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[Herald Interview] ‘Seoul should protect N. Korean defectors in China by law’

Jan. 11, 2012 - 15:36 By Korea Herald
Activist says food aid to Pyongyang almost never reaches N. Korean residents

Robert Park, a Korean-American human rights activist and missionary imprisoned by Pyongyang from late 2009 to early 2010, said the South Korean government should provide diplomatic protection to North Korean refugees who have defected to China.

“These refugees are citizens of Korea and if they’re sent back to North Korea, they are going to be tortured and executed,” Park told The Korea Herald on the phone.

He declined to meet in person, as he was extremely uncomfortable meeting the press after the torture and abuse he suffered during his stay in North Korea.

According to Park, China continues to repatriate North Korean refugees against their will in violation of the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

“Highest officials of South Korea should intervene diplomatically. With international support, China will end up being able to legally protect North Korean refugees,” he said.

Park said he recently met with Hyun Byung-chul, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, to discuss the issue and told Hyun there is “a potential that it can happen.”

However, North Korea watchers say it is easier said than done, as legal protection of North Korean refugees could prompt North Koreans to flee their country to China en masse, which China does not want.

The death of Pyongyang’s long-time leader Kim Jong-il has worsened the human rights situation in the North, Park said, adding that there may be more mass killing and mass imprisonment of North Koreans under the new leadership of Kim Jong-un.

Recent news reports said the young Kim, in his late 20s, is ordering the immediate execution of any North Korean caught trying to cross the border to defect.

The U.S.-based Radio Free Asia reported last week that three North Korean defectors were shot dead by North Korean soldiers while crossing the Amnok River into China from Hyesan in the North’s Ryanggang Province on Dec. 31.

“It is unfathomable there can be a worse situation, but there is more bloodshed, senseless killings. It’s definitely getting worse,” Park said.

Pointing to its worsening food shortages, the North had appealed to the U.S. to increase food aid and add grains to the possible nutritional assistance, news reports said.

However, Park emphasized that the international community should not provide any food aid to North Korea because the communist state would divert it to the military with almost 100 percent certainty.

“Ninety-nine percent of the North Korean defectors oppose food aid. According to a recent report which interviewed 600 North Korean refugees, they didn’t even know food aid was happening,” Park said.

He said he opposed food aid not because he supported the Lee Myung-bak administration’s conservative stance toward Pyongyang or wanted North Korean residents to starve.

“North Korean people starve systematically. So, my No.1 suggestion (to address famine in the North) is remittances,” he said.

He said North Korean defectors in South Korea often make remittances to their families and friends in North Korea via Chinese brokers and if the money is increased, it will directly help those in need in the North.

He recently released a mini album, “Love is Stronger than Death,” through South Korean label Nanoom Records, to raise funds for North Korean defectors.

The eight-track album is mostly composed of folk songs using an acoustic guitar, with which Park quietly talks about his mission of love.

Park is also preparing in Seoul to organize a massive rally of over 100,000 people to protest genocide and crimes against humanity in North Korea.

“It will be led by victims of the regime who directly suffered. It is not okay to wait and appease while people are dying in concentration camps,” he said.

Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, a nonpartisan coalition of human rights activists and groups from around the world, is calling for an international general strike on Jan. 27 to protest against genocide in North Korea. For further information, contact, which is a general e-mail, not Robert Park’s personal email.

By Kim Yoon-mi (