North Korean Refugees Bid for Freedom as Senate Passes Historic Bill

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In a move that will add to current concerns about North Korea's human rights record, 44 refugees from the impoverished country have sought refuge in the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.

On Thursday, they were awaiting a decision that could mean freedom or returning home to face severe punishment.

The latest bid came on a day when the U.S. Senate approved the North Korea Human Rights Act, a measure designed to help North Korean refugees and to pressure Pyongyang to improve its record.

The asylum-seekers Wednesday scaled a ten-foot-high, spiked fence surrounding the mission compound, some of them sustaining injuries in the process.

South Korean media showed pictures of the group scaling the fence with makeshift ladders. In a bid to fool Chinese security officials guarding foreign missions, some were disguised as construction workers, wearing overalls and yellow hard hats.

An embassy spokesman said the 44 included 12 men, 26 women and six children.

South Korea's Arirang TV said the group reportedly comprised five families. Two of the refugees were former political prisoners and one was an escapee from a North Korean prison, it said.

The group is among the largest to seek refuge at foreign embassies or consulates in Chinese cities in recent years.

South Korean human rights campaigners say 100,000 or more North Koreans have crossed into China - Pyongyang's closest ally -- and are hiding in the country's north-eastern region.

Beijing regards them as illegal economic migrants, not refugees, and has been widely condemned for arresting and repatriating many of the North Koreans.

Campaigners and defectors say those sent back to North Korea can face harsh punishment, including incarceration in notorious labor camps. The Seoul-based Center for the Advancement of North Korean Human Rights estimates that around 400,000 prisoners have died in the camps since they were first established in 1972.

Those North Koreans who have evaded Chinese security and successfully entered foreign embassies - in some cases with the help of South Korean campaigners working underground - have mostly been allowed eventually to travel to South Korea, via a third country.

Chinese officials told reporters Thursday the government had asked the Canadian Embassy to hand over the North Koreans, whom Beijing would deal with in accordance with domestic and international law.

The South Korean government urged China to handle the matter in a "humanitarian" way.

The North Korea Human Rights Act provides for U.S. financial support over the next four years for non-profit human rights and democracy-building programs, and for North Korean refugees in third countries.

It also expands broadcasts of U.S. radio programs into the reclusive Stalinist country.

In a change to a similar bill passed by the House of Representatives last July, the Senate added a provision requiring the president to appoint a human rights envoy to North Korea to monitor the human rights situation.

The U.S. congressional initiative has drawn mixed responses in South Korea.

After the measure passed in the House, a group of 27 lawmakers from the liberal ruling Uri Party delivered a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, complaining that the legislation could have a negative impact on inter-Korean relations.

South Korea's conservative opposition Grand National Party supports the U.S. bill and accuses leftists of ignoring rights abuses so as not to upset Pyongyang.

The South Korean government earlier this year abstained from voting on a resolution critical of North Korea at the U.N. Human Rights Commission session in Geneva.

A Seoul daily, JoongAng Ilbo, said in an editorial Thursday the government should reassess its position on North Korean human rights.

"We cannot just close our eyes to human rights conditions because we fear we are 'inciting' the North," it said.

"While maintaining dialogue and negotiations with the North, we must speak our minds about the universal value of human rights."

A key backer of the measure, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), said recently the legislation would ensure that human rights are included on the agenda during future rounds of six-nation talks over North Korea's nuclear programs.

Brownback recently delivered a keynote address at a daylong conference on North Korean human rights, hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

L.A. is home to the largest Korean community outside of Asia.

See also:
South Korean Leftists Unhappy with US Human Rights Legislation (Jul. 26, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow