One trigger for the collapse of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago was the flow of East Germans across their country's newly opened border to Hungary, then on through Austria to West Germany. One day a similar flow of refugees from North Korea to China and on to South Korea could help bring down Kim Jong Il's barbarous regime and help re-unify Korea.
We hope the subject of North Korean refugees in China is on President Obama's agenda when he visits Beijing next week. There are at least tens of thousands of refugees hiding in China and perhaps as many as 300,000, according to human rights groups. Beijing's policy—contrary to international law—is to track them down and send them back to the North, where they face severe punishment for the "crime" of leaving their country without permission. Anyone who helps the refugees is subject to fines, arrest and jail time. Under Chinese law, even giving food to a refugee is a crime.
Specifically, Mr. Obama could ask Beijing to release five North Korean refugees who were caught recently trying to sneak across China's border to Vietnam. That's a popular escape route for refugees, who then usually go on to safety in South Korea, whose constitution requires that it accept all North Koreans who request asylum. The five arrested refugees were trying to reach the South. Nine other refugees recently received asylum at the Danish embassy in Hanoi.
The five refugees are awaiting repatriation in a Chinese detention center near the North Korean border, according to the International Network of North Korean Human Rights Activists in Seoul. They include one man, three women and a six-year-old boy, the Network says. Two of the women had been sold to Chinese men. The going price for a North Korean "bride" ranges from "$700 for a plain-looking woman to over $1,000 for a more attractive" woman, says Tim Peters, a Seoul-based American pastor who helps refugees. The boy is half-Chinese.
If sent back to the North, the refugees are likely to end up in Chongori prison camp, an experience they are unlikely to survive. The Chosun Ilbo newspaper in Seoul recently broke the news of the camp, which is dedicated to repatriated refugees and whose harsh conditions are intended to stop the flow of refugees to China by scaring citizens into staying put. At Chongori, the paper reports, "inmates are doomed to die of malnutrition." They are forced to work 14 hours a day and their daily diet consists of two potatoes and a handful of cornmeal, refugees told the paper. The U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea commissioned satellite images of Chongori. They are posted at www.freekorea.us.
Mr. Obama's nominee for Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues is Robert King, whose confirmation hearing was held earlier this month in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. King said he would press China to uphold its obligation under the international Refugee Convention not to forcibly return North Koreans.
In Beijing next week, Mr. Obama could pledge U.S. assistance should China be overrun by refugees fleeing the North. This is one of Beijing's big worries in the event of a destabilized North Korea. But a humanitarian crisis is taking place now. The President could demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the human rights of the refugees already in China by demanding the release of the five we know about.