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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Plea to help North Korean refugees
UN building
The petition is being taken to the UN building in New York
By Caroline Gluck in Seoul

South Korean civic leaders and several legislators are travelling to New York to deliver a petition to the UN signed by nearly 12m people, mostly South Koreans.

I don't think they will completely ignore or can disregard the wishes of nearly 12m Korean people

Former South Korean ambassador Park Keun
It urges the world body to put pressure on member countries to grant official refugee status to North Koreans who have fled their homeland, escaping political persecution or starvation.

The petition was organised by a non-governmental group, The Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, which delivered the first part of the petition with nearly three million signatures to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva 17 months ago

The petition wants the UN to recognise North Korean escapees as legal refugees under international law.

Precarious existence

Most North Koreans - around 100,000 - are thought to be in neighbouring China, where they face a precarious existence living in the woods and moving regularly to evade capture.

If they are caught, they are likely to be forcibly repatriated.

North Korea has experienced years of famine
North Korea has experienced years of famine
Human rights groups say that often means persecution, imprisonment and even execution.

Park Keun, a former South Korean ambassador to the UN, who is delivering the petition, believes it could help to bring about change.

"I'm very optimistic in the sense that the attitude of the UN will be more responsive to the plight of the North Korean refugees in China," he says.

"I don't think they will completely ignore or can disregard the wishes of nearly 12 million Korean people."

'Economic migrants'

Refugee status would require the host country to provide the escapees with basic food and shelter.

But Beijing, a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, has been unwilling to do so, fearing a huge influx of North Koreans across the border.

It says they are economic migrants and has repatriated those caught on its territory, under a border agreement with Pyongyang.

In the past year, the Chinese authorities have increased the number of repatriations and tightened up border controls.

Civic groups say it is becoming riskier and tougher for North Koreans to flee their country and that an uncertain future awaits them, even if they do succeed.

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See also:

16 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
North Korean defections up
09 Sep 98 | Korea at 50
Inside the Secret State
08 Oct 98 | Korean elections 97
South Korea: A political history
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