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Current Events at the United Nations

Aired January 13, 2006 - 21:00:00   ET


RICHARD ROTH, CNN ANCHOR: As the weekend began here were reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was visiting China. Of course, anything having to do with North Korea, a secretive, isolated country, will always be hard to pin down.
Welcome to DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth.

If the reports are accurate, the North Korean leader's visit will be unique. He will be the rare example of a North Korean leaving his country, going to China an then returning on his own. As we showed you last June on the program, the documentary film "Seoul Train" at great risk captured the desperate plight of North Korean refugees seeking asylum unsuccessfully in China and elsewhere in the region.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The underground railroad today is a faint echo of the underground railroad that took place in the Civil War. When you come face to face with the realities of what the refugees have to tell us, suddenly that 2 million dead or 3 million dead in North Korea starts to penetrate to your heart and your conscience, and you realize you have to do something.


ROTH: The North Korean government told CNN in a statement the refugees are lured into China by groups hostile to the Pyongyang government. A statement from their U.N. mission says "It is a falsification of the truth, this so-called problem. These statements are made by hostile forces aligned with a hostile U.S. government."

China repatriates North Korean refugees routinely. It's estimated that at least 30,000 North Koreans are thought by defector groups to be hiding in China. Human rights groups plus governments of the United Nations, such as the United States, strongly criticize China for turning over the refugees to a likely horrible fate.

The United States recently appointed a special envoy on the problem which for years has been left in the lap of the UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Office.


JAY LEFKOWITZ, ENVOY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: Amidst these terrible, terrible humanitarian conditions, when some of these North Koreans are able to escape and get into northern China, I think it's very, very important that the Chinese government live up to its obligation and grant the UNHCR access to go up north, to work to help resettle these refugees.


ROTH: CNN contacted the Chinese mission to the United Nations for a comment, and here it is: "Those people are not refugees but illegal border crossers. It is very important to make such a distinction." And then later on in the statement, "In recent years, because of economic difficulties in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korean, some Koreans often crossed the border and stayed in northeast China illegally. We can handle the issue well. The Chinese government has been handling the issue in accordance with Chinese law, international law and the humanitarian principles."

Chinese and North Korean officials declined to appear on the program, but we still have a panel to assess where the world stands on the North Korea refugee human rights issue.

Joining me now Dong Chul Choi, a North Korean refugee, in our Washington, studios. He is with the North Korea Freedom Coalition. In Geneva, Switzerland is Ron Redmond, the spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioners Office for Refugees. Also with us in Washington is Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, a group that assists refugees. And, finally, Tim Peters from the nongovernmental organization Helping Hand Korea, on the phone from South Korea.

Tim, where do we stand now regarding refugees coming out of North Korea and trying to seek safe haven in China, South Korea and elsewhere since we last addressed this issue when we talked about the film "Seoul Train" a couple of months ago?

TIM PETERS, HELPING HANDS KOREA: Well, Richard, the situation is only getting worse, more difficult for the North Koreans that dare to cross the Tumen (ph) or the Yalo River into China.

The Chinese continue an extremely harsh crackdown in ferreting out the refugees in China, and if they can catch them, they repatriate them to the tune of about 200 to 300 a week. So crossing borders from China to third counties continues to be an extremely daunting enterprise, particularly at this time of the year when temperatures plummet. The situation is extraordinarily and taxing, both for the refugees and the people that try to help them.

ROTH: Let's get some definitions and facts here.

Ron Redmond, from the United Nations in Geneva, what rights do these people have under international treaties to avoid being sent back?

RON REDMOND, UNHCR: Well, UNHCR has been trying to grapple with this issue for most of the past decade. We look at North Koreans now in China as a population of concern to UNHCR. We believe many of them are refugees. About half of them, however, go back and forth between North Korea and China. In other words, there is some movement back and forth across that border as people go back to try to bring food, money and other assistance to their families.

UNHCR however has no access to the border. We have a fundamental disagreement with China. The Chinese say that the North Koreans are illegal entrants or illegal migrants. The UNHCR says they are people of concern to us. We need access to them. We believe many of them are refugees.

ROTH: Suzanne, what happens to these refugees, what is their situation as you've been to observe assisting them?

SUZANNE SCHOLTE, DEFENSE FORUM FOUNDATION: Well, this is indeed the most avoidable human rights tragedy in the world today. You have this famine conditions in North Korea that initially led to this crisis of these refugees. China's claim that they're economic migrants because they're leaving North Korea, because they're starving, is totally inaccurate, because the moment they cross the border -- they may have come initially because they were hungry -- the moment they cross the border, they fit the definition of an asylum seeker because they are persecuted when they return to North Korea.

And the policy of China to repatriate them is in direct violation of the Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees. The 1951 Convention as well as the 1967 protocol. So China is violating international law by returning them.

ROTH: China is saying, it's worth noting in their statement, that a small number of people are trying to politicize this issue and confuse the two concepts of illegal border crossings and refugees.

Dong Chul Choi, how did you get out of North Korea?

