Fellow members, welcome to the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Today is October 2, 2014, marking the committee's 36th meeting.
Today we are engaged in studying the challenges faced by North Korean refugees.
Strictly speaking, I guess the term “refugees” would be a misnomer if we're looking at United Nations conventions. The term “escapee” has been used and probably is more accurate. As you'll hear, they face many of the challenges faced by formal refugees, but enjoy fewer of the international protections than anybody else in a similar situation.
We have with us today two witnesses. Sungju Lee is appearing in his capacity as a HanVoice pioneer. He'll tell you more about his own situation. We also have with us Randall Baran-Chong, the executive director of HanVoice.
As well, at my request, Barry Devolin, who is our colleague and a Deputy Speaker of the House, is sitting in. Mr. Devolin's purpose in being here is to provide a bit of context that might otherwise not come to the subcommittee's attention. I found it very useful to consult with him as I learned more about this subject, and it seemed advisable to me to have him here, although he will not be making a presentation.
Mr. Lee, if you would be able to start, we'll listen to your presentation and then to Mr. Baran-Chong's presentation, and then we'll go to questions. Thank you very much.
Good afternoon, respectable Chair, members of the human rights subcommittee, and distinguished guests.
Before speaking about my story and explaining the situation of North Korean refugees, I would like to express my profound gratitude to the subcommittee for inviting me to your honourable meeting.
My name is Sungju Lee. I used to be a North Korean refugee, but now I'm a South Korean citizen. It's been almost three months that I have stayed in Canada as a pioneer of the HanVoice Pioneers Project this year. Now I'm privileged to have an internship with Mr. Devolin's office this fall in this beautiful building.
One day in February 1998, my father left for China to seek food. Four months later, my mom also left home, for the same reason. When I was 12 years old, I lost everything. I wasn't able to go to school after that. I had to learn how to survive rather than study at school and was on the streets for four years. During the day, my friends and I usually went to the open-air market to get some food. At night, we went to the train station to sleep. During four years, I lost two friends of mine on the street, in the winter of 1999 and in the summer of 2001.
When I was 17 years old I escaped from North Korea to China with a broker sent by my father, who had resettled in South Korea first. The broker and I went to the city of Hoeryong, where there is a border city between North Korea and China. He and I crossed the Tumen River, which is the border. After that, I met another broker in China near the border. The first broker went back to North Korea after he got some money from the second one. The broker made a fake South Korean passport and gave it to me, and I finally got to South Korea with the passport.
My case is very unusual compared to that of North Korean refugees normally coming to South Korea, because my father paid out a lot of money to a broker in order to bring me to South Korea. I met father in South Korea, and the first thing he told me was not to tell my family background to anybody in detail, since all my relatives live in North Korea.
I think North Korean refugees have different situations compared to those of other refugees. First of all, North Korean refugees in South Korea continuously are threatened and chased by the North Korean government, while other refugees are relatively secure once they get to the place where they want to live. Especially since the Kim Jong-un regime, the North Korean government has frequently threatened North Koreans resettling in South Korea through TV announcements. Under the Kim Jong-un dictatorship, the direct family members of a friend of mine, because of his escape, were executed in front of people as an example of high treason. Also, because of his defection, his relatives were detained in a restricted area, because defecting from North Korea is viewed as high treason.
Secondly, North Korean refugees in South Korea hardly trust other North Korean refugees in South Korea, because most of them have a strong fear of North Korean spies in South Korea. Many North Korean refugees in South Korea change their names and social security numbers to disappear. I also changed my social security number once, and I'm not using the official name that I used in North Korea. Most North Koreans in South Korea are living quietly, hiding their backgrounds, except for some North Korean human rights activists. Even though they are living in a free country, they cannot enjoy the freedom, unlike other refugees in free countries such as Canada.
