Features

Great escape

North Korea | As U.S. policy shifts, refugees find a place in America

Issue: "Soldiering on," May 27, 2006

With some 53,000 refugees a year finding new homes in the United States, one group of six in the crowd hardly seems worth noticing. But when they are North Koreans bearing fresh accounts of abuses committed by their communist state and the horrors undergone to escape them, they quickly grab attention.

The six, reportedly four women and two men, touched down on American soil May 5, the first time in more than 50 years the United States has taken North Koreans as refugees. Protection surrounding them and their useful escape route was tight: no names, no identifying the Southeast Asian nation they came through, and no clues to their whereabouts in the United States. Disclosing those details could endanger the refugees' families remaining in North Korea.

Nonetheless, they have told other parts of their stories. The group's path to freedom began when some members contacted South Korean pastor Chun Ki Won in 2003. Rev. Chun is a well-known activist on the underground railroad, which smuggles North Korean refugees to safety, often first through hostile territory such as China and then Southeast Asia.

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At least two of the women crossed the peril-fraught border with China in 1998 and 2003 and then found themselves sold into forced marriages with Chinese men. According to The Wall Street Journal, one endured severe beatings from her husband. The other suffered farm labor so excruciating she injured her back and could not walk for almost a year. China later repatriated her and as punishment for absconding, North Korea cycled her through its network of prison camps, thought to hold some 200,000 inmates. She later escaped back into China.

Such harrowing stories are typical, by activist accounts. Tim Peters, another ardent underground railroader, heads the Seoul-based nonprofit Helping Hands Korea. He estimates almost three-quarters of women refugees fall prey to traffickers in China. His group focuses on aiding North Koreans in worst crisis in China, which repatriates captured North Koreans despite their almost certain risk of punishment and even execution.

Conditions for the railroad are getting tougher too: In March, Mr. Peters heard that bounties for captured North Koreans had tripled in China. Refugees are now bypassing urban Chinese areas altogether in favor of safer rural routes. So being able to seek asylum easily in the United States is an important safety valve, though it has been hard to use until now.

The group of six represents a months-long political shift toward helping refugees. Until now the Bush administration has focused unsuccessfully on lackluster six-party talks, aimed at disarming North Korea's nuclear threat. When the latest round last November yielded few gains, activists who had been arguing that human rights should be top priority in U.S. policy began gaining traction.

"Our side is in the ascendancy now," said Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, a Virginia-based group that promotes human rights and democracy. "What happened is the people that were in the Bush administration who favored six-party talks-they've lost that argument."

Adding steam about the same time last October was Mr. Peters' congressional testimony about how U.S. embassy workers in Vietnam, China, and Thailand were refusing to help North Korean refugees in danger, despite a 2004 law making it easier to do so. Lawmakers wrote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in February to complain, pointing out that "not one North Korean (had) been offered asylum or refugee status in the 16 months since the unanimous passage of the legislation."

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) was an author of the 2004 law. After speaking to the refugees May 10, he told reporters they were in "good spirits." He said if North Korea does not negotiate in the six-party talks, "we are going to take these forms of unilateral actions, not about a nuclear issue but about the human rights of your own people."

More North Korean refugees are expected in the United States now, though Mr. Peters remains cautious about the good news. "I'm happy that the six came through, and let's just hope we can make up for lost time."

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