‘China’s Policy of Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees and Implications for International Law’


with Tim Peters, Founder, Helping Hands Korea and Lord Alton of Liverpool

5 – 6pm, Tuesday 19th June 2012

Room U, Portcullis House, London, SW1A 2LW

To attend please RSVP to: jake.calvert@henryjacksonsociety.org

China has a policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees, in total disregard of the international principle of non-refoulement and in violation of international law. Thousands of North Koreans have escaped from the world’s most closed and brutal totalitarian regime, fleeing famine, oppression and persecution. Many live a precarious existence in China, as stateless refugees in hiding, as orphaned or abandoned children, or as trafficked women. If sent back to North Korea, refugees face detention, torture and even execution as illegal border-crossers upon their return to North Korea, where the regime takes a dim view of defectors.  In 2010, North Korea made the crime of defection a “crime of treachery against the nation”.

Under Kim Jong Un, the penalties have become harsher. Border guards have been ordered to shoot anyone escaping across the frontier to China. In January he announced that the penalty for defecting during the official period of mourning for his father, Kim Jong-il, is the execution of the defector’s entire family.

International law prohibits the forcible repatriation, either directly or indirectly, of any individuals to a country where they are at risk of facing persecution, torture or death. In 1988 China ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which prohibits the forcible return of people to states where they face a substantial risk of being tortured. China is also a state party to the UN Refugee Convention.

China claims these people are economic migrants, not refugees, but due to the consequences they face upon return to North Korea, all these people – whether they fled for economic or political or religious reasons – count as ‘refugees sur place’ under the UN’s definition.

Despite its obligations under these conventions, China has prevented the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) from access to North Koreans in China and considers all undocumented North Koreans as economic migrants, rather than as asylum-seekers. Many North Koreans in China do not seek to settle in China, but desire safe passage to a third country, particularly South Korea.

By kind invitation of Lord Alton of LiverpoolThe All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea is pleased to invite you to a discussion with Tim Peters, Founder of Helping Hands Korea. He will discuss China’s continuing breaches of international law with regard to North Korean refugees, its restrictive relationship with the UNHCR, and the repercussions of these actions in the future.

TIME: 5 – 6pm

DATE: Monday 18th June 2012

VENUE: Room U, Portcullis House, London SW1A 2LW

To attend please RSVP to: jake.calvert@henryjacksonsociety.org


Tim Peters has been working with North Korean people in crisis since he founded Helping Hands Korea in 1996. In response to news of famine in North Korea, Helping Hands Korea launched a small program to provide food aid to the most vulnerable sectors of North Korean society. Through these efforts, unorthodox avenues of aid delivery were developed that maximized transparency in monitoring, a chronic challenge to humanitarian groups in North Korea. From 1998, Helping Hands Korea undertook the additional task of assisting North Koreans in China who had fled famine and oppression in their own country only to find their lives also at risk in China. Aid to North Korean refugees in China includes secret shelters, food, clothing, emergency medical treatment, as well as spiritual guidance and comfort. In cases where refugees face particular danger, logistical support is given to refugees for escape to third countries, the so-called ‘underground railroad.’ Since 2005, aid to displaced children of forcibly repatriated North Korean refugee women has grown in importance.

Mr. Peters’ humanitarian activism has been profiled in a cover story of TIME magazine, as well as in Newsweek (Asia), The Sunday Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Times, BBC, NPR, ABC’s Nightline, Korea Herald, Korea Times, Christianity Today and the award-winning documentary production by Incite Productions, Seoul Train. The Wall Street Journalrecommended Mr. Peters be considered for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the 2008 Stephen’s Prize for activism in Oslo, by Norway’s former Prime Minister Kjell Bondevik on behalf of the Stephanus Alliance.

Mr. Peters and his wife are currently based in Seoul, South Korea where he has lived and worked on three occasions for a total of nearly 22 years since 1975. In addition to his humanitarian work, within the past eight years he has worked as an editor and speechwriter for the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, the Korean National Red Cross and the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) in Seoul. In early 2004, he was approached by the World Economic Forum to prepare a paper that would outline the current predicament of North Korean refugees in China, to project worst-case and best-case scenarios of this crisis as well as to recommend practical measures to help the 300,000 North Korean refugees in China. Mr Peters has testified before the U.S. Congress on three occasions between 2002 and 2005. His written submission for the April 28, 2004 hearing of the International Relations Committee, Subcommittee of Asia and the Pacific, entitled “Korean Pathetique: A Symphony of Refugee Tears Unheeded” contains the essence of his analysis and policy recommendations as submitted to the World Economic Forum (document available upon request). This analysis of the multi-faceted North Korean refugee problem with proposed solutions has been referenced in the Encyclopedia of Human Rights, 2009, (v.3)by Oxford University Press.


