May 8, 2006

First N.Korean refugees reach US under asylum law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Six refugees from North Korea,
including women who were trafficked in China, arrived in the
United States on the weekend to become the first North Koreans
to be given asylum in America, activists said.

The four women and two men who arrived under tight secrecy
from an unnamed Southeast Asian country included several women
who were "trafficked, drugged and kidnapped or sold to farmers
as a second wives," said an activist familiar with the cases.

They are the first North Koreans to be granted asylum in
the United States under a 2004 U.S. law aimed at promoting
human rights in the isolated North through broadcasts and
refugee assistance.

Activists welcomed the defection as a long-awaited boost in
the campaign to help thousands of refugees from the Communist
state who live precariously in China and neighboring states.

One activist, speaking on condition of anonymity because of
the diplomatic sensitivity of the exodus and to protect the
refugees' families from possible North Korean reprisals, said
the group landed in the United States late on Friday.

The six were being kept in a secret location.

"This is an extremely exciting development and we are
hopeful they are the first of many others," said Adrian Hong,
head of Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, a grass-roots advocacy
group which raises funds and runs shelters for refugees in

"These refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the
world right now," Hong said by telephone.

LiNK, which had no direct role in the weekend passage to
the United States of the six refugees, had joined U.S.
lawmakers and church groups in pressing the U.S. government to
implement the North Korea Human Rights Act, which became law in
October 2004.


The State Department declined to comment on the six
refugees or on possible future arrivals from North Korea,
citing a policy of not commenting on individual asylum cases.

A spokesman at the State Department said the United States
is committed to helping North Koreans under the legislation.

Experts say as many as 100,000 mostly women and children
are hiding in China after fleeing impoverished North Korea,
where famine claimed an estimated one million or more lives in
the late 1990s.

The activist familiar with the case said secrecy was
necessary to retain the cooperation of Southeast Asian transit
countries and to avoid triggering crackdowns on asylum seekers
by China, which views the North Koreans as economic migrants.

"And North Korea does not treat families of refugees very
well," the source added.

North Korea remains plagued by food shortages and is
isolated internationally over its nuclear arms programs. Last
year, U.S. financial authorities slapped sanctions on the North
for counterfeiting of American currency and money laundering.

Media reports in South Korea said the six refugees were
among many North Koreans gathered in U.S. diplomatic missions
in Southeast Asia after making perilous trips through China.

The reports said most were seeking to settle in South
Korea, which has taken in thousands of North Koreans in the
past five years but favors economic engagement with the North
over confronting the Pyongyang government over human rights.

The North Korea Human Rights Act set aside $24 million a
year for activities including the resettling of North Korean
refugees from third countries and the broadcasting of outside
news into one of the world's most closed societies.