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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

North Korean Refugees




Last month, a man named Kim Young Dal was found stabbed to death in his apartment near Osaka, Japan. Although most people know nothing of this man, anyone with knowledge of the horrible situation along the North Korea-China border is deeply upset. Kim's death is being felt across the world by a group of people who share one thing: a deep concern for the starving North Koreans who have fled to China seeking food.


In my opinion, there's little doubt that North Korea is behind Kim's murder.


I met Kim when I moderated a panel that was examining what nongovernmental organizations are doing to help the North Korean people. Kim presented information about his work to the panel, which met in December of last year during the first International Conference on North Korean Human Rights, sponsored by the Seoul-based Citizens Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea.


Kim was one of our heroes. He headed the Rescue the North Korean People-Urgent Action Network, an organization providing direct aid to starving North Koreans. He risked his life in carrying out this work - which probably led to his murder.


You may wonder how feeding the hungry could be controversial. But when the people starving are North Koreans and the country to which they have fled is China, the work is dangerous and life-threatening. The North Korean famine has triggered a flood of refugees into China. Can you imagine a country so horrible that you would seek refuge in China? And how does China treat these suffering, starving, malnourished, terrified children and adults who sneak across its border seeking help? It puts a price on their heads, offering a reward for anyone who turns them in to authorities. Once in custody, these refugees beg to stay in China, because in North Korea leaving the country or complaining about the food situation there is a crime that will put one in a detention center for indoctrination. The detention centers are crowded, full of disease and despair.


But things can be worse. If you are caught and discovered to have adopted Christianity or developed any political sentiments (read: freedom of thought), you are sent to a political prisoner camp or publicly executed. Because most of the Chinese who are willing to risk fines and harassment to hide North Koreans are Christians, there are a significant number of North Koreans who convert to Christianity.


In January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees actually granted refugee status to seven North Koreans - but China returned them to North Korea anyway. Because China refuses to allow the high commissioner to visit the border region, there is no hard figure on the number of refugees there. Estimates vary between 50,000 and 300,000 people.


Some North Koreans, if they do have someone to help them, can pay a bribe to be released by the Chinese. Chinese prison guards sometimes offer freedom to women in exchange for sex, but they don't always follow through once this abuse has occurred. Sun Haiyu, who survived both a Chinese detention center and a North Korean labor camp and risked her life to "escape" back into China, told Washington Post reporter John Pomfret: "If I'm arrested again, I will pay any price. I don't want to be returned to North Korea again. I'd rather kill myself with poison."


Such was the environment in which Kim toiled. I remember that, just before introducing him at the December conference, I had to remind the media that the session was off the record. As I reflected on Kim's death, I tried to think of what was so dangerously controversial about what he and his rescue network were doing.


I found my conference notes from last December. Here is part of what Kim outlined that day at the conference: Establish a foster-parent system for North Korean children; contribute love and corn in North Hamkyong Province; provide protection to escapees, especially orphans, from North Korea; and campaign to stop the execution of North Koreans who are caught and repatriated.


Such goals and accomplishments certainly shouldn't be controversial nor too dangerous to reveal to the media. But such is life in North Korea and China.


And here we sit in the comfort of our offices, debating the benefit of establishing permanent normal trade relations with China and tallying up the nearly $1 billion in aid that we have given to North Korea's Kim Jong Il. Meanwhile, it is the Kim Young Dals of the world who go out risking their lives to undo the monstrous damage caused by the governments of countries such as China and North Korea - which not only abuse and kill their own people, but abuse and kill their neighbors.


God bless Kim. May he rest in peace.


Suzanne Scholte is president of the Defense Forum Foundation, the U.S. partner of the Seoul-based Citizens Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea and the Tokyo-based Society to Help Returnees to North Korea. She contributed this comment to The Washington Post.