[short movie shown]

TP: As sobering as this is, if you multiply this by thousands or tens of thousands of children over the last 16 years, you have some general concept of the magnitude of the problem we are facing. Given the egregious violations of human rights of North Koreans outside their borders, practitioners of emergency assistance to North Koreans in crisis would stress that additional tools are needed to provide relief for and protection of the human rights of those who have decided to seek freedom outside the borders of the DPRK at any cost. I’m told multitudes of North Koreans, mostly women, have risked everything, even death, to express themselves in the only way available to them as North Korean citizens. I call that voting with their feet since any other expression of opinion is absolutely forbidden in North Korea; voting with their feet to leave the national prison that the DPRK has become. Most everyone in this room is already aware that North Korean women endure the most harrowing treatment once they cross one of two rivers that constitute their nation’s borders. Rape, forced labour, being sold as a domestic partner for a farmer or day labourer, then all too often resold – I will show you a picture later of a 25 year old lady who burst into tears when we walked into the farm house in which she was living – she had already been sold twice. One of the Korean partners who was with us to help us spend time with her reminded her of her grandmother, who raised her in the city of Chungjing, North Korea. So much anguish welled up that she burst into tears, despite that fact that most North Korean women in my experience are extremely reserved with their emotions. She couldn’t contain herself; so much of the distress she had been feeling came to the surface. Some North Korean women have been sold as many as 3-4 times by the time they reach their mid to late twenties.

It is interesting to note that a particular UN Security Council state shares a border with North Korea. In fact it’s very common for North Koreans to be found within that nation’s territory. Despite this country’s track record of other thorny human rights problems, the UN Security Council member in question allows the UNHCR to fulfil its mandate within its national borders. UNHCR staff is allowed to interview North Korean defectors and determining of refugee status is actually carried out according to this UN body’s mandate. If refugees request resettlement in other countries, this UN Security Council member allows the UN to fulfil its role in the processing of North Korean crossers. It may surprise many to learn that I am speaking of Russia.

Russia shares a 6 mile border with North Korea. And, despite in many other cases abominable human rights record Russia has, it oddly and interestingly is allowing the UNHCR to operate when it comes to North Koreans. In sharp contrast to Russia’s cooperation in this case, there is another UN Security Council member which also shares an extremely long border with North Korea.  It too is a signatory of the 1951 Convention on the Protection of Refugees. It too has a UNHCR office in its capital. However that is where the similarities end. This UN member does not allow the UNHCR to interview North Korean defectors  nor does it give temporary shelter to those seeking relief from harsh punishment should they return to the DPRK. It forcibly repatriates thousands of terrified North Koreans who have fled their country every single year, generally 5,000 per year. The certain harsh punishment facing these border crossers in their home country has caused the UN to declare them as ‘refugees surplus’ – meaning even if they may not have come out of a country due to specific persecution, the very fact that they face persecution upon return qualifies them for the category of refugees surplus. This is a UN determination. Nevertheless, the systematic repatriation policy continues to fly in the face of all obligations pertaining to this UN Security Council member. I will leave it to you to name this nation that has 1.6 billion citizens.  As abject and tragic as the stories of these refugees, especially women, are, there is an additional component to this story that paints the picture darker still. The majority of these women, after being sold as wives or concubines to Chinese men, usually have children. Many of the women, despite their emotional scars and torment, do their best to be good mothers. Pathetically, if a village neighbour reports the women to the Chinese police, she is ripped away from her children, arrested, and forcibly repatriated to the DPRK. The criminal charge against her – she is automatically without interview declared an illegal economic migrant. I’m going to repeat that; the criminal charge by Chinese police against a North Korean woman to be sent back to certain punishment in North Korea is she is an ‘illegal economic migrant.’ The one and only verdict for the woman is forcible repatriation to North Korea. If that woman happens to be pregnant, and this is not always the case, but unfortunately there are far too many documented cases in which repatriated pregnant women who are carrying Chinese babies, have their pregnancies forcibly aborted by the North Korean regime based on the idea that North Korean    blood is pure, and to pollute it with Chinese seed is unacceptable.

