Seoul mulls throwing lifeline to defectors fleeing the North

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 12:00am

A South Korean parliamentary committee next week will consider offering greater support to North Koreans wishing to defect, a move that could throw a lifeline to an estimated 300,000 refugees hiding in third countries after fleeing the repressive regime.

Amid growing international concern over alleged human rights abuses by Pyongyang, the main opposition Grand National Party is putting forward a parliamentary bill that would require the government to immediately issue passports to North Korean defectors. 'The bill starts from a premise that our country has the most interest in North Korean issues,' a party official said.

The proposed legislation was partly inspired by Washington's North Korea Human Rights Act, which was passed last year and provides US$24 million a year for defectors and groups that aid them.

More than 5,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the war ended in 1953, most in the past three years.

Under South Korea's constitution, North Koreans are considered citizens of South Korea, but Seoul is feeling the pressure from the swelling numbers and last year slashed subsidies provided for resettlement.

The opposition bill would allow defectors to seek asylum in any South Korean diplomatic mission, using any form of communication, including letter, fax, telephone call or through a third party.

The party is also seeking a modest US$8 million a year to provide food and shelter for would-be defectors and to help fund their support groups.

The parliamentary committee on unification, foreign affairs and trade will begin considering the bill next week and must give its approval before any vote by the full National Assembly.

But the bill's backers will have an uphill battle getting the legislation passed into law as Seoul has avoided confronting North Korea over its alleged rights abuses.

The subject of human rights abuses has become an increasingly thorny subject for Pyongyang as the level of international media coverage over the issue has grown.

Hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees are believed to be in hiding after crossing the border into China, where authorities are obliged by treaty to send them home.

Earlier this month, the Seoul-based NGO Commission to Help North Korean Refugees alleged that Pyongyang had executed 70 defectors after they were forcibly returned by China.

Eight or nine defectors were executed last month in public in Chongjin, a city on North Korea's east coast, with at least 60 others put to death in other parts of the country, it said.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it could not confirm the claim.