South Korea Wary As US Accepts First Refugees From North

Daily News Article   —   Posted on May 8, 2006

(by Patrick Goodenough, – A decision by the United States to accept North Korean refugees for the first time may further strain relations with the liberal South Korean government, which is uneasy with what it regards as Washington’s provocative policy towards Pyongyang.

Eighteen months ago, President Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA), laying the groundwork for North Korean refugees to be able to resettle in the U.S., and on Friday, a first group of four women and two men reportedly arrived, flying in from an undisclosed Southeast Asian country.

Their arrival was confirmed by Senator Sam Brownback, one of the co-sponsors of the NKHRA.

The government in Seoul was ambivalent about the U.S. legislation when it was being drafted and debated, and some ruling Uri Party lawmakers had urged members of Congress to defeat the bill.

South Korean conservatives reacted by accusing Uri of pandering to Pyongyang and ignoring the severe human rights violations against fellow Koreans.

Tensions were evident again recently when Jay Lefkowitz, the administration’s special envoy for North Korean human rights, criticized a joint South-North Korean industrial project, which Seoul sees as a showcase of its policy of engagement with its communist neighbor.

South Korean government ministers bristled when Lefkowitz — whose position was established by the NKHRA — suggested that North Korean workers at the complex were being badly exploited. Some accused him of giving a distorted picture of the project, which currently employs about 6,000 North Koreans in more than a dozen factories.

South Korea also has differed with the U.S. over the imposition of financial sanctions last fall against companies suspected of counterfeiting, money-laundering and other illicit activities on behalf of North Korea.

Pyongyang has refused to return to six-country talks over its nuclear programs ever since the measures were put in place, and South Korea fretted that U.S. criticism and actions against the North were jeopardizing both the nuclear negotiations and its rapprochement efforts.

President Roh Moo-hyun warned at the time that a “conflict” could erupt between the U.S. and South Korea “if the U.S. government attempts to resolve the [nuclear] issue by pressuring the North Korean regime or wishing for its collapse.”

Now that the U.S. has decided to welcome refugees from the North for the first time, more criticism is expected.

The move “is widely seen as an attempt by Washington to ramp up the pressure on the communist regime over its human rights abuses,” the Korea Herald said Monday.

The paper attributed U.S. attempts to bring issues like human rights into the nuclear talks to the increasing influence of “Washington hardliners.”

Another daily, the JoongAng Ilbo, said the U.S. move presented a problem for South Korea, which “has been trying to keep silent on human rights issues … to place priority on resolving the nuclear issue. This U.S. action creates the need for a fundamentally new approach.”

Seo Joo-seok, a security policy official in the South Korean presidency, told Korean radio Monday that Seoul would watch carefully to see whether the refugee decision had a negative impact on the frozen nuclear talks.

Security issue

The arrival of the first refugees in the U.S. comes shortly after the U.S. marked North Korean Freedom Week late last month. During the event, Bush met in the Oval Office with North Korean defectors.

The administration has come under pressure this year from congressional critics of North Korea, who urged faster progress.

A group of lawmakers, led by Brownback, sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last February, noting that no North Korean refugee had yet been offered asylum or refugee status in the U.S.

Some South Korean media reports have suggested that the U.S. has been reluctant to take in North Korean refugees because of pressure from Seoul, which was worried about how Pyongyang might respond.

In a report released last March, however, the State Department attributed the difficulties to security concerns.

“One of the biggest challenges the United States faces in resettling North Korean asylum seekers in the United States is identifying reliable sources for U.S. agencies to complete required security background checks on North Korean applicants,” it said.

“The nature of the North Korean regime denies the U.S. government ready access to information on individual North Koreans.”

The department said it and the Department of Homeland Security were studying ways to allow some North Korean refugees to resettle in the U.S.

Testifying in Congress last month, Lefkowitz said the administration had now overcome bureaucratic hurdles and security concerns and would be in a position “relatively soon” to welcome refugees.

In the case of the newly-arrived refugee group, Seoul’s Donga Ilbo daily said Monday they were not high-ranking government officials but ordinary people who likely had no access to information on sensitive subjects.

China’s role

In their letter to Rice, the lawmakers also urged the administration to discuss with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao concerns about Beijing’s policy of routinely repatriating North Koreans who have crossed into China to escape tyranny and starvation at home.

Bush did so when meeting with Hu, raising specifically the case of a North Korean woman who had sought refuge at a Korean school in China last December.

China sent her back to her country of origin despite the fact she had family in South Korea, and despite appeals by the U.S. and United Nations.

White House officials said Bush had urged Hu to put a transparent process in place for processing North Korean refugees.

Anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000 North Koreans are estimated to have crossed the border into China, where human rights campaigners say they risk being rounded up and sent back to face imprisonment, torture, or even death.

Lefkowitz has accused China of violating its obligations under international refugee conventions.

In recent years, refugees have on occasion sought shelter at Western diplomatic missions in Chinese cities, and in many cases have ultimately been allowed to leave the country, usually for South Korea.

Beijing claims the refugees are “economic migrants” and says it is obliged to repatriate them under a border security agreement with its ally in Pyongyang.

Reprinted here with permission from Cybercast News Service. Visit the website at