The children by tens of thousands are left traumatised in China utterly without an explanation as to why their mothers are dragged away from the house, never to be seen again. In the interest of time, and because a picture is worth a thousand words, I would like to provide a few real life examples of the heart wrenching situations of the information provided above based on the work of our NGO. Just a little bit of history: the practioners of assistance to North Korean children in China make a distinction often between the first wave of North Korean orphans that came over because of the famine in the 1990’s and really reached a crescendo around 1998/1999. In fact, some are still coming, particularly as the North Korean economy continues to falter, we are seeing sadly some of the same phenomena. They are characterised, of course, by the fact that both parents are North Korean, to be distinguished from the other children I am talking about, referred to as the Second Wave.

Over the past seven or eight years, because of the huge number of North Korean women who have come across and been sold into trafficking – and one of the reasons that this trafficking is so rampant is because of the legal environment in China gives virtual full sway to traffickers to operate because their only interest, as mentioned before – is that if the woman is a North Korean, the first order of business is simply to return her to her homeland.  There is no interest to discover if her human rights have been violated, if she’s been trafficked, etc. So naturally traffickers can flourish in the most obnoxious way in China. In this case when we first met this boy, he’s 7 or 8, this cottage is in China, and as we talked to his grandfather who is caring for him, we discovered a picture of this boy roughly the last time before his mother was caught and sent back to North Korea. You could tell that the difference in age was about 3 or 4 years. He had not heard from his mother at that time.

I spoke to you earlier about the young lady who burst into tears when we came through the door, this is the young lady I am speaking of. In the background is a North Korean city. Here she’s holding her baby, and as I mentioned so much of her emotion came flooding out as a result of our one of Korean-Chinese partners reminding her so vividly of her grandmother. Even though live in North Korea was difficult as a child, she was terribly homesick to actually to go back considering what she had been through in China.

This is another case of a woman. I imagine if you glance at her at first you would imagine that she is only 17 or 18 years old, but as you probably know most North Koreans have diminished growth because of the slow motion famine that has more or less continued in North Korea over the past 15 years. This woman was sold to a Chinese man, she had a baby, and then she was discovered by authorities and she was forcibly repatriated. Before she had done that, she had attempted suicide. Fortunately she was not successful and what she considered the absolute lowest point in her life. The good news is after punishment and incarceration after repatriation; she did come back and was reunited with her daughter. There are a few happy endings –I don’t know if we can say endings, but midpoints. In this situation she’s still considered an illegal economic migrant at this time.

This is the case of the little boy I mentioned earlier. This is his grandfather; he is a Han Chinese, he is not a North Korean man. The grandmother was not in the home, so the North Korean mother has been sent back and the birth father, who is Chinese, was nowhere to be found. The only one caring for the little boy was an elderly grandfather. As we walked into the front area of the house, our Chinese evangelist partner pointed to the table and said here is the midday meal for both grandfather and grandson. As you can see it is white rice, bleached rice, with no evidence of vegetables and no evidence of protein, or fruit. We don’t know if that was representative of every meal, but it seemed to be significant to us that grandparents are struggling themselves to survive. There is no strong social safety net for the elderly in China, certainly rural China. For him to try to take care of his grandson alone was clearly a challenge.

Every story is unique; this is an extremely poor Chinese family and that’s often the case, that Chinese men who are seeking to purchase a North Korean women are usually at the very low end of the social totem pole of Chinese society hence it is often difficult for them to attract a marriageable spouse. This was the case – we had to visit this house at night. But the boy was surprisingly cheerful and seemed to be quite happy in his home. Here is his birth father, his grandfather, everyone in the house seemed to be surprisingly sweet and accommodating. The grandmother in this case had a severe case of epilepsy but despite all this, and an extraordinarily poor survival level farm family, there seemed to be a certain stability there that we noticed right away. Actually, here is the mother of the boy, and she could no longer live under the fear and 24 hour anxiety of being caught and being sent back so when her sister came over to join her, they both fled to South Korea. The difficulty when that happens is that sometimes the North Korean woman will start a new life in South Korea and their original hope of being reunited with a child as a South Korean citizen (that does sometimes happen) but there are many cases in which the children no longer hear from their mothers when they go to South Korea.

