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April 2002, Volume 9, Number 4

Korea: North, Amnesty

North Korea. North Korea controls immigration and emigration strictly. There has been a famine for the past five years, and many North Koreans attempted to flee to South Korea via China, especially in the winter when the river separating the two countries is frozen. There are an estimated 100,000 to 400,000 North Koreans living illegally in China, usually among ethnic Korean Chinese in the border area.

On March 14, 2002, 25 North Koreans in China sneaked into the Spanish embassy in Beijing, the largest known mass defection since the Korean War. The six families and three individuals who participated carried poison, and threatened to commit suicide if they were not allowed to leave for South Korea. The Koreans said they were replicating the September 1989 incident in Prague when 1,000 East Germans scaled the fence of the West German Embassy to seek asylum and safe passage to the West.

The Chinese government continues to assert that North Koreans are economic migrants, not political refugees, and they must be returned to North Korea. China's ambassador argues that North Korean defections are trying to undermine Beijing-Seoul ties, a stance that prevents UNHCR from assisting the Koreans.

Some 538 North Koreans resettled in South Korea in 2001, double the number of resettlers or defectors in 2000; a total of 2,000 North Koreans live in the south. Between January and March 2002, 162 North Koreans have reached South Korea. The numbers are expected to climb as more North Koreans flee the chronic food shortages and extraordinary isolation that make life so difficult at home. However, once in the south, many have a hard time integrating- their unemployment rate is very high, and many live entirely on government assistance.

The South Korean government's Unification Ministry is studying how well North Koreans are integrating, so that it can anticipate what might happen with unification. German reunification in 1990 is considered to be the most likely model, but the income disparity between the Koreas is far larger, and North Korea is far more isolated. This isolation can make integration difficult, as North Koreans learn to deal with everything from mobile telephones to bank accounts.

North Koreans receive government payments of $28,000 to start anew in the south. For their first two months, they are housed in Hanawon, a resettlement center about 30 miles south of Seoul, which is both a training facility and a detention center, while the defectors are investigated by intelligence services, which try to determine if they are spies.

Amnesty. In February 2002, there were an estimated 261,000 unauthorized foreigners in South Korea, up from 100,000 in 1998. Korea will allow them to register in April-May 2002; registered migrants will be able to remain until March 2003.

Unauthorized foreigners currently face jail terms of up to three years or fines of up to 10 million won ($7,570); these penalties will increase to seven years or fines of up to 30 to 50 million won.

South Korean employers of illegal aliens will not be punished if they report their workers during the grace period. After the grace period, penalties will increase.

About 50,000 of the unauthorized foreigners arrived as trainees, but then left their positions because they could earn more as unauthorized workers. Trainees enter Korea to work for two years at low trainee wages, about 470,000 won a month, followed by one year at regular wages of 700,000 to 800,000 won a month for the same work. Many run away from their employers to earn higher wages.

The government announced that it would inspect 580 employers of foreign trainees beginning April 15 to "focus on delays in payment, illegal overtime and physical abuse, as well as the confinement and sexual abuse of migrant workers by employers."

"Korean-Chinese denounce gov't deportation policy," Korea Times, March 27, 2002. "South Korea confirms arrival of 24 more N. Koreans," Reuters, March 21, 2002. Heo Yun-Seon, "Civic groups demand abolition of foreign industrial trainee program," Korea Times, March 19, 2002. "China's Seoul envoy decries N. Korea refugee events," Reuters, March 20, 2002. Barbara Demick, "Hoping History Can Repeat," Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2002. Tamora Vidaillet, "Korean defectors head for Manila," Reuters, March 15, 2002. Barbara Demick, "Fleeing to Culture Shock," Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2002. Harumi Ozawa, "Rejected refugees face unlimited detention," Daily Yomiuri, March 11, 2002.