‘Bad apples’ sour relief in North Korea

Asia Times
Sunny Lee

The people in Dandong in China’s northeast Liaoning province know more about North Korea than any other people on the planet. They see it every day – literally. Dandong neighbors North Korea just across the Amnok River (Yalu River in Chinese). Even on a foggy day, one is able to see North Korean fishermen at work.

This city of 2.4 million people is, once in a while, highlighted in the international media because it is the major land route where China’s aid to North Korea – both food and fuel – is shipped. It also becomes a major destination for foreign journalists when a rumor of an imminent visit by the secretive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to China smokes up. Dandong is a place where Kim’s train has to pass through when he visits China.

Given its special geographical proximity to North Korea, naturally this is also a key outpost to which many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in North Korean refugees are paying keen attention.

In Dandong, the name “NGO” is almost a synonym for “groups working on North Korean refugees”. Unfortunately, it often carries a negative overtone. This may sound odd, but that’s how things are here. “If you really know what NGOs actually do, you will feel quite turned off,” said a local resident.

He said many of these NGOs are commercial brokers in disguise. That is, they help North Korean refugees to flee from China. But they do it, really, for money. They charge money and even take advantage of the refugees’ vulnerability. He indignantly said he knows an NGO representative who slept with North Korean female refugees in his care.

That’s just one of the examples that he shared. In fact, he said he had seen so many depraved NGOs that it now gives him goose-bumps when he hears the word “NGO”.

Stories about bad NGOs are also coming out from those who are in the know – journalists. But they seldom write about it because doing so makes them unpopular among some interest groups or even backfire. For example, a writer could be accused of maligning the good work that most NGOs do, and worse, being a “pro-North Korea” figure who closes his eyes to the human-rights tragedy of North Korean refugees. That is a very powerful argument.

With increasing international attention on North Korean human-rights conditions and widely circulated harrowing stories of North Korean refugees in the news media, NGOs working on this field usually receive strong moral support from the mainstream media that provide them with legitimacy, which in turn helps NGOs receive financial support from sympathetic supporters.

Critics, however say that as NGOs rely on donations, when they are cash-strapped they sometimes resort to publicity stunts to raise their profile, and more importantly, to raise money.

Some NGOs even go as far as to deliberately put the refugees in danger to draw international attention, critics argue. One of the most controversial cases was a January 2003 incident in which a group of as many as 78 North Korean defectors was caught by Chinese police while they were attempting to escape on boats from China’s east coast shores to South Korea and Japan respectively.

A South Korean reporter later trailed the same route and deplored: “It’s a place you don’t want to choose. The Chinese North Sea Navy Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army base is just around the corner. How would anyone in his sane mind choose this place as an escape route unless you wanted to get caught?” he fumed.

The Durihana Mission, probably the most well-known group in Seoul that helps North Korean refugees to come to South Korea, is also alluded to in that criticism. The group’s founder, Cheon Gi-won, is dubbed as the “Godfather of Refugees”. He has reportedly brought more than 500 North Korean refugees to the South.

Cheon himself was once arrested by Chinese police and served a 220-day prison term. His incarceration, however, also helped him to become known internationally. After this year’s recipient for Nobel Peace Prize was announced, for example, the Asian Wall Street Journal ran an article mentioning Cheon as someone who deserved the prize for his work on North Korean refugees.

Cheon pioneered the so-called “Mongolian route”. That is, his team takes North Korean refugees in China to the Sino-Mongolian border and helps them to escape to Mongolia, from where they go to another country, usually South Korea.

“There was a case where his team took a group of North Korean refugees to near the Mongolian border from China. But instead of taking them safely to the border and making sure they crossed it, they simply dropped the North Korean refugees in the middle of nowhere near the border on a dark night and just drove away,” said a person who has knowledge of the incident. They reportedly didn’t even give them a flashlight or anything that could help them orient their direction in the dark.

Confused and fearful, the North Koreans tried to find their own way to freedom. But their panic drew attention from Chinese border patrols. Some got shot, the rest were arrested.

“They then made an all-out media stunt, letting the world know the atrocity and how China mistreats North Korean refugees. We also used to run articles on it. But after we got an idea of how the thing had played out, we stopped writing about it,” a South Korean journalist said.

With the dropping of media coverage in South Korea, he said Cheon has recently turned to the Western media and is now actively working in the US, where he set up a branch office last year.

Cheon was not available for comment. But Lee Chung-hee of Durihana, who answers inquires during Cheon’s absence, said: “That doesn’t even make the slightest sense.”

“It’s very difficult to engage in a constructive dialogue with such critics. Think about it from a common sense point of view The consequence of a failed escape would mean death for North Koreans. If there was any deliberate intention, it would be beneath human dignity to do so,” Lee said. Those who follow this logic believe that NGOs simply didn’t plan the escape well enough.

In Dandong, Cheon is a well-established name. People who know Cheon said that even though the allegations might be true, Cheon himself is not likely to be involved. One pointed out that as Cheon has become internationally known, there are people who become jealous and want to undermine him.

A former official with a major South Korean NGO said that he strongly doubts whether Cheon himself was part of any alleged incidents. But he pointed out that some NGOs act without considering how their irresponsible acts harm others who are sincerely helping North Korean refugees.

Critics point out that NGOs’ media stunts and big-scale, organized escapes also draw the Chinese authorities’ attention to the many North Korean refugees who are hiding in China.

Some view that it’s unfair to blur the big picture of the good work that most NGOs do. They also point out that most NGOs are victims of some “bad apples” or commercial brokers who pose as NGOs or even as missionaries.

A good number of commercial brokers are former North Korean refugees. As many NGOs were arrested or deported from China in recent years, North Korean refugees who have settled in South Korea began to take the job. The reason they take up this risky business for themselves, and even are willing to walk again the same route that they themselves had escaped from, is because of the economic difficulties and job discrimination they face in South Korea.

Some of these commercial “pay-for-escape” brokers demand as much as one third of the “settlement money” that North Korean refugees expect to receive once they arrive in South Korea. Unfortunately, things have started to have a chain effect. Looking at some “NGOs” making money, now even those NGOs which otherwise do the same work non-profit, have started to charge a minimum of US$2,000 to $3,000 as a “logistical fee”.

Sunny Lee is a writer/journalist based in Beijing, where he has lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.


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