One of the characteristics of the kind of mismatches that we see in China; here is a little girl, very good student, whose mother was sent back to North Korean maybe 8 or 9 years ago. Obviously this is her grandmother, and this looks like he could be the grandfather but actually he’s the father. So there is roughly a 30 year gap between this man and the North Korean woman whom he purchased. When we met him, he had an advanced stage of stomach cancer, and we were informed about a month ago that he had died. Now it’s just grandmother and granddaughter. In cases like this, we are providing a stipend every month for them to supplement whatever is already there and not trying to break up the relationship that already exists in the home, but simply try to buttress it with some type of supplementary aid if we can.

This is a North Korean mother who suffered a very close call and was being chased by the police but was able to avoid them and go into hiding. Much like the woman in the short video clip, she is also married to a man who is unable to speak and unable to hear. But against all odds, there has developed between them a certain bond, and they are very lovingly parenting their two children. We have visited their home approximately 3 to 4 times, but she still does not have any status in Chinese society. Even for them to allow us to come to their house is a bit of a risk but they insisted that we do so, and we continue to try to help even in cases like this where there is a handicap involved with the birthfather.

You may think that I am describing the absolutely most difficult situations that we face in China, but in fact the most recent examples of children living with their grandparents , these are the better cases. I will now show you cases where the rug is entirely pulled out from underneath these children. Typical situation, North Korean mother caught by police and set back but in this case the birthfather showed no interest whatsoever.  He went on to find another woman and abandoned the child. There were no grandparents involved. When we learned of this boy, he was living under the existing part of the roof of this abandoned cottage in an agricultural village in China, obviously trying to stay away from the elements. He was eating garbage out of the village garbage dump. He understandably contracted food poisoning, and just at that point one of the North Korean women living in the village contacted one of our partners and alerted him to his case, and in fact that boy became the first member of our foster home in that locality.

Since that time, roughly 6 or 7 other children in similar condition of no grandparents and complete lack of social safety net are living in a very healthy and stable situation in a rural area in one of the three provinces that are close to North Korea. This is the second foster home in another province; all of these children are in the most vulnerable situations. Even if there are grandparents or there is a birthfather who is alive, there may be domestic violence, there may be conditions in the house that make it dangerous for the kids to continue and permission is given to bring them into the home.

In total we have four foster homes, for children of extreme needs all along the border. Naturally, most of our resources, the greatest amount of resources per child, are given to these children. It is extremely important for us to determine the condition of the child. If there is any stable adult in their life, we much prefer to assist that situation which would then allow us to impact more children because so many are waiting for care. Children separated from mothers in China- obviously there are extra challenges when they have special needs. I have to cut down my power point because I have many more pictures but in the interest of time I thought I would limit it to those.

In closing, please allow me to summarise that I am a proponent of a pincer movement in dealing with North Korean human rights. Lord Alton’s Helsinki approach with a distinctively Korean face is a brilliant way in my opinion to deal with the officials inside the so called Hermit Kingdom. At the same time I strongly urge nations who consider themselves democracies, to muster the political and moral will to confront some of the DPRK’s neighbours who are egregiously violating the human rights of those who flee the North Korean borders. It is high time in my opinion to stop allowing trade policy and market access to China to dictate human rights policies when dealing with open interference with UNHCR activities, responsibilities, as well as forcibly repatriating women to harsh punishment, imprisonment, torture, forced abortion and sometimes execution. In the final analysis, history will have a harsh evaluation of nations who espouse democratic values in their cherished foundational documents but in practice sacrifice these principles on the altar of mammon.  Thank you very much for the distinct honour of addressing you today.

Lord Alton : I think the applause shows the appreciation for what Tim has said today. This group was founded nearly eight years ago after a North Korean, who had escaped and ended up in London, came to tell me about how he loved the country but how, en route, his wife and two of his children had died. With his other child he tried to get out of the river, lost the boy, came back for him, and the other boy died as well. Even going in and out of the country, helping people to leave, it was really a result of that first encounter that a group of us thought it would be a good idea to do something. The old saying that if a faraway country about which we know very little, which is what Neville Chamberlin famously said about Czechoslovakia, seemed to be determining rather too much of this country’s attitude to North Korea – which is a foreign country but is not one about which we know nothing.

