The Other North Korean Crisis
by Shyama Venkateswar, Joel Charny
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 2006
Whatever it does or doesn't signal about the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea's nuclear capability, North Korea's brief test of a nuclear-capable missile will create real casualties by aggravating ordinary North Koreans' suffering. With U.S. sanctions already biting and U.S. humanitarian aid halted, Japan is considering calling for more U.N. sanctions, and even South Korea says continuing food aid, hitherto decoupled from Pyongyang's behavior, "will be difficult under the circumstances."
At risk amid Pyongyang's growing isolation are North Koreans facing persecution, forced labor, economic collapse and chronic food insufficiency there, as well as those attempting to flee across the border into China -- some 50,000 of them are there now. By diverting attention from their plight, heightening tensions and increasing pressure to cut humanitarian assistance amid security flaps, the latest missile crisis makes the humanitarian crisis harder to resolve.
While the world condemns Pyongyang's defiance of its moratorium on missile testing, China is quietly defying its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention by mistreating North Korean refugees. Rather than acknowledging them as legitimate refugees with a right to remain and receive humanitarian assistance, China calls North Koreans illegal "economic migrants," deporting many back to North Korea, where they face brutal "labor training centers," long prison terms, even execution. Changing China's policy is essential.
There are realistic, incremental ways forward: halting forced repatriation of North Koreans, granting legal residence for spouses of Chinese citizens and their children, then granting North Koreans humanitarian status in China. But China won't take these steps without concerted international pressure.
President Bush did appoint a special envoy on human rights to North Korea, Ambassador Jay Lefkowitz, whose brief includes protecting refugees. But making China change regarding matters it considers internal is never easy, and especially complex amid the missile crisis.
In the U.S. case, it is further complicated by the fact that its actions toward North Korean refugees have historically been little better than China's. In May, a 1950 letter came to light from the American ambassador in Seoul, stating that U.S. soldiers would shoot Korean refugees approaching their lines from the north. It is dated the day before the U.S. Army shot refugees en masse at No Gun Ri, and thus offers evidence that this massacre was sanctioned by U.S. policy.
From the Korean War until 2004, U.S. law classified North Korean refugees seeking asylum as South Koreans, because South Korea grants citizenship to anyone born on the Korean peninsula, while the United States remains officially at war with North Korea. While South Korea also could have accepted more North Korean refugees, our blanket misclassification effectively thwarted their right to U.S. asylum, despite obvious human-rights violations. Fewer than 10 North Korean refugees since the late 1980s, plus the six who arrived last month under the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act, ever found asylum in the United States. Given North Koreans' difficulty in accessing U.S. consulates, and post-Sept. 11, 2001, security concerns, few probably ever will. Nonetheless, the United States can and should still help them in other ways on a track entirely separate from security.
The State Department's refugee bureau can work with relief organizations in touch with North Korean asylum seekers in China. It can't target assistance exclusively to refugees without increasing Chinese suspicions and harassment, but it could still reach them through broader-based programs. Inside North Korea, the United States should renew its support to the World Food Program. Once threatened with expulsion, the WFP has a new program to feed 1.9 million especially vulnerable North Koreans, mostly women and children, with new, painstakingly negotiated monitoring agreements. While short of international best practice, the new monitoring is robust compared to South Korea's virtually unmonitored food aid, and deserves support.
The U.S. special envoy should also work with United Nations, Japanese and European envoys on a multilateral approach to Pyongyang carrying clear, consistent messages on human-rights violations, and specific requests on prison visits, freedom of movement and ending collective punishment for asylum seekers deported from China. The United States can do these things now, missile test or no missile test. U.S. humanitarian aid need not be held hostage to security issues, and security impasses don't excuse humanitarian neglect.
At a recent conference at the Asia Society in New York, Ambassador Lefkowitz hinted that linking resumed humanitarian aid to progress on human rights is an idea that "could very much be on the table." This suggestion is hopeful. Instead of a reward for bad behavior, it implies that working for humanitarian and human-rights progress, even amid acute tensions, might give Pyongyang an incentive to be less intractable on other fronts. In any case, human rights and humanitarian concerns remain primary in themselves. Even nuclear security threats don't trump the imperative to raise them consistently, through all available channels, until they are respected.
Shyama Venkateswar is the director of the Asia Society's Asian Social Issues Program. Joel R. Charny is vice president for policy of Refugees International.