Thirdly, in North Korea there is [Witness speaks in Korean], which means a three-generation punishment system. If somebody commits high treason, his or her relatives for up to three generations will be punished, especially so for the family of a North Korean refugee living in South Korea. The family that is still in North Korea might be executed horribly or at least sent to prison camp or labour camp for their lifetime.
Going to the sworn enemy countries of North Korea, the U.S.A. and South Korea, is high treason. When I was 10 years old in North Korea, I saw public executions. One of the biggest crimes was high treason. Because of this reason, many North Korean refugees are not willing to go to either South Korea or the U.S.A.
I think that North Korean refugees, having such a unique situation, need help from international communities. However, in my understanding, there are only two countries, South Korea and the United States, that bring North Korean refugees to their country directly from Thailand. Therefore, North Korean refugees in Thailand do not have a choice in choosing a country for their safety. They have to go to either South Korea or the United States even though those countries are not safe enough for themselves or for their families and relatives in North Korea.
Respectable Chair and members of Parliament, please understand this unique situation of North Korean refugees. I beg all of you who cherish human rights to give hope to North Korean refugees by offering an opportunity for them to resettle in Canada.
Thank you so much.
So the question is, who is going to answer this call from the North Korean refugees? As you've heard from Sungju, his story describes all of these challenges they endure throughout their lives, living in fear. It's a testament to the situation within North Korea that they're willing to risk their own lives in pursuit of that freedom and that chance to live without fear.
What he's described is that there are still circumstances where freedom is not necessarily there once they arrive in a new country, namely, what he's referring to in South Korea: that there need to be other countries that answer this call. It's our firm belief, on behalf of HanVoice, that Canada can and should play a leadership role on North Korean refugee issues.
I'd like to express my gratitude to this committee for allowing us to have the time today to describe why we believe this is so. What this is entirely based upon is our proposal for a private sponsorship program of North Korean refugees.
My name is Randall Baran-Chong, and I'm the executive director of HanVoice. For at least the last four years, we've been working throughout the community halls of Canada, in church congregations, and with rallies of concerned Canadians across this country to talk about this issue.
We're often asked why Canada should aspire to become a leader on North Korean refugee issues, and here are the reasons and beliefs we've formed through speaking with the community and in speaking with North Koreans themselves. I think that as a fundamental point it's quite obvious to say that it would reaffirm Canada's global leadership in human rights and refugees. In this circumstance, you're taking on one of the world's most prolonged human rights and refugee crises.
Whereas others of the world have voiced concerns and have voiced their deep compassion for North Korean refugees, very few have actually taken that to action and to heart. Namely, there are only two other countries that can claim they've taken action.
One of the other concerns that's been described is whether or not South Korea is an option. There are several reasons why South Korea might not be the optimal option. First off, there are concerns with capacity and the capabilities within South Korea. They have limited infrastructure at the moment in terms of processing North Koreans. With their resettlement programs, despite these being some of the most generous in the entire world, North Koreans still face challenges. We've heard many reports of issues with discrimination and alleged claims of indifference from South Korean society.
Also, Canada has an incredibly vibrant Korean Canadian community. It's one that we've worked with closely and that has an appreciation for what Canada has come to offer to them as immigrants, many of them coming here in the 1970s. There is an appreciation of the success they've been able to yield and they're wanting to share that with their North Korean brothers and sisters. It's through our community consultations that this message is clear: they are willing to privately undertake this responsibility as sponsors, as supporters, and to welcome them into their community.
How can Canada take on this role? How can Canada become this leader? Well, over these years we've developed this program, refined it, and iterated it through working on a private sponsorship program that would allow the community to take an approach enabling them to privately sponsor these North Koreans.
To take a step back, we need to look at how the North Korean journey works. The vast majority of them first cross the Tumen River, which borders China. They're often led by brokers through China, Laos, and Vietnam to Thailand. That is a perilous journey through China, Laos, and Vietnam, with significant risk of capture and repatriation to North Korea. There have been many cases where North Koreans have been sent back to imprisonment or execution.