Today there has been, around the precincts of parliament, a lot of our own serviceman who have been here as part of a two-day series of events for those who have been serving in Afghanistan and Iraq who are coming in to see what it is they are fighting for. It’s not a bad moment to recall that 1,000 British servicemen died during the Korean War. It is a country we know something about. There were more lives lost in it than in the Falklands (which we’re commemorating at the moment), Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Three million people died in that conflict, most of them Korean and many Chinese and Americans as well.  Somehow we have got to move on from a situation where we’ve been understandably deeply concerned with security questions, and the development of nuclear capabilities is at the top of that list.

But that is not the only issue here. We spend all of our time worrying about that and we have nothing to say about the need for the pincer movement and humanitarian and human rights questions.  It is not just that we are failing people in North Korea; we are missing an opportunity as well. One can often make more progress on these issues than on the intractable issues of security. Tim you will have disturbed some of us here today, bringing us up to speed on where the situation is now. I know that there will be questions, but before can I ask you to take us back to the contrasting policies of Russia of China in the way they deal with the legality of someone coming out of North Korea. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that in a country where 300,000 people are in gulags and camps in North Korea anyone being sent back to North Korea will receive the harshest of punishments, potentially capital punishment. Why is it that China cannot be persuaded, even if in reality, and perhaps you could say a word about this, China does repatriate them not to North Korea but to South Korea? Why is it that they won’t recognise, as Russia has done, the more reasonable and humane approach, and what more can the international community do? What can we do, people gathered here today, to push that policy forward?

TP: Those are excellent questions and I can’t pretend to know what’s going on inside the minds of the Chinese leaders, but it would seem to me that a certain consensus exists within China that if repatriation were to stop, then this would probably constitute and be spread throughout North Korea that there is actually now a viable exit to the prison with no forced repatriation. I believe that the leadership in China believes that this would result in a kind of domino effect of just thousands of streams into rivers of refugees. I believe they fear that, partly because Chinese society is knitted together of roughly 55 different minorities so when there is a disruption of movement of one minority, perhaps that would cause others to consider movement that is not approved. At the same time and perhaps more relevant, most people who study the geopolitical realities of North East Asia accept the fact that China is quite pleased and happy with the status quo in the Korean peninsula. They are quite happy to have North Korea exist as a kind of buffer zone between itself and South Korea and many of the freedoms that exist in South Korea. They are quite happy to keep North Korea not only as a buffer state but it’s not long ago that China gained access to some of the north-eastern ports of North Korea. Specifically I am referring to the ports of Rajin and Chongjin. Not entirely, but they are now engaged in 50 year leases. Why is that important? At the end of World War II, Russia very cleverly cut off China’s access to the Pacific, in some of its final troop movements, thereby cutting off China’s access in that whole north east area from that coast. Now China has very carefully and deliberately manipulated its way and is building major highways from its border to this city in order to begin shipping commodities. China is also enjoying a kind of fire sale of very rare minerals that are found in North Korean mines. North Korea is in a very compromised position to have to sell these very precious minerals in exchange for things like food. It seems that China has very deliberate geopolitical interests in keeping North Korea the way it is, perhaps one of the most principled ways in doing this is to keep the population bottled up and not allow haemorrhaging of refugees.

Question 1 [inaudible]: Just to expand on the legality of these cases and the use of international law. What about the difficult cases that fall outside the international courts?

TP: I think it is an excellent question. I believe that the answer is that the national leadership in China has rather bluntly stated its own national law will not be trumped by international law. When international law, for example, is presented in the case of refugees, the answer of the foreign ministry in China is simply that they are not refugees but they are all illegal economic migrants. In other words we’ve made the determination in China that none of them are refugees – we know what they are. The national law is being used to more or less side-line international law and basically says we will implement our own laws. It is a troublesome situation and others may want to comment on that who have a greater grasp on international law (I don’t claim to be an expert in that area).

Lord Alton:  The ICC is going to be the interesting player in a lot of situations in the future, but many countries are not signatories to the ICC, although the United Kingdom is. It has been interesting how it’s been used in Sudan for instance. But the trumping of international law is not something at the moment that China is about to sign up for, and certainly North Korea isn’t. Using law as an instrument to deal with this, I would say, is as much as we would like to use it, it is rather unlikely.

Question 2:  I was wondering about the legality of your organisation in China, whether you are officially recognised in China. And are any other organisations doing this sort of work?

