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For the human rights activist who organized last week's daring North Korean refugee escape, success hinged on having a worldwide audience.


Flore de Preneuf
March 21, 2002 3:15AM (UTC)

When 25 North Korean refugees stormed into the Spanish embassy in Beijing last Thursday in a desperate bid for freedom, human rights activists knew that for the feat to be successful, it had to be shown around the world.

So several journalists were tipped off in advance and took positions behind trees on the sidewalk opposite the embassy. The North Koreans, refugees living in China, dressed up to look like tourists, wearing red and black "Beijing" baseball caps. And when they ran through the open gate of the Spanish embassy past stunned Chinese guards, their fate was sealed: CNN captured the dash and broadcast it worldwide. China, which normally deports North Korean defectors under a repatriation treaty with the North Korean government in Pyongyang, allowed the group to go through this time for "humanitarian reasons." Monday, the refugees arrived safely in Seoul, South Korea.

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According to Norbert Vollertsen, the German physician and human rights activist who orchestrated last week's coup, it likely wouldn't have happened without intense media coverage. "The embassy scene was played over and over again on CNN and on the Internet," said Vollertsen. "When you create a big noise, then China can't do a thing. It doesn't want to be blamed in front of the whole world. A big noise will secure refugees."

"The problem," Vollertsen said, "is when there is only a small noise."

Human rights activists now hope last week's event created a big enough noise to inspire hundreds more to defect, and to eventually lead to the collapse of the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang in a scenario reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. Vollertsen sees much in the comparison. "First there were dozens, then hundreds and eventually thousands of refugees piled into the West German embassy in Prague," he recalled. "The Czech guards tried to arrest them but there were too many. A train was arranged to take them to West Germany. The Hungarian border was opened and a new flood started."

He points out that the elite in Pyongyang do get CNN. "Some are not stupid and remember history," he says. "They would rather have a smooth ending like in East Germany rather than a bloody outcome like in Ceaucescu's Romania." And the potential for violent dissent is already strong; Vollertsen witnessed scenes of riotous anger in North Korea when he worked there between July 1999 and December 2000.

The coalition of South Korean, Japanese and Western human rights organizations that masterminded the assault on the Spanish embassy had initially targeted the German embassy to impress world opinion with the historical parallel, he said. In the end, the organizers chose the Spanish embassy because they thought several members of the North Korean group were too weak to scale even a short, unguarded wall at the southern corner of the German compound. In addition, security at the Spanish embassy was known to be lax on Thursdays.

Just as the choice of embassy was the result of much thought and deliberation, human rights activists took special care to select street-savvy, hardened and determined North Korean refugees for the special operation. The six families and two orphan teenage girls who made the memorable run had been living in China long enough to know how to use cellphones and computers, sit through traffic without panicking and move inconspicuously, said Vollertsen. "They were quite sophisticated. The action could never have been mounted with refugees fresh from Pyongyang," he said.

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Anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 North Koreans live illegally in China. Figures are fuzzy because China has systematically barred the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from conducting a population survey in the provinces close to North Korea. Every year the Chinese government sends thousands home under the repatriation treaty signed with North Korea in 1961. Although China has signed international conventions on refugees, it does not see North Koreans as political asylum-seekers but rather as illegal economic migrants lured by China's relative prosperity.

And forays into China became increasingly common during and after the 1997 famine when North Koreans left their villages in search of food. Analysts believe China's relative economic development and wealth of consumer goods opened the eyes of North Koreans to the backwardness of their own country -- just as trips to Europe and exposure to Western movies shook the confidence of people living in Communist Europe in the 1980s.

But until now, China has not been a very comfortable alternative to North Korea. Vollertsen said defectors live in constant fear of being deported, change their living quarters frequently and are wary of contacts with other North Koreans, who could turn out to be spies. When defectors are repatriated by Chinese police they are usually sent to overcrowded and squalid North Korean detention centers, forced into backbreaking labor and sometimes, Vollertsen says, even executed -- particularly if North Korean authorities have evidence that defectors came into contact with South Korean or Christian missionary networks who helped them along their way.

Occasionally a defector manages to walk south of the demarcation line directly to South Korea. But that is not really an option because the border is closely guarded, and the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries is laden with land mines. The Tumen River, which separates North Korea from China, is easier to cross, especially in the winter when it is frozen. From there, North Koreans often work their way through China, helped by a Christian underground, and try to cross to a third country (Mongolia, Thailand) where they can come out of hiding and apply for political asylum.

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Most of last week's defectors previously had been caught, repatriated and persecuted. Determined to die rather than be sent home again to face punishment and hunger, the refugees announced in a statement released by human rights volunteers: "We are determined to go to South Korea for life and freedom and are ready to commit suicide in the event or arrest by the Chinese police again."

Chinese authorities first announced that it would treat the refugees as illegal migrants -- which meant that they could be deported back to North Korea -- but backed down the next day. Beijing said it had decided not to deport them to North Korea for humanitarian reasons, but stopped short of recognizing that the North Koreans were legitimate refugees. To avoid offending North Korea, China first flew the group to the Philippines and, only a few days later, to Seoul. Still, the rapid change of heart was impressive.

"China had an opportunity to prove it is not just a member of the WTO, with Gucci and Prada shops, but that it also behaves like a responsible country when it comes to human rights," said Vollertsen. Faced with a choice between supporting its bankrupt, totalitarian neighbor or earning brownie points in world opinion, Beijing chose the latter.

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Vollertsen, who is 44 but looks like a college student with his mop of messy blond hair, has always been in favor of solving problems through direct and theatrical approaches. A self-avowed troublemaker, Vollertsen once faked his own suicide on German television in protest against medical practices in Germany. Working for German Emergency Doctors in North Korea, a group trying to improve hospital conditions there, Vollertsen became famous for joining a line of medical staff donating some of their own skin to a burn victim. When the Great Leader Kim Jong Il (son of the regime's founder and cult figure Kim Il Sung) heard about the foreigner's gesture, he awarded Vollertsen the regime's first Friendship Medal.

Riding the wave of publicity, Vollertsen was treated as a national hero even in remote villages and welcomed into elite circles and formerly forbidden territory. He discovered the differences between the lifestyle of the elite in Pyongyang and the rest of the country, which is still reeling from chronic malnutrition, energy shortages and the collapse of trade and subsidies following the end of communism. He saw starving children with bloated stomachs and blank faces, primitive medical facilities, orphanages that look like prison camps and the bloodied body of a soldier, apparently tortured to death, on the side of the road.

Rather than keep his mouth shut and enjoy his relative freedom, Vollertsen spoke out whenever he could and took American journalists on an unauthorized tour of Pyongyang during then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's October 2000 visit. After a rocky 18-month stay, he was eventually kicked out.

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Now in South Korea, Vollertsen scorns the timidity of foreign diplomats in Pyongyang. "Sometimes they must act diplomatically and appease Pyongyang but they are too diplomatic, they don't know their own power. They get used to the comfortable life and end up enjoying the same privileges as the elite in Pyongyang."

Last week's brazen action also put the South Korean government in a tough position. Under current President Kim Dae Jung, South Korea adopted the so-called sunshine policy of rapprochement with its well-armed northern neighbor. (Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his groundbreaking visit to Pyongyang the same year.) The idea is to engage North Korea economically and diplomatically first and focus on human-rights abuses later. Reunification, under the guise of a loose confederation, is only a distant goal for Seoul as many South Koreans fear the cost of absorbing millions of impoverished northerners.

A sudden flood of North Korean defectors to the South would put a huge strain on the gradual improvement of the two countries' relations. But the results of Kim's sunshine policy have been disappointing so far; Kim's presidency is about to end and events may already be forcing Seoul to change its cautious attitude toward defectors.

On Monday the South Korean government announced it would invest $5 million to renovate and expand the transit center where defectors are given security checks and tips on how to survive in a capitalist society. It also announced that the newly arrived families would receive financial assistance on par with the $28,000 past defectors have received. Close to 2,000 North Korean refugees now live in South Korea, and the number of people who arrive each year is growing fast: In the early '90s, only a few dozen came to Seoul; last year there were 583; about 1,000 are expected this year.

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According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, 28 percent are unemployed and their adaptation to life in the South is problematic. While the income gap between East and West Germany before reunification was 1 to 3, North Korea is believed to be 16 times poorer than South Korea.

Vollertsen acknowledges that integrating North Koreans will be challenging but doesn't think it should stop the world from trying to topple the North Korean regime. "Maybe the cost of the reunification is the last thing we should worry about," he said.

For Vollertsen, the climate is ripe for change. The conventional wisdom holds that the United States likes having North Korea as a scarecrow in the region so that it can maintain a large military presence in South Korea and sell more weapons. But in Washington, where he recently met with politicians and religious groups, Vollertsen suddenly found a huge interest in North Korean human-rights abuses after President Bush called North Korea part of an "axis of evil." Human-rights activists may well succeed in convincing the United States that it should fund a large refugee center in Mongolia to help North Koreans escape their prison-state.

The mood has changed in China, too. Vollertsen was stunned to see Chinese guards applauding Beijing's humanitarian decision. "Normally they are stone-faced. [Friday] they were relaxed, sitting in the Greek bar across from the embassy and they applauded" the convoy of North Koreans leaving the Spanish embassy, he said. "It's an amazing sign of change."

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Vollertsen detailed another elaborate, capitalist argument for why there's reason for optimism. "Chinese businessmen are interested in getting access to the South Korean market by land. Japan is interested in China's cheap labor. There are plans to link Japan to Korea with a railroad tunnel like the one across the [English] Channel. Conceivably, you could go from London to Tokyo by train if North Korea ceased to be an obstacle between China and South Korea. Asian goods would get to Europe in a week rather than taking six weeks by ship."

But even more than material calculations, world opinion may be key to moving history forward. Said Vollertsen, "If people insist on the human rights issue, there can be a critical mass against the status quo. The military threat can be used by military conglomerates to sell weapons but people can also decide to get rid of the military threat. It happened in Germany."


Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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