There have been increased punishments if they have had interactions with pastors, South Koreans, or Americans. These intensified punishments usually amount to life sentences in labour camps or execution.
It's not until they arrive in Thailand that they are detained and then told to choose one of two options currently available to them: South Korea or the United States. Under the South Korean constitution, they recognize not “North Korean citizens” but all citizens of the Korean Peninsula as citizens of the Republic of Korea. Also, the reason why the United States is an option is in their own legislation, the North Korean Human Rights Act, which was introduced in the U.S. in 2004 and re-enacted in 2008 and 2012. This is a law specially designed to allow North Koreans to come to the United States.
The reason why we need a special program for Canada is that without that UNHCR referral in Thailand, there are significant challenges for any North Korean to make a claim abroad for Canada. This is why we are using a mechanism within the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, section 25.2, which gives the minister the discretion to grant permanent resident status to someone who may not otherwise meet the requirements of the act or is inadmissible.
Simply put, this allows the minister to specially designate these kinds of groups. What we are proposing is building a private sponsorship program on top of that. This program that we've developed was with the support of the local Korean Canadian community, as well as the support of organizations who do work within Thailand with other refugee groups. Essentially what we would do is look at the Bangkok detention facility, which is where 90% of the North Korean refugees who end up in South Korea come from. A significant proportion of North Korean refugees are concentrated there when they're looking for asylum elsewhere. We're looking at approaching them using HanVoice's own efforts to refer these candidates to the government and arrange for them private sponsors in Canada.
One of the key aspects of this program is that it's private citizens who are undertaking this effort, so it doesn't demean or take away from Canada's efforts in helping other refugees. This is about allowing a community that wants to help North Koreans, a community that is willing to bear the risk financially in ensuring their success, to do so, so that they can express their compassion through a designation by this minister.
What we're really doing here is presenting options. What we want to do is present options for North Koreans to resettle in Canada. We want to present options for Canadians to allow them to share the same success that they've had here in Canada and to allow North Koreans to prosper and settle here.
It's stunning to think about the journey that North Koreans take to arrive at the life that all humans should be entitled to. When you think about Sungju and his journey and how far he's come to arrive here today, I think it's very compelling to believe that we need more effort and we need more chances for us to give the millions of other North Koreans this opportunity.
There is actually a resettlement system. First when we get to South Korea there is a two-month investigation to see if we are a real defector or a refugee. After that, we have three months of resettlement education, which is Hanawon. We stay there and we learn what capitalism is and how South Korea works, and what the difference is between South Korea and North Korea.
Actually, that education is not enough, because after I got out of the foundation I faced so much difficulty in South Korea. First of all, there are biased thoughts about North Korea that come from South Koreans. They think that North Koreans are not smart, that they're stupid, and they think that North Koreans are really passive because they used to live in a socialist country. They think that North Koreans are not responsible because they are passive, but these are only biased thoughts.
When I was 19, I started studying English, and now I'm 27. For me, actually, that is really wrong. That prejudice makes North Korean refugees have difficulty in South Korea. That's a really huge discrimination for me.
There are several different ways in which the world is influencing and touching North Korea on the ground.
From a governmental perspective, the South Korean government is trying to engage through things like trade. There was the Kaesong industrial complex, whereby South Korean companies set up businesses that would employ North Korean labour, thereby hopefully trickling down some of these wages to North Koreans. But one of the challenges with the governmental issue is that it's also very political, so Kaesong closed down. Many of these South Korean businessmen essentially were held hostage by the government because of political tensions between the two countries.
In Canada it's also challenging, because we have the toughest sanctions in the world on North Korea, tougher than South Korea, the United States, or anyone, but Canada has also allowed exceptions for things like humanitarian aid.
There's also a lot of private involvement on the ground in North Korea, with everything from churches that are helping set up universities like the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology to other organizations that provide things like soybeans and soy milk to children in North Korea.