TP: I can answer that quite explicitly. It is not legal under Chinese law for a foreigner to give humanitarian aid in an unrecognised way. This all has to be done under the radar. Yes, there are others, though not nearly as many as I would like. We have a signup sheet over here for anyone…

Question 3 [inaudible]: With regards to the future of these children, there has been a change to the system in place in China in terms of registering children. Do you think this will flow over into North Korea?

TP: It is much easier for the children than the mothers to get residential registration but the catch-22 situation is this: the birthfather has to produce a police report showing that his wife has been forcibly sent back to North Korea before the city office will recognise and give residential status to the child. This is unthinkable as it can be but is what is happening. In some cases as is the case in China, things can be purchased and bought but the problem is that the cost is rather high. And then you have a dilemma: how can I justify giving one kid VIP treatment and getting residential status which will then exclude others from getting even the most basic help. In our case, our NGO doesn’t endorse that but if someone wants to give a designated gift then we would proceed. What will happen to these children in brief is it just so happens that this refugee crisis is reaching its 15th or 16th year. This corresponds to the age of the oldest children – we are very much in unchartered territory. When it comes to elementary and middle school, there are loopholes, especially in rural villages, for these children to get into class without too much scrutiny. But when it gets to the highly competitive secondary schools – which are expensive and really looking into the papers of the children and academic competitiveness (many of these children have been traumatised and it’s difficult for them to keep up) – we are looking at other alternatives to try to see if we can bring non-alternative methods of education so that these children can face the future and support themselves.

Lord Alton: What is the ballpark figure you put on the number of people who are actually involved in the moment who are illegals living in China?

TP: That is a very hard question to answer because some organisations have put it as few as 30,000-50,000 but I think that is a massive undercount. Others have said that there are 500,000. We knew at one point that the Chinese government itself put the refugee number at 400,000. Frankly that surprised me because it was higher than it was I was estimating. I would say that throughout China that roughly 200,000 is not an exaggeration.

Question 4 [inaudible]: Better than using the international courts, I was wondering if it was better to go down the ‘China self-interest route’. You mentioned the inequity between men and women in many rural villages because of the one-child policy has caused a few problems with the population and food production. What about legally registering these Korean women?

Lord Alton [for clarification]: I think the point is that surely if China were to make the system honest, and actually allow registration, then this would not only safeguard the interests of many of those who are working there too. In the context of the Republic of Korea, there have been examples where they have been able to be collaborative economic initiatives which even in the worst times have held together. These have benefitted South Korea and North Korea. Indeed China has been going down the same route. In fact Keith here put together a proposal that we put up to the Chinese and North Koreans. If you can’t go the route of the law, why not go through self-interest?

TP: Unquestionably. That would be a wise and enlightened choice.

Question 5: We have a few projects we were considering about raising awareness of the violations and to raise money to buy food aid to send to North Korea. I was wondering whether or not we should pursue this – to raise awareness of the general public, how would it really affect anything? Perhaps advocacy would be better?

TP: It is impossible for me to say what would work best. I am sure it would have to do with your talents, the passion of the people involved etc.

Lord Alton: Can I come in here as well? Anti-slavery International did a report about the plight of women who have been trafficked out of North Korea and we had the young lady here who wrote the report. She came and spoke to a group. That is available online I believe. There is terrific advocacy work being done. If you are wondering about what is available in the UK, by all means let’s talk after words.

Question 6: This is an issue that is almost locked off. If we look at North Korea in the international community, it is a disaster, it’s terrible. We don’t see the pictures of the children, do you sense that this is the case? What more can be done to break that barrier? It seems that the politics surround the nuclear issue and negotiations that have gone on for ages. I was just wondering your view on that.

TP: It seems to me that governments, often the US government, is very preoccupied with the security situation, the proliferation of weapons, and all of those are legitimate interests but to sublimate or to diminish the concern for the human rights situation is a very serious error I believe. Unfortunately the media tends to reinforce what the governments choose in some cases. The media is following some of those priorities with some powerful exceptions. I do think that one of the things that has sustained me personally through the last 16 year, and there have been some very dark moments as you can imagine, but getting involved with specific people in specific situations and knowing that there is something that can be done to improve – knowing that the universe of one person’s life can change – is a powerful impetus to continue moving in that direction. That is why I am a very strong believer that any actual advocacy must be rooted in actual field work in order to not only to change lives of others but also to encourage the people that are doing advocacy that ‘wow, these people are now safe.’ That can be an incredibly energising reality. Little victories that are points are light in a very dark place, in my opinion.

