Home page

Helping Hands Korea

North Korea situation

Underground Railroad

Family Care Foundation connection

FAQ

Family Care Foundation model

Donation Form

      The role of UNHCR with North Korean refugees

      Following is a portion of the transcript of an interview with Richard Roth, CNN anchor:

      China repatriates North Korean refugees routinely. It's estimated that at least 30,000 North Koreans are thought by defector groups to be hiding in China.

      Joining me now Dong Chul Choi, a North Korean refugee, in our Washington, studios. He is with the North Korea Freedom Coalition. In Geneva, Switzerland is Ron Redmond, the spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioners Office for Refugees. Also with us in Washington is Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, a group that assists refugees. And, finally, Tim Peters from the nongovernmental organization Helping Hand Korea, on the phone from South Korea.

      Tim, where do we stand now regarding refugees coming out of North Korea and trying to seek safe haven in China, South Korea and elsewhere since we last addressed this issue when we talked about the film "Seoul Train" a couple of months ago?

      TIM PETERS, HELPING HANDS KOREA: Well, Richard, the situation is only getting worse, more difficult for the North Koreans that dare to cross the Tumen or the Yalo River into China. The Chinese continue an extremely harsh crackdown in ferreting out the refugees in China, and if they can catch them, they repatriate them to the tune of about 200 to 300 a week. So crossing borders from China to third counties continues to be an extremely daunting enterprise, particularly at this time of the year when temperatures plummet. The situation is extraordinarily and taxing, both for the refugees and the people that try to help them.

      ROTH: Let's get some definitions and facts here.

      Ron Redmond, from the United Nations in Geneva, what rights do these people have under international treaties to avoid being sent back?

      RON REDMOND, UNHCR: Well, UNHCR has been trying to grapple with this issue for most of the past decade. …UNHCR however has no access to the border. We have a fundamental disagreement with China. The Chinese say that the North Koreans are illegal entrants or illegal migrants. The UNHCR says they are people of concern to us. We need access to them. We believe many of them are refugees.

      RICHARD ROTH, CNN: Tim Peters, is the United Nations and the governments in the United Nations doing enough and doing the right thing concerning the refugees fleeing North Korea?

      PETERS: Well, Richard, in my opinion the United Nations, the members thereof, could be likened to bystanders or spectators sitting in the bleachers, kind of watching the drama down below on the playing field.

      As far as the activist community is concerned, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on the field there in China is not an actor and quite frankly we are puzzled why the United Nations, UNHCR, continues to even keep an office in Beijing, because we feel -- I feel in some ways that their departure in protest would have a far more conspicuous and powerful statement than a silent and passive remaining in China where, as Ron mentioned, the Chinese government has consistently not even allowed them to go to the border area.

      REDMOND: Believe me, we're not in the bleachers. UNHCR has been a voice in the wilderness for the last five or six years on this issue. It's only recently that people have begun to pay attention to this issue. International attention has been focused on nuclear nonproliferation issues and other issues on the Korean peninsula. This thing has really been on the back burner, but it's not because UNHCR has not been trying to force this issue.

      UNHCR, if we were to leave China, we would actually be leaving as one of the few human rights agencies that are in China. We also get refugees, asylum seekers, 200 or so a year, coming to our office in Beijing. Over the past six years there have been about 6,400 North Koreans who have ended up in South Korea. They didn't just drop in out of thin air. UNHCR helped a lot of those North Koreans get to the south.

      ROTH: Suzanne, what's your thought on government action?

      SCHOLTE: I do think that the UNHCR has been a failure and I don't think they've been aggressive enough. I think a lot of the people that have escaped have escaped under tremendous peril, going through several countries. It's people like Tim Peters who have been rescuing these refugees and getting them out through this underground railroad.

      ROTH: OK. Tim Peters, you said -- very briefly -- you said they're doing it like pest control, the government in China, removing refugees and hunting them down?

      PETERS: Absolutely, Richard. There is a stepped up program, a crackdown or strike hard campaign by the Chinese to send back the North Korean refugees as soon as they find them. There is no filtering process, no interview by the Chinese to determine if -- who and what is a refugee. It's simply shipped back by the truckload, sometimes as many as 300 or 400 a week.

      The fact that the international community is not coming forward and giving an outcry is so perplexing and extraordinarily frustrating for those of us that are trying to rescue these people.

      ROTH: I have to stop our interview there. Tim Peters, with Helping Hands Korea, on the phone from South Korea, thank you very much.

      [Click for full transcript of "Diplomatic License" with Richard Roth, CNN anchor]