Sens. Sam Brownback and Ted Kennedy want to help the thousands of desperate North Koreans seeking freedom who each year embark on the treacherous journey across the border into China — but the senators must first defeat the staunchest opponent of their efforts: the U.S. State Department.
Sens. Brownback and Kennedy last Wednesday introduced a bill that would solve a bureaucratic Catch-22 North Korean refugees face when attempting to seek asylum in the United States. The bill, which is almost identical to legislation Sen. Brownback offered last year, would classify North Korean refugees as North Koreans for asylum purposes. As odd as it sounds, North Koreans are actually considered South Koreans for refugee purposes under U.S. law because South Korea grants citizenship to any Korean born on the Korean Peninsula.
But for North Koreans with dreams of a better life — some two million of their countrymen are estimated to have died of starvation in the past decade — it is a meaningless designation: The South Korean citizenship doesn’t get them into South Korea, and it actually prevents them from qualifying for asylum in the United States because the U.S. considers them South Korean citizens and “South Koreans” don’t need asylum.
Even with the odds of someone getting from North Korea to South Korea or the U.S. by way of China at almost zero, hundreds of thousands have risked their lives to make the trip. If caught, the punishment is swift and brutal. It can range anywhere from imprisonment in a hard labor camp for “economic” refugees to onsite executions for “political” refugees. Pyongyang is increasingly unstable, and it has placed a high priority on cracking down on refugees. And the People’s Republic of China has been doing its part to play along.
Because China labels North Korean refugees “economic migrants,” the official policy is to arrest them and send them back to what is often a death sentence. If he’s “lucky,” a refugee sent back to North Korea will face torture-filled interrogation sessions, where he could be hung upside down after being beaten by a guard. From there, he could spend several months doing hard labor while being kept on the brink of starvation. The official minimum sentence for attempting to flee the “paradise” of North Korea is seven years’ imprisonment. The penalty is death if the refugee, while in China, had contact with South Koreans, other foreigners, or Christians.
China has erected outposts and barricades over the past few years as part of its crackdown on refugees. Last December, Beijing and Pyongyang worked together to launch a 100-day campaign of capturing and forcibly returning refugees. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, China returned as many as 1,000 refugees a day to North Korea during the first month.
There are anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 North Koreans living in the northeast portion of China — all of them in virtual hiding or leading an underground existence. Last year, roughly only 1,000 of them parlayed their technical South Korean citizenship into actual residency in South Korea. The figure is so low because South Korea has imposed an incredible hurdle for asylum seekers: They can only qualify if they make it to any foreign mission anywhere in China — a near-impossible feat with the entire Chinese government trying to prevent it. If a North Korean makes it to a Norwegian consulate, for example, he could then get to South Korea. But if arrested by Chinese authorities at the steps outside, the refugee faces near-certain return to North Korea, followed by imprisonment or death.
North Korean refugees seeking asylum in the United States face even greater odds. Because they technically have South Korean citizenship, U.S. law says that they don’t face persecution in their “home country,” meaning South Korea. But they can’t get into South Korea, either, forcing most to live in constant fear in northeastern China. As a result, only a handful of North Korean refugees — likely fewer than ten — have qualified for asylum in the United States over the last 15 years. Sen. Brownback’s office, in fact, was able to locate exactly two such people. (The numbers are so insignificant that, according to Sen. Brownback’s office, the U.S. government does not even keep statistics on the numbers of North Koreans applying for or receiving asylum in the U.S.)
That’s where the Brownback-Kennedy legislation comes in. North Koreans would be recognized for what they are: Refugees fleeing one of the most brutal and repressive regimes on earth, not citizens of the free and democratic neighbor to the south. But because of the practical difficulties for a North Korean refugee to actually reach the United States, the bill is largely symbolic, but powerfully so. It would send an unmistakable message of solidarity with people risking their lives in search of freedom. But that is the problem — for the State Department.
State officially opposed last year’s nearly identical legislation, nearly taking up China’s line that the North Korean refugees were actually “economic migrants.” State might not want to upset Beijing, or it could be protecting Pyongyang, fearing that the legislation could encourage thousands more refugees to try to flee, further destabilizing the Kim Jong-Il tyranny. In State’s worldview, “stability” — even for Pyongyang — is of paramount importance.
In response to legislation whose text could fit on the back of a postcard, State sent to Capitol Hill a document that was more than two pages long. In the line that says “State Department position,” the answer is, “Oppose because unnecessary.” Given that North Koreans can’t qualify for asylum without the Brownback-Kennedy legislative fix, one wonders for whom State believes the bill is “unnecessary.” The next-to-last reason the State Department spells out for opposing the bipartisan bill is the most incredible: “It may encourage North Koreans to seek entry to U.S. government facilities (possibly forcibly) for the purpose of gaining admission to the U.S.” Heaven forbid a country that holds itself out as a beacon of freedom would actually have to take in refugees fleeing tyranny in search of freedom.
The State Department has yet to announce its official position on the new legislation, though Sen. Brownback is actually hopeful that Foggy Bottom officials will end up on the right side this time. After all, he notes, “For people who love freedom, even just decency, they have to support this.”
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist. Mowbray is the author of the upcoming Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America’s Security.