasts, and word of mouth -- all exposing North Koreans to new ideas and aspirations."

Most of the lucky ones settle in South Korea for cultural or family reasons but also because of a lack of alternatives.

"With the exception of Germany, the governments that have pressed most vigorously for improving North Korean human rights, namely the US, the European Union and Japan, have taken in only a handful of asylum-seekers," the report said.

The ICG called for action to help refugees, "both because humanity demands it and because if the international community cannot quickly get a handle on this situation, it will find it considerably harder to forge an operational consensus on the nuclear issue."

China says no change in repatriation policy of North Koreans
Beijing (AFP) Oct 26 - China said Thursday it would not change its policy on repatriating illegal North Korean immigrants despite an appeal urging Beijing to handle them as refugees.

In a report released Thursday, the International Crisis Group urged China to halt its policy of repatriating the refugees back to face persecution and risk of execution, and called on the outside world to open its doors too.

The Brussels-based group said the numbers fleeing the Stalinist state were likely to grow amid threats of a new famine.

"We do not agree with the views of this international organization, we do not see them as refugees, we believe that they are illegal immigrants," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

When illegal immigrants from North Korea are discovered, China would handle them in accordance with international and domestic law and through humanitarian principles, he added.

"China's practice has been accepted by the international community and we are going to continue to handle this issue in accordance with the law," he said.

"When we have some information on some of those people we will try our utmost efforts to grant humanitarian treatment to these people."

China has a bilateral agreement with North Korea on repatriating illegal immigrants.

However up to 300,000 North Koreans are believed to be living without authorization in China after slipping across the two nations' 1,415-kilometer (880-mile) border.

The ICG said China and South Korea were not putting maximum pressure on the North to scrap its nuclear program because they feared a torrent of refugees if the economy collapsed.

But it warned that even without UN sanctions imposed after Pyongyang tested its first atom bomb October 9, "the perfect storm may be brewing for a return to famine in the North."

The ICG urged China to stop forcible repatriations and talk to other countries about refugee transfers.

The group said Chinese authorities should halt bounties for turning in North Koreans and grant provisional residency to spouses of Chinese citizens and their children.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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