DONG CHUL CHOI, NORTH KOREAN REFUGEE: Yes, I escaped from there at 1994 and I crossed the Tumen (ph) River on the ice.

ROTH: You were a prison guard there, is that right?

CHOI: That's right.

ROTH: So how did you break out?

CHOI: I served in prison guard in No. 11 political prison camp when I was n North Korea, and then I was student in Kim Il Son University, but my mom got involved with criminal political issue, and so she sentenced to 13 years and I should be sent to farm by force because of three generation -- there is a three generation punishment system in North Korea, so I should work in a farm as a farmer.

And then my mom got released, and so I escaped from North Korea with my mom.

ROTH: All right, Tim Peters, is the United Nations and the governments in the United Nations doing enough and doing the right thing concerning the refugees fleeing North Korea?

PETERS: Well, Richard, in my opinion the United Nations, the members thereof, could be likened to bystanders or spectators sitting in the bleachers, kind of watching the drama down below on the playing field.

As far as the activist community is concerned, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on the field there in China is not an actor and quite frankly we are puzzled why the United Nations, UNHCR, continues to even keep an office in Beijing, because we feel -- I feel in some ways that their departure in protest would have a far more conspicuous and powerful statement than a silent and passive remaining in China where, as Ron mentioned, the Chinese government has consistently not even allowed them to go to the border area.

REDMOND: Believe me, we're not in the bleachers. UNHCR has been a voice in the wilderness for the last five or six years on this issue. It's only recently that people have begun to pay attention to this issue. International attention has been focused on nuclear nonproliferation issues and other issues on the Korean peninsula. This thing has really been on the back burner, but it's not because UNHCR has not been trying to force this issue.

UNHCR, if we were to leave China, we would actually be leaving as one of the few human rights agencies that are in China. We also get refugees, asylum seekers, 200 or so a year, coming to our office in Beijing. Over the past six years there have been about 6,400 North Koreans who have ended up in South Korea. They didn't just drop in out of thin air. UNHCR helped a lot of those North Koreans get to the south.

ROTH: OK, Ron, so you think governments like the United States are not being tough enough with China?

REDMOND: Well, UNHCR, Richard, as you know, is an intergovernmental organization. We depend on governments backing us when we want to try to make a point, particularly when it involves the 1951 refugee convention. We would like to see more governments speaking out on our behalf, urging China to allow us to get access to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) North Korea border so we can assess who these people are, what their needs are, and by the way the High Commissioner Antonio Gutierrez, will be going to China this spring. He has now got an invitation from the Chinese, and this issue is going to be right up on top of the agenda.

ROTH: Suzanne, what's your thought on government action?

SCHOLTE: I do think that the UNHCR has been a failure and I don't think they've been aggressive enough. I think a lot of the people that have escaped have escaped under tremendous peril, going through several countries. It's people like Tim Peters who have been rescuing these refugees and getting them out through this underground railroad.

And I do want to say that it's not just the UNHCR that's failed. For example, the North Korean Human Rights Act passed 15 months ago and our Congress in the United States clearly demonstrated that we want to engage and help process these refugees, and yet there has been not one single refugee that's been processed under that -- because of that legislation. For example, you have South Koreans, Americans and Chinese citizens that are in jail right now in China because they were working in the border region trying to save these refugees.

REDMOND: Well, UNHCR is working in surrounding countries, in Thailand and other countries surrounding China. A lot of these people are turning up in those places. We help them go on to South Korea. All North Koreans have citizenship, are considered to have citizenship in South Korea, so all of them can go to South Korea. We have not helped nearly enough out of China. It's a very small number.

What we're doing is behind the scenes, we don't elaborate on that, but believe me, we're working on this. But it's not enough. We're glad that the NGOs, we're glad that the advocates are as vocal about this as they are, because it can only help our efforts to try to get assistance to North Korean refugees.

ROTH: All right, Dong Chul Choi, you work for a group that really wants to topple this government. How can the refugee issue be used to accomplish that, do you think?

CHOI: I think the North Korea Human Rights Act passed 15 months ago and it was great progress for North Korea human rights issue. And I think Special Envoy Jay Lefkowitz is a popular man on the North Korean's eyes, because many North Koreans believe he's very powerful to serve the North Korean human rights issue by the United States government.

ROTH: The United Nations gets targeted for really never getting involved and doing enough on these issues. It's a dilemma among member governments. Can't the United Nations put more pressure on China and others?

REDMOND: UNHCR really has to stand on the foundation of the 1951 refugee convention. Article 38 of that convention says if a signatory state to the convention wants to dispute an issue with a government, that a single state can request that this go before an international court of justice. So there is a possibility there for governments to step forward and raise this issue, but obviously nobody is stepping forward, and I think all of us here today are still a voice in the wilderness.

ROTH: OK. Tim Peters, you said -- very briefly -- you said they're doing it like pest control, the government in China, removing refugees and hunting them down?

PETERS: Absolutely, Richard. There is a stepped up program, a crackdown or strike hard campaign by the Chinese to send back the North Korean refugees as soon as they find them. There is no filtering process, no interview by the Chinese to determine if -- who and what is a refugee. It's simply shipped back by the truckload, sometimes as many as 300 or 400 a week.

The fact that the international community is not coming forward and giving an outcry is so perplexing and extraordinarily frustrating for those of us that are trying to rescue these people.

ROTH: I have to stop our interview there. Tim Peters, with Helping Hands Korea, on the phone from South Korea, thank you very much. In Geneva, Ron Redmond with the United Nations High Commissioners Office for Refugees. We thank him for his position from the organization in Geneva. Also in Washington, Dong Chul Choi, North Korean refugee. He is with the North Korea Freedom Coalition, and Suzanne Scholte, from the Defense Forum Foundation, a group assisting refugees, who spoke very fervently on her organization's position. Thank you all for appearing on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE.

So as we heard from Ron Redmond in Geneva there, his United Nations refugee leader Antonio Gutierrez will go to China and raise the refugee issue. Last June when he took office, Gutierrez at the United Nations said it was a priority.


ANTONIO GUTIERREZ, UNHCR LEADER: The fact that they flee, if you look at the regime in North Korea, creates a situation in which they might be in danger if they came back. So the first principle is that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) cannot be accepted and that they cannot be sent back to North Korea.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's particularly humbling for a columnist and a commentator to be reminded of how many around the world are attacked, intimidated, jailed or killed for the sort of advocacy journalism so many of us every day do as part of our jobs in America.


ROTH: A tribute to journalists who do their jobs in places where their job can get them killed. Clarence Page (ph) of the "Chicago Tribune" was the master of ceremonies at the latest annual Committee to Protect Journalists awards dinner in New York City.

One of the honorees is an investigative journalist from Brazil who could not attend the dinner. If he misses a court date in the numerous lawsuit cases filed against him, he could be imprisoned upon return. Lucio Flavio Pinto (ph), whose work exposes corruption and rain forest destruction, has been physically attacked and threatened in the rough and isolated Amazon part of Brazil.

Listen to the stories of the other harassed journalists who were in attendance. I had to. And it makes me feel very small sitting in amazement at their courage.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Last May without warning Uzbek soldiers opened fire on thousands of unarmed people taking part in a peaceful protest in the town of Andajon (ph). Galima Bukharbaeva in the crowd covering the story, barely escaped harm when a bullet ripped through her backpack and notebook.

GALIMA BUKHARBAEVA, JOURNALIST: Bullets were coming down like hail just behind me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Galima wrote her article right after the protest and sent it to London to be posted. It made it all the harder for the government to cover up what had happened.

BUKHARBAEVA: As an exile myself, I live with the hope that all of us who had to flee Uzbekistan will be able to come back home. I hope that we will be able to grieve openly about those who died.

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST: They're doing what we ought to be doing. They're brave. They're not intimidated. They have values, the best journalistic values.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have been declared a prohibited immigrant. I am being deported now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): When Andrew Meldrom, correspondent for the U.K.'s "Guardian," was deported after 23 years in Harare, Beatrice Mtetwa was with him on the frontline, defending press freedoms.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going directly to the airport. This is not the action of a government that is confident in its own legitimacy and it is afraid of a free press.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every one is scared of this regime, so you need a sharp, good, smart lawyer who is not afraid, a lawyer who cannot be bought or sold. She is tireless.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I met her last night for the first time, I was most struck by her wonderful smile because the only picture I had ever seen of her, she wasn't smiling, her face was bruised and puffed up from having been beaten by Mugabe's henchmen.

BEATRICE MTETWA, MEDIA LAWYER: I feel very honored and I feel that the journalists in Zimbabwe have been recognized because really they are the ones who are having to operate in this very difficult environment.

Zimbabwe's embattled independent media is in desperate need of support. I plead with all of you present here tonight to continue doing everything you can to restore media freedom in Zimbabwe.

JUDY WOODRUFF, JOURNALIST: It is the world's leading jailer of journalists. Chinese journalists, 42 of them, were in prison for what they had reported.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last year Shi Tao was charged with leaking state secrets abroad after publishing notes from his paper's staff meeting on an overseas Web site. The notes spelled out government restrictions on the media for covering the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Only after his notes were published did a government censorship board declare these media regulations to be a state secret.

China's dogged pursuit of Shi Tao led to a court order that demanded American Internet giant Yahoo! provide information to authorities, information that enabled the government to identify and imprison him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very likely he's going to do the full 10 years of his sentence.

WOODRUFF: We're going to give you an opportunity to play a role in trying to win Shi Tao's freedom back. Pull out one of those postcards, fill it out, and CPJ will make sure that these cards get to the Chinese government.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is so decided.


ROTH: Resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly not the only thing that's been decided. CNN has decided to cancel DIPLOMATIC LICENSE, the program you are now watching. Next week will be our last program. We invite you to send us your comments either way, disappointment or good riddance. Here is how to respond, to That address again for your email is We have been on CNN for 12-1/2 years with great freedom offered by CNN management, and next week it will all come to an end. We look forward to your views.

Where is the committee to protect shows when you need one?

That's DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth, in New York. Thanks for watching.



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