N.Korean Refugees Want Wider Doorway to America

      August 04, 2009 09:30

      At a gathering of North Korean refugees at a restaurant near Washington D.C. last Thursday, a man in his mid-30s named Kim, who had come to the U.S. in June, was greeted with applause by the other members of the group.

      "After escaping North Korea, I was imprisoned for a year and eight months in a detention center in an Asian country before I could finally come to the U.S.," Kim said. "A lot of North Korean defectors want to come to the U.S., but many give up because it takes so much time."

      Kim said that out of 28 fellow North Korean detainees who wanted to go to America, only eight were able to make it. The problem is a U.S. policy that allows only a minimal number of North Korean refugees to be accepted, he said.

      "Right now, the U.S. government contacts defectors seeking to enter the U.S. only after they have undergone security screening by South Korean authorities. This process takes too long," Kim said. Many of the other North Korean defectors imprisoned with him became critical of the U.S. for this reason, he said.

      "I thought the U.S. was really interested in protecting the human rights of North Koreans, and it has made it look like its arms are open to North Korean defectors, but that's not the case," Kim said.

      Most of Kim's fellow refugees in the detention center were wary of pro-North Korean groups in South Korea, he said, and they chose to go to the U.S. for fear that their personal information would be passed on to the North if they settled in the South. But as their attempts to gain entry into the U.S. were met with continuous delays, their impressions of America soured and they chose instead to go to South Korea.

      In 2004, the North Korea Human Rights Act went into effect in the U.S., making it possible for North Korean refugees to seek asylum there. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, only 71 North Korean refugees were allowed to enter the U.S. from the time that former president George W. Bush signed the law five years ago to January of this year. President Barack Obama has said he would give priority to the issue of North Korean human rights, but has done nothing concrete so far.

      Robert King, who worked as the chief secretary to former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos, has been designated as the new U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea. But the U.S. government has yet to request a Senate hearing to review the designation. With the Senate in recess during the month of August, it won't be until September at the earliest that a North Korean human rights envoy is appointed.

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