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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > Remarks > 2002 > October - December

The North Korean Refugee Crisis

Lorne W. Craner , Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
American Enterprise Institute Conference on North Korean Refugees (Closing Remarks)
Washington, DC
December 2, 2002

Thank you, Carl [Gershman], for your generous introduction. And thank you for this opportunity to appear here today to talk about this Administration’s concern for the people of North Korea. I would also like to commend Jim Lilley and his AEI colleagues for bringing all of us together to discuss this important issue.

Today we have once again been reminded of the untold suffering of the North Korean people. We have heard horrific stories of people who have faced starvation and torture. We have heard unnerving reports of refugees risking their lives to flee across borders. A few months ago, we saw pictures drawn by children of the horrors they have witnessed. This summer, we saw chilling images of men, women, and children, young and old, taking desperate and dangerous measures to scale embassy walls seeking freedom.

I vividly remembered these tragic images last month when I stood at the DMZ and looked across the bridge of no return into North Korea. Two days earlier, I participated in the Second Ministerial Meeting of the Community of Democracies hosted by the South Korean government in Seoul. More than ninety countries gathered to discuss concrete ways to protect and promote democracy around the world. As I walked between checkpoints, the contrast between the images of North Korea and the freedom of South Korea could not have been starker.

These images that haunt us are brought about by the policies of one of the most repressive regimes on earth. The reports that make it out of North Korea paint a shocking, often horrifying, picture of brutality, oppression, injustice and deprivation.

The extent to which human rights are ignored in North Korea offend our notions of basic human decency. In North Korea, individual rights are subordinated to the State and the Party. The regime cites the "threatening environment“ to justify its repression of individuals. It still speaks in terms of needing a strong central state and military to defend against "imperialist" enemies.

There is no tolerance for criticism of the State or its leader. Accordingly there is no freedom of expression or assembly. The regime uses unparalleled repression to intimidate and control the population. An extensive prison camp system –- and the size of some of them boggles the imagination – awaits those who fall outside accepted behavior.

The freedom to worship freely and carry out religious services is equally circumscribed. As much of the world is in the midst of celebrating the holiday season, North Koreans are deprived of the right to worship as they desire.

In 2001, our concern about the extreme restrictions on religious freedom caused the Bush administration to designate North Korea as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. Given the lack of improvement this year, there is no reason to believe that North Korea will not again be designated as a CPC in 2002.

I want to talk a little more about this administration’s approach. As President Bush said during his February 2002 visit to Seoul, "North Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed. No nation should be a prison for its own people.“ Yet this seems to be the path that North Korea is determined to follow. The North Korean government appears to be willing to let the world feed its starving masses while it represses them and pursues a dangerous military build-up.

Those weapons pose a grave and growing danger to the U.S. and the world. They threaten peace and the economic and political stability of the region. North Korea must immediately and verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program, comply with its commitments, and end the continuing human tragedy inside the country.

This Administration takes a comprehensive approach to North Korea. Our policy on security issues, refugees, humanitarian issues and human rights is coordinated between my Bureau, the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

In October, as many of you are aware, Assistant Secretary James Kelly traveled to North Korea. It marked the first high level visit of a U.S. official in this Administration to Pyongyang. Even as Assistant Secretary Kelly confronted the North Koreans with evidence of their covert uranium enrichment program, he also raised human rights in his discussions.

Assistant Secretary Kelly made clear that the United States had been prepared to offer economic benefits and take political steps to improve the lives of the North Korean people if North Korea changed course. North Korea must dramatically alter its behavior on a range of issues of concern to the international community if it wants to be part of this community.

Given the recent disclosures by North Korea, however, we must now consider carefully when and how to pursue further talks. If and when the decision is made, human rights and refugees will remain part of our discussions. In the interim, it is imperative for the stability, freedom and economic progress of the region that North Korea take tangible steps to resolve these issues of concern to the international community.

Despite these disturbing developments, we remain, as we have been over the past year, deeply concerned about the North Koreans who have fled to China in search of food and work or to flee persecution. We push this issue consistently with the Chinese Government as part of our bilateral discussions.

Our immediate concern is that China not return North Koreans against their will to face persecution. Beyond this, we continue to urge the Chinese Government to live up to its obligations under the 1967 Protocol on Refugees. Part of this responsibility includes working with the international community, particularly the UN High Commission on Refugees, to ensure that the rights of this population are protected.

Two weeks from today, I will personally be pushing the refugee issue with my Chinese counterpart during the next round of the U.S.-China human rights dialogue. In addition to our efforts to engage the Chinese government, we have also taken up this issue directly with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and sought to coordinate our approach with Japan and South Korea in the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG).

Ultimately, however, the refugee crisis can and will only be solved when the North Korean regime fundamentally alters its repressive policies. Until then, the closed nature of the North Korean regime makes it difficult to obtain information on the conditions inside the country.

That does not mean, as some had stated, that we can not know enough to be able to designate North Korea as, for example, a "country of particular concern“ on religious freedom. We know enough to judge that religious freedom is not a possibility in North Korea. But part of the challenge that we face as a member of the international community in responding to the current humanitarian and human rights crisis in North Korea is a lack of information on particular conditions.

In an effort to close the "information gap“ and add to our base of knowledge, the State Department through DRL and the National Endowment for Democracy is providing support for the activities of South Korean nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in South Korea. These South Korean NGOs are monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in North Korea.

We are directing our human rights programming funds toward the improvement of human rights in North Korea in the best, perhaps only, possible manner at this time. We can also use this information in contacts with the North Koreans.

Fortunately, we are not alone in our efforts. Others are also paying attention to human rights in North Korea. Over the past year, we have seen mainstream U.S. media publishing and televising stories about human rights and refugees. NGOs, like the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, are also working to raise awareness of human rights in North Korea. These important contributions build public awareness at home and abroad.

Barring a quick collapse of the regime, improving human rights in North Korea will take time. Twenty-five years ago when my bureau was established, few imagined that Eastern Europe would be freely electing its leaders, or that we would witnessed the changes we have seen in Russia.

However, the legacy of 25 years of institutionalized advocacy for human rights has proved the power of giving voice to the voiceless and vindicated the commitment of those who would shine light into the world’s darkest recesses.

Building on this legacy and standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, we must continue to speak out about the egregious human rights abuses committed against the North Korean people. We must support efforts to bring freedom, human dignity, and peace to this ravaged country.
As President Bush has said "We have great sympathy and empathy for the North Korean people. We want them to have food. At the same time, we want them to have freedom. And we will work in a peaceful way to achieve that objective.“

Thank you again for having me with you here today.


Released on December 3, 2003

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