March 30, 2006

US concerned over Chinese deportation of N. Korean

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - The White House expressed grave
concern on Thursday at China's deportation of a North Korean
woman who sought asylum there.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said China had
deported the woman to North Korea despite attempts by the
United States, South Korea and the U.N. refugee agency to raise
the case with Beijing.

The White House expressed its concern as Bush prepares for
a visit to Washington by Chinese President Hu Jintao on April

"The United States is gravely concerned about China's
treatment of Kim Chun-hee," McClellan said in a statement
issued in the Mexican resort of Cancun where U.S. President
George W. Bush was meeting his Mexican and Canadian

"Ms. Kim, an asylum seeker in her 30s, was deported to
North Korea after being arrested in December for seeking refuge
at two Korean schools in China," McClellan said. "We are deeply
concerned about Ms. Kim's well-being."

Washington's criticism came a week after the head of the
U.N. refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, voiced objections to
China's deportation of North Korean migrants and urged Beijing
to establish a legal system that allows them to seek asylum
rather than face likely persecution back home.

Estimates of the number of North Koreans in China range
from 30,000 to 300,000. Most are fleeing hunger, poverty and
political oppression at home but the Chinese government
considers them illegal migrants, leaving them at risk of

McClellan said the United States noted that China had
obligations as a party to the U.N. Convention on refugees and
that "China must take those obligations seriously."

"We also call upon the government to China not to return
North Korean asylum seekers without allowing UNHCR access to
these vulnerable individuals," he said, referring to the U.N.
High Commissioner for Refugees.

The United States and rights groups view diplomatically
isolated North Korea as having one of the worst human rights
records in the world.

Some North Korean refugees seeking asylum have in the past
entered South Korean-run schools in China, rather than
diplomatic missions, because security is generally more

But because the schools are not diplomatic missions, the
refugees risk being detained by Chinese police and sent back to
the North. Seoul in principle is willing to accept North Korean
refugees seeking asylum, but is also wary of provoking the

In Washington, the U.S. special envoy for human rights in
North Korea said the United States had overcome most domestic
and international hurdles to admitting America's first refugees
from the North under the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act.

"I am hopeful and really confident that we are at a turning
point in our ability to bring North Korean refugees here," said
Jay Lefkowitz.

Lefkowitz, who declined to predict when refugees might be
admitted, said the delays were the result of concerns that
North Korea could send agents posing as refugees and also due
to the need to coordinate with the North's neighboring states.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington)