Friday, October 26, 2007

North Korean Refugees: Politics as Usual

I spoke yesterday on refugee law at a conference on human rights in North Korea at Penn Law. Having written, practiced and taught in the field of refugee law for a decade, it came as a surprise that I had never examined or confronted the issue of North Korean refugees. Given that human rights-abusing regimes nearly always result in refugee flows, it seems obvious that North Korea would have its fair share of asylum seekers. But from 2002-2004, only eight North Koreans were granted asylum in the United States, and none were resettled as refugees. Why? I can only point to politics -- the politics of refugee law and of human rights law. First, the international legal framework on refugees reflects the biases of international human rights law in that civil and political rights are favored over economic and social rights. Many North Korean refugees are fleeing famine, and are labeled economic migrants. However, digging a bit deeper, the North Korean political system awards entitlements based on loyalty to the regime; those whose ancestors were politically disloyal are last to receive benefits, and suffer generations of economic discrimination. Moreover, all individuals who leave North Korea without permission arguably become refugees sur place, as they face severe punishment for their unauthorized departure, including imprisonment in forced labor camps and torture. Crossing the border is seen as the ultimate form of political resistance to the North Korean regime, which of course does not want to see refugee law used as a shaming sanction. Surprisingly, other nations seem to go along with this course -- South Korea, because it doesn't want to offend North Korea; China, because it does not want to recognize the legitimate presence of Koreans in its territory as that might represent a threat to the south-east half of China's North-East; and the United States, which fails to make China's poor treatment of North Korean refugees part of its dialogue with China and limits the numbers of North Korean refugees it protects due to alleged national security concerns. The solution? Raising awareness of the plight of these refugees, of course, is key, as is emphasizing the very political nature of the economic persecution that many face and the perils of unauthorized departure from North Korea.

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