Rights Campaigners Hope US Policies Will Benefit North Koreans

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

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Campaigners for human rights in North Korea are hopeful that President Bush's second term will bring improvements to the lives of North Korean citizens.

The optimism follows the recent passage of groundbreaking human rights legislation, and indications by a senior official this week that the State Department may make it easier for North Korean refugees to seek asylum in the U.S.

It also comes at a time of continuing signs -- still unconfirmed -- that important changes may be underway in North Korea. (see related story)

The North Korean Human Rights Act, signed by Bush last month, is designed to help North Korean refugees and provides funding for non-governmental organizations involved in democracy-building and human rights programs targeting North Korea.

The law also expands broadcasts of U.S. radio programs into the isolated country, and authorizes the president to increase the availability of sources of information not controlled by Pyongyang, "including sources such as radios capable of receiving broadcasting from outside North Korea."

North Korea-related NGOs already are involved both in efforts to help North Korean refugees escape to freedom and to get radios into the country. Funding authorized by the new law will help expand their efforts.

For Douglas Shin, a Christian pastor who describes himself as "a Korean-American activist for North Korea's democracy," the recent developments are the most promising he has seen in years.

Although there was always a worry about the possibility of a nuclear or military confrontation, he said from Seoul Friday, "I think that North Koreans in that humongous gulag will see the light of the day before George Bush finishes his second term."

Shin's Exodus 21 group and others earlier launched a project to float small radios into North Korea by balloon, but the South Korean government opposed the controversial plan and police last year prevented the campaigners from going ahead from a location near the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Exactly how the U.S. government plans to make more radios available to North Koreans remains unclear -- and the strategy will in any case not likely be made public.

Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the feasibility of the balloon plan, but Shin said from Seoul Friday it would be difficult to get radios in any other way.

Until the South Korean government launched its "sunshine" policy of engagement with the north in the late 1990s, balloons were frequently used to send radios, religious messages and even food from the South across the DMZ.

Shin said numerous North Korean refugees who now live in the South had spoken of how important the smuggled radios had been. For many, listening to programs about the outside world had provided the incentive to make an escape bid.

Critics of radio smuggling efforts worry that they place ordinary North Koreans at risk of severe punishment if they are caught with an illegal set.

Shin said he found unacceptable the argument that "by helping them we are endangering them."

He had heard from refugees that when North Koreans are found to have illegal radios, the party cadres confiscating them generally tell the offender: "You didn't have this, and I didn't take this."

It was obvious that the officials intended to keep what was "a most sought-after commodity" for themselves, Shin said.

Easing asylum applications

Earlier this week, Arthur Dewey, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said at a briefing that the State Department may make it easier for North Koreans to apply for asylum in the U.S.

Up to now, North Koreans have fallen within the "priority one" category, which provides asylum in cases where applicants' individual circumstances are considered acute, and they are referred by a U.S. embassy or the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Dewey said the U.S. was now considering putting North Koreans into the "priority two" category, which allows applicants to be assessed as a group - ethnic, religious or otherwise - rather than as individuals with individual circumstances meriting asylum.

"We are prepared to declare North Koreans a 'priority two' if that appears to be an appropriate solution for them," he said.

Dewey also noted, however, that under the constitution of South Korea, anyone born anywhere on the Korean peninsula is considered to be a citizen of the South.

"So the most appropriate solution seems to be for those who come out and are allowed to move on [to] go to South Korea."

The North Korean Human Rights Act states that the fact North Koreans have a legal right to South Korean citizenship does not make them ineligible to apply for asylum in the U.S.

Shin noted another important change in refugee policy for next year.

In the department's document on proposed refugee admissions for 2005, both "priority one" and "priority two" category applicants may for the first time be referred by NGOs, as well as by U.S. embassies or the UNHCR.

He said this change seemed to be related to the North Korean situation.

A number of NGOs are working to help North Koreans who had crossed into China to make their way to third countries.

China controversially repatriates any North Koreans it finds living illegally in its territory, and human rights groups say returnees face imprisonment in the North's notorious labor camps.

According to documents posted on the State Department website, no North Korean refugees were admitted to the U.S. in 2003 and 2004.

The majority of successful applicants from East Asia have come from Vietnam and Burma.

The government is expecting a jump in asylum applications from East Asia next year, according to the refugee admissions program for 2005. The proposed ceiling for applicants from that region has gone up from 8,500 refugees in FY2004 to 13,000 for next year.

For most other regions of the world, the proposed ceiling for FY2005 is lower than that for last year. The only other exception is Latin America/Caribbean, where the ceiling has risen from 3,500 to 5,000 in FY2005.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow