November 13, 2006

Students Condemn Plight of North Korean Refugees

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With news of North Korea’s nuclear test so prominent in the media, this past weekend several organizations on campus sought to show another side of North Korea through a series of discussions called “NK Focus: Do you know North Korea?”

The aim of the event was to increase Cornell awareness of the Korean refugee situation, before it results in a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.

Biblia Kim ’08, of the Korean Church of Cornell-English service, said the idea for this project came after the nuclear tests, where people tended to forget the human side of this crisis, referring to North Korea only as a country and neglecting the plight of the people under Kim Jong-II’s dictatorship.

Saturday’s events consisted of several guest speakers ranging from professors at Cornell to students who had traveled to the North Korea/ Chinese border to aid in the refugee situation.

The first speaker, Jamie Kim of REAH International, said, “We shouldn’t isolate North Koreans as an axis of evil, but as an axis of opportunity.”

He went on to elaborate that the refugee situation is not just a Korean issue but a world issue, explaining that life in prison camps in North Korea contained conditions that were as deplorable as those in Auschwitz, if not worse.

Kim advocated that the best way to work with the North Korea government was to work from the inside, rather than bullying them from the outside.

He said, “If you’re inside NK, you can influence them. One act of goodwill can change an entire country’s perspective.”

After Kim finished his speech, the Liberty in North Korea organization screened the documentary “Seoul Train,” which detailed the grueling circumstances many North Koreans face to gain political asylum by fleeing to China or South Korea. Combining personal stories and commentary from both national and international human rights advocates, the film illustrated the severity of the human rights violations that occurs in North Korea.

Following the film, Jeffrey Bae ’07 spoke about his trip to the Chinese/North Korean border. He said he had three goals in mind when he went overseas. First, to interview refugees and escapees, secondly, to confirm what defectors say, and lastly, to report his findings to the U.N., U.S. and human rights watch dog groups.

He discussed videotaping the refugee situation firsthand and confirming what “Seoul Train” had already described as “the world’s largest prison camp.”
Currently, North Koreans caught by Chinese authorities trying to flee North Korea are repatriated, but face extreme torture and possibly even death upon return.

The Chinese government has come under intense scrutiny by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for this practice. From the Chinese perspective, these defectors are not refugees, but merely illegal immigrants and, consequently, the Chinese do not see themselves as violating international human rights laws as they are returning immigrants and not refugees back to their home country.

To raise public awareness of the event, AAP students also installed a red fabric “wall” across the Arts Quad, to symbolize the wall that divides North and South Korea.

Biblia Kim proclaimed the weekend a success.

She said, “It’s amazing how many groups came together in such a short amount of time, but the rest of the Cornell campus needs to realize it’s a big situation that needs to be taken care of now.”

Audience member Yun Seok Jeong ’08 agreed, saying, “I thought the event was great in that it exposed an aspect of North Korea that is often pushed to the side in the media. We don’t get to see the faces of the people amidst all the political rambling over the nuclear crisis; most people aren’t even aware of the human rights situation.”