North Koreans Promised Refugee Status in United States

Jay Lefkowitz is the special envoy for human rights in North Korea. He is appearing in front of Congress to discuss the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. It promises refugee status to North Koreans who make it to the United States. Rob Schmitz of member station KQED reports.

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North Koreans who want to come to this country should find the process easier under an asylum measure signed into law two years ago. But so far that that law has not helped a single North Korean to get into the United States. So Congress is looking or answers about where the system is breaking down.

Here's Rob Schmitz of member station KQED.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

As a member of North Korea's ruling party, Myung Cho Han(ph) led what he calls an upper class life. While his neighbors resorted to eating porridge made from tree bark and grass during the famine that starved millions in the mid '90s, Han's family had enough money to eat rice and vegetables. Perhaps, ponders Han, this comfortable lifestyle set the stage for a crucial mistake he made in the summer of 1997. Han says he was eating dinner with his friends when the subject of the death of leader Kim Il Sung came up.

Mr. MYUNG CHO HAN (Refugee, North Korea): (Through Translator) I was drunk. And I told them what I had always believed, that Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, had murdered his father to become the next leader. The next day the police showed up at my apartment looking for me. I escaped and I never returned.

SCHMITZ: Han says after he failed to convince foreign embassies in Russia, Thailand and Vietnam to give him asylum, he stole a boat in China and sailed it to South Korea. From there he flew to Mexico where he paid coyote to help him with his final border crossing into California. He's joined an estimated two-dozen North Koreans living in Los Angeles as undocumented immigrants.

But there is a law that was meant to help them get here legally. In 2004, the U.S. Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act. The act called on U.S. embassies abroad to start taking in more North Korean refugees. Ann Buwalda, director of the North Korean advocacy group the Jubilee Campaign assisted members of Congress in writing the act.

Ms. ANN BUWALDA (Director, Jubilee Campaign): By law all that is supposed to be required is that a North Korean defector knock at the door of a U.S. embassy in one of the neighboring countries.

SCHMITZ: These countries include China, Mongolia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Ms. BUWALDA: However, when it comes to North Korean defectors, they're not permitted into the compounds. U.S. government officials say one thing on paper, and practically apply another criteria and another policy.

SCHMITZ: That's a claim that was also made recently in congressional testimony. The human rights group Helping Hands Korea reported that State Department employees at embassies in China, Vietnam and Thailand have actually refused to assist North Koreans who sought refugee status under the terms of the act. The cases helped prompt a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen to write an angry letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this year. A spokesman for the State Department says he knows about the cases, but wouldn't comment on why embassy officials declined the requests.

However, a congressional staffer who works as a liaison with the State Department confirmed the cases, calling them a regrettable situation that was contrary to the act. Jay Lefkowitz, who President Bush appointed last year as special envoy on human rights in North Korea, says he's not aware of these cases.

Mr. JAY LEFKOWITZ (Special Envoy): I can't speak to individual situations. I can tell you that our policy objective is to be in a position to take North Korean refugees when appropriate.

SCHMITZ: But for U.S. embassies abroad, following this law could prove to be tricky. Take China, for example. Many North Koreans who cross the Tuman River into China see approaching the U.S. embassy as too risky. Foreign embassies there are heavily guarded. And if refugees are caught, Chinese police send them back to North Korea. Lefkowitz says China's refusal to comply with the United Nations agreement that it should help these refugees is part of the problem.

Mr. LEFKOWITZ: And that's clearly a serious issue and something we're working on.

SCHMITZ: Lefkowitz is now turning to other countries in the region that would be willing to help the U.S. take in North Koreans. This is all happening as State Department officials try to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear program. And during these sensitive times observers say it's especially challenging to negotiate these human rights issues.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

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