North Korea's changing from within, I believe, through these exposures to the outside world.
Yes, if I may, I would like to link two issues, one that Mr. Schellenberger raised and one that Ms. Grewal raised. It was referenced that in the past Canada has offered English lessons through the Canadian embassy. Actually, Senator Yonah Martin and I were a part of that effort in encouraging Canadian English teachers in Korea to volunteer some time.
We thought it was a great idea. It didn't work very well. One reason, we figured out subsequently, was that if you're a North Korean defector living in South Korea, the people you are the least comfortable around are actually other North Koreans because you fear that they are returning information to North Korea about your family. It's not necessarily a case of someone being a spy who comes to South Korea and it's high profile and people get sent back. They're more like moles who are gathering information, or maybe they themselves are being blackmailed for information.
If you go to a group English lesson, you tell your story and then unbeknownst to you that information is being sent back to North Korea. The link is that if you are a North Korean and you defect, which is a crime against the state, your generation, your parents' generation, and your children's generation have all committed a crime as well in the eyes of the law, and so they can be imprisoned.
To me, this is what makes a North Korean refugee so fundamentally different from refugees who come from other countries. Even after they get out, they still live in fear—not that someone is going to push them in front of a bus but that someone is listening to them, taking their information, trying to figure out which of their relatives back in North Korea are going to be punished for their crime.
If they can come to a place like Canada, that is far less likely to happen, although it's still possible. Any anxiety that they continue to live with, even when they're notionally free, never really goes away for some of those people. This is not the case for all North Koreans. For many of them, going to South Korea is the right option, but for a small minority, as HanVoice is talking about, it's not really an acceptable option. That's why we're talking about such a relatively small number of people.
I have a question before we go to our last member of Parliament, Mr. Benskin. I found the three-generations policy confusing. I haven't done a very exhaustive search in my device, was trying to find a Wikipedia article on it. This appears to be the one subject in the entire universe on which there is not a Wikipedia article, at least not one that I could find.
Just so we understand it clearly, because this is clearly the human rights issue, the punishment of innocent family members back in North Korea and the pursuit of evidence that can lead to this.... I thought it was your generation, as in brothers and sisters, your parents' generation, your children's generation—one, two, three—but I gather that I am misunderstanding it.
What exactly is it? Is it effectively a lottery where they pick among those cohorts and punish some and not others, or do they pick up everybody they can find? What are the parameters of this policy?
Thank you. You also took part of my question too, but that's okay.
I understood your explanation and what you were saying, but just as you were clarifying it my palms started to sweat. This three-generation punishment is probably one of the most insidious weapons I have ever heard of. The fact that we couldn't even find something, or our chair couldn't even find anything in Wikipedia, which has information on almost everything, shows how insidious this is. Really so little is known about the goings-on in North Korea.
I first want to congratulate you and applaud you for your courage at such a young age in finding your way out and in coming here to share your testimony.
I put this out to both of you. You're looking at this in a Canadian context, and I understand that. As far as the international community is concerned, what are other countries doing? Are other countries, such as the U.K. or Australia, moving forward in any way? Are they being approached in any way to help with the situation in resettling North Korean escapees?
For South Koreans, North Korea is next door. Now, unfortunately, the generation in their twenties in South Korea thinks of North Korean people as people from other countries, as members of a foreign country, but the older generations have the feeling that they are our family, our brothers and sisters.
For me, after I came to Canada, I met so many Korean Canadians and their parents. Their parents said that both South Koreans and North Koreans are their brothers. They don't have this feeling that South Koreans have towards North Korea.
Also, I met Korean Canadians who were born here. There were educated by their family. They think that South Koreans and North Koreans are the same, are friends, but this story is going to be different in South Korea. South Koreans think like this: “Sometimes the North Koreans attack us, they shoot missiles, and they test nuclear weapons, so why do we have to help them? Why do we have to help prepare unification?” That's their regular thinking, actually.