N. Korean refugees gain a crusader, but so far no help

An advocate hopes the UN, S. Korea, and China can aid the hungry at the border.

Gathering 11.8 million signatures was the easy part.

But Kim Sang-chul knows that the goal of his petition - comprehensive relief for North Korean refugees - is a long way off.

Today, Mr. Kim plans to present the document to an assistant secretary general of the United Nations in New York. A former Seoul mayor and human rights lawyer, Kim is spearheading the first major campaign to attract attention to the problem of 100,000 North Koreans who have crossed the border into China in search of food. China is required by treaty to deport the refugees back to the North, where they are treated as rebels - and either sent to labor camps or executed.

Aid groups have tried to help North Koreans suffering from famine and a collapsed economy brought on by the end of subsidies from former cold-war patrons China and the Soviet Union. The petition - signed mostly by South Koreans and representing about a third of the adult population - asks the UN, China, and South Korea to protect the refugees. The petition was born at an April 1999 Presbyterian prayer meeting, and churches of the Christian Council of Korea helped collect signatures.

Kim hopes to "bring about a change of heart on the part of the Chinese government and the UN commission on human rights." He knows the petition can't solve the problem: "Not by this one shot. But we are confident that these signatures will weight heavily on their sense of conscience and responsibility," he says.

Observers note that China's ceasing repatriations would damage ties with North Korea, and possibly spark an exodus. China maintains that the refugees are economic migrants and do not face political persecution.

Although South Korea claims to accept all North Korean defectors, in practice it turns away all but those with valuable intelligence information. Yesterday, the South Korean National Intelligence Service said that 161 Northerners had defected so far this year, a pace that will break last year's record of 312. Observers say the South Korean government fears that accepting the refugees unconditionally would undermine its policy of engagement with North Korea, and simply hopes that nongovernmental organizations operating in China can take care of the refugees. The government "could send a mixed signal if it supports the refugees," says Moon Chung-in, a professor of political studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"Kim [Sang-chul] is a very nice and devoted person. And what they are doing is good from a humanitarian perspective. But from a diplomatic point of view it could create problems," says Mr. Moon.

Kim ultimately wants South Korea to feed refugees in China and issue temporary passports to any North Koreans who flee their country. That is a tall order, says Moon. "Neither the South Korean government nor society is ready to accommodate the refugees. We have to make a distinction between idealism and realism. Right now, we have about 1,300 defectors and refugees living in South Korea, but we are failing to give good treatment to them. If we can't handle 1,300, how can we handle so many more?" he says.

A majority of North Koreans have trouble adapting to life in South Korea's freewheeling capitalist society, after spending their lives in a tightly controlled communist dictatorship.

Kim might better weigh on the conscience of South Koreans first, Moon says. "Sometimes I'm very disappointed with South Koreans. They say they will take care of them, but when the time comes to really help, we shy away. There is no generosity, no tolerance, no time and effort."

"I understand the reality of politics," says Kim. "But we have some priorities. The number of North Korean escapees in China is too large. It is too many lives."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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