Question 7: Just a quick few thoughts on your comments and why China would want to or not want to reconsider its policy regarding repatriation of North Koreans. Number 1, it is fundamental to the security agreement between China and North Korea and, number 2, Japan used Korean immigration to Manchuria as a way to reduce Chinese influence in that region. In terms of the route of self-interest, I was wondering what you thought about the role of economics and economic developments. Do you think there is a role there?

Lord Alton: Some years ago, Dr. James Kim, created the Yambian University of Science and Technology, and rising out of that he went to North Korea, was arrested and sentenced to death, ultimately they built Pyongyang University of Science and Technology which I am a trustee of. I sometimes think it is the most bizarre entry of which anyone has ever entered in the Westminster Parliament. Why would I want to be involved in that? Dr. Kim believed that in the future, the only way things were ever going to change was through transformative experiences of education. Although what Tim has said is right, and I push and push for human rights attention, but ultimately if you are not making progress in those things is there anything else you can do? Or do you just totally despair and do nothing. We thought there was one thing we can do – that was the continual promotion of the English language. It is the official second language in North Korea. We have English language teachers there. We also can promote education. At Cambridge at the moment, we have our first two traveling scholars, the first two from North Korea. Simultaneously, we have just got the first South Korean elected as president as the Oxford Union. In the story of Cambridge, Oxford, and Pyongyang, you can see that there is a strategy here. And it is called ‘education and engagement.’ When young people travel to other countries, and probably a couple hundred have now since we first pressed the foreign office to offer short English language opportunities in the UK, I do not believe they can return home and believe that North Korea is a ‘paradise.’ They are bound to go back realising that they have been sold untruths and seeing that there are alternatives. What have they got to fear from democracy, human rights, and free market economies? That has to be, even though it is not very spectacular, the immediate result and it’s the investment you have to make.

At Pyongyang University of Science and Technology there are now 600 students, most of which come from elitist families. They are being taught though, in English, many working pro bono from this country. If I can at least give you a humorous and encouraging note to end on. Our British ambassador in Pyongyang emailed me the other to say [Karen Wolstenhome is the first lady to be a British ambassador there, I took her last year to Pyongyang University of Science and Technology] that all the students were looking to see where the ambassador was and I suggested that she should stand because they couldn’t believe it could be the lady with me who was the British ambassador. She returned there last week, because she was invited, in the British embassy car with the Union flag flying because she was invited on the occasion of her majesty the Queen’s diamond jubilee. I joke with the ambassador that it must have been the most extraordinary diamond jubilee celebration anywhere in the world. But is it better to do something than nothing? Of course. Does it mean that working illegally on the border is wrong? Of course not. We need to do all these different things and we have to figure out the season for all of these to take place. If anyone wants to volunteer to go to Pyongyang University see Ben at the end, he’ll happily put you in touch. Would you like to have the last word Tim?

TP: Thank you. It is very interesting, and Lord Alton’s final comments serve as an example, it strikes me that there is a similarity to the work with refugees in the sense that in a way one of the beachheads that we have in helping the North Korean people, much of it will take place outside of their borders. With refugees it will be in China or sometimes in Russia and obviously some of the routes go through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand etc. But some of these students will be coming out and influenced by their time in Britain. I know a good friend who is teaching at the Pyongyang University. His view is that he is not so much trying to push outside of the envelope with his students in class because he knows he’s being monitored and even the students are reporting what he says. But he’s simply working on getting them to a certain point where then they can be invited by universities in other parts of the world and then set up homestay programs so that they have a chance to experience another culture. I think we need to do what we can inside with this Helsinki Approach you are advocating, telling the truth but at the same time realising that there is a pincer movement in the sense of looking for the opportunities to meet North Koreans. If I could just add one final thing: roughly 70,000 North Koreans are now working outside their country to earn foreign currency. It is not only the lumberjacks in Russia, road building projects in Mongolia and Bahrain, even some North Koreans were found working at a shoe factory in Poland. This is a growing inevitability – as weak as the North Korean economy is and it is not reforming, more and more people are going to be sent out. It seems like a very good opportunity for their lives to be touched by those outside. Maybe we can think of both ways of doing that.

Lord Alton: Thanks Tim. Thanks again to the Henry Jackson Society for helping to organise this evening.


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