February 23, 2006

Lawmakers prod US on N.Korean refugee act

By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government has failed to
implement 2004 legislation aimed at promoting human rights in
North Korea and giving asylum to refugees from that communist
state, senior U.S. legislators said.

In a letter this week to Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, U.S. senators and congressmen said the State Department
must swiftly implement the North Korean Human Rights Act and
take the lead in tackling the North's refugee crisis.

"Not one North Korean has been offered asylum or refugee
status in the 16 months since the unanimous passage of the
legislation," said the letter, signed by nine lawmakers
including Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican and chairman of
the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.

The act set aside $24 million a year for activities
including the resettling of refugees from North Korea. But the
letter said the Bush administration did not include funds to
implement the act in its 2007 budget request.

Experts say U.S. inaction -- especially after President
George W. Bush's repeated condemnation of North Korea's human
rights record -- makes promoting human rights in the North
harder and leaves America open to charges of hypocrisy.

"It's become increasingly indefensible to have no refugee
admissions," said Doug Anderson, an adviser to Hyde's
committee. He noted that Belgium and several other European
states have started admitting North Korean refugees.

A major cause of the delay was overlapping jurisdiction
over refugee screening between agencies including the State
Department and the Department of Homeland Security, said
Anderson, who was closely involved in drafting the act.

Funding was held up in part because the bill was signed by
Bush so late in 2004 that it missed the 2005 budget and was not
factored into the 2006 budget request, he added.

"There are things in the works that will come to fruition
in the months ahead," Anderson said.


Experts say as many as 100,000 mostly women and children
are hiding in China after fleeing impoverished North Korea, a
country deeply isolated and under international pressure over
its nuclear weapons programs.

Officials from South Korea, which has settled thousands of
North Koreans but drawn criticism for avoiding confronting
Pyongyang over human rights, have voiced an "understandable
skepticism" about U.S. seriousness, Anderson said.

"The lull has done damage to the moral high ground the
United States has had on this," said Adrian Hong, head of
Liberation in North Korea, a grass-roots group that sells
T-shirts to fund 30 shelters for North Koreans in China.

"Any time we approach the South Korean government or anyone
else and ask them to accept more refugees, they'll say 'what
about the United States?' and we're left with nothing to say,"
he said.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters on
Thursday he wasn't sure how soon the United States would be
ready to start handling North Korean refugee applications.

"We are working both internally and with other
organizations and governments to establish necessary modalities
for doing that kind of processing," he said.

Jae Ku, head of the North Korea project at the U.S.
government-funded Freedom House, welcomed the renewed
congressional pressure, but added: "I will be pessimistic until
the first refugee gets processed."