The United States accepted five North Korean refugees in June, bringing the total for FY 2012 to 11, and the total since 2006 to 135, according to Yonhap News Agency.
The refugees entered the country under the North Korean Human Rights Act, which Congress passed in 2004. The Act calls for the provision of financial aid to help improve North Korea’s human rights situation and acceptance of North Korean defectors into the United States. According to DHS (see Table 14), 2006 was the first year we accepted North Korean refugees, and we have accepted between eight and 37 refugees from North Korea each year since then.
Despite its extreme insularity, it is quite clear that the human rights situation in North Korea is an utter disaster. The recent book Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden tells the story of one man’s escape from the most notorious prison in the enormous gulag that is North Korea’s political prison system. The Washington Post review describes the prison:
In Camp 14, children are punished for the political sins of their fathers. Hunger is so omnipotent that every prisoner behaves like “a panicked animal” at mealtimes. Teachers at the camp school beat students to death for minor infractions. Medieval torture devices are employed in dungeon-like underground cells. And human relationships are so degraded that prisoners inform on family members.
Also, according to the Post: “The U.S. government and human rights groups estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 people are now being held in the North’s prison camps.” “Many of the camps can be seen in satellite images, but North Korea denies their existence.”
Most North Korean refugees go to China, where, until recently, they faced repatriation and (probable) torture or execution. However, according to the Shanghaiist website, a few months ago, China announced that it would stop returning North Korean refugees to their country. Assuming this information is correct, it represents a significant step forward for human rights in China and it is obviously good news for the refugees themselves. Between 20,000 and 30,000 North Korean refugees live in China.
The North Korean Human Rights Act was reauthorized in 2008 for four years, and will again need to be reauthorized this fall. Despite all the partisan nonsense on Capitol Hill these days, I suspect that the Act will have support from both parties. Given the mass torture and mass murder perpetrated by the regime in Pyongyang, we should continue to do everything we can to aid those who escape from North Korea.