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(LEAD) Scholte: S. Korea was helpful in rescue efforts for N. Korean defectors

All Headlines 10:59 May 31, 2013

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with details in last 9 paras)
By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, May 30 (Yonhap) -- Suzanne Scholte, a well-known North Korea human rights activist here, said Thursday the South Korea government was very helpful in recent partially successful rescue efforts for more than a dozen North Korean defectors, mostly in their teens.

She said, however, the U.S. government needs to do more to lower the bar for the asylum of North Korean refugees seeking to resettle in the country.

Nearly two years ago, Scholte, the head of the Defense Forum Foundation and the North Korea Freedom Coalition in Washington D.C., joined a project to salvage a total of 15 North Koreans holing up in China, many of whom are orphans. They fled their hunger-stricken communist nation, crossing the relative porous border.

Three of the youngest -- 12, 13 and 16 years old -- arrived in the U.S. through Thailand last year.

"I have to say that it was the South Korean government that was very helpful," she told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview.

South Korean diplomats provided big help in moving them to Thailand, she added.

Scholte and her partners in the project, code-named "Operation Rising Eagle," then reached out to the U.S. State Department.

"It was hard. We made a request in September 2011. But it took seven months for them to come here," she said.

If they wanted to go to South Korea, they could have gone there within a week, she added.

Three other North Korean defectors actually managed to resettle in South Korea about a year ago.

Scholte said she was devastated by news that the final group of nine, which was hoping to go to the South as well, was caught in a "trap" set by China, Laos and North Korea.

The nine North Koreans were repatriated by China to the North earlier this week after being deported by Laos.

Although it was unsuccessful, the South Korean government made a lot of efforts to help the refugees, she said.

The U.S. government, U.N. agencies and global human rights groups voiced concerns over their fate amid reports that they would face harsh punishments.

Scholte said he is not sure whether the U.S. government was aware of the attempt by the nine refugees to resettle in the South.

"We did not directly talk to the U.S. government about them as they wanted to go to South Korea," she said.

She stressed that the U.S. was willing to help those seeking asylum in the U.S., and it should intensify efforts to speed up the entry of North Korean refugees, especially kids, onto its soil.

"I think there's more that should be done," she said.

Scholte questioned news reports that the nine North Koreans may include a son of a Japanese woman abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s.

If he is really the son of such a Japanese woman, subject to special attention of the North Korean government, he would have not been on the streets of China without care, Scholte said.

She said her organization, along with other civic groups, is planning to hold protest rallies in front of the embassies of China and Laos here.

The U.S. State Department gave no immediate reply to Yonhap's query over whether it was involved in the failed attempt to save the nine North Koreans.

The U.S. began allowing the asylum of North Korean refugees after the North Korean Human Rights Act took into effect in 2004.

It calls for the provision of financial aid to help improve North Korea's human rights situation and acceptance of North Korean defectors into the U.S.

The U.S. has accepted between eight and around 40 North Korean refugees each year since then, according to data by the Department of Homeland Security.

More than 24,000 North Koreans have resettled in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama signed into law a measure designed to help "stateless" North Korean children hiding in China and other nations. The North Korean Child Welfare Act of 2012, introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), calls for the State Department to advocate for the "best interests" of North Korean children.

Scholte won the Seoul Peace Prize in 2008 for her dedicated efforts to enhance public awareness on North Korea's human rights abuses.



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