By Tien-Shun Lee
“The Kim Jung Il regime is one of the most terrible regimes that exists in the world. We've got to help,” said Ellen Kang, the founder of the Korean-American Defenders of Freedom group, referring to the government in North Korea.
She passed around petitions in the basement of the St. Chung Ha Sang Roman Catholic Church on Parsons Boulevard on Sunday, bringing the total number of signatures collected since her group began campaigning three weeks ago to about 2,000.
“We should be proud that we are Americans. The U.S. is the only country capable of doing something. It's the same like Kosovo, Vietnam, the Jewish people and Iraq,” said Kang, a native of South Korea who lives in Woodside.
The North Korea Freedom bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), was introduced into Congress on Nov. 21. The bill calls upon the United States to “guarantee safe haven and assistance” to North Koreans who arrive or seek to arrive in the country.
In addition, the bill urges countries that neighbor North Korea, including China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to provide temporary protected status or refugee status to North Koreans.
According to a report by Brownback, North Koreans who are captured in China and returned to the hands of North Korean authorities face severe consequences, including torture, political prison camps and execution, especially if they are active-duty military or Communist Party members, religious believers or repeat border-crossers.
“The Chinese government has a longtime relationship with the North Korean government, so they send them back,” Kang said. “The Kim Jung-Il government kills them and sends them to slave camps.”
Brownback, who visited towns and cities along the border between North Korea and China to examine the North Korean refugee situation in December 2002, estimated that there are 100,000 to 200,000 North Koreans living in China. Most escape across the border from North Korea to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, a section of China's Jilin Province where they can blend in easily because more than 30 percent of the population speaks Korean in addition to Chinese.
“We really want somebody to support those people. They are really in danger over there,” said Hyun Chel Lee, the president of the Korean-Chinese Association of New York. He estimated that there are about 10,000 Korean-Chinese living in New York City, 60 percent of whom live in Queens.
“A lot of those people are moving into China,” Lee said. “We have to support the U.N. and Congress bringing them into America.”
Kim Jung-Il, the current dictator of North Korea, has been widely accused of allowing 3 million people in his country to starve to death, and his father, Kim Il-Sung, has been blamed for 3 million deaths caused by the Korean War, which began in June 1950.
“In North Korea, the height and weight requirements to join the army used to be 158 centimeters and 45 kilograms (5-foot-2 and 99 pounds),” Kang said. “Now, the people have no food and they can't grow, so they changed the requirements to 154 cm and 42 kilograms (5-foot-1 and 92.4 pounds.)”
Sok Kang, the president of the Coalition for Korean-American Social Services, said he visited North Korea five years ago. As a foreign tourist, Kang was not allowed to leave the guided tour and mingle with the public, but he observed that “the majority of the people, their face has very dry skin and they are skinny.”
Aside from starvation and poverty, refugees consistently say there is no religious freedom in North Korea, and people have been publicly prosecuted for having Bibles and other religious publications, Brownback reported.
“That country, it's old-fashioned Stalin or Lenin Marxist communism,” said Michael Chu, 76, a native of Manchuria who spent three months crossing through North Korea to South Korea in 1946 after Chinese Communists invaded his town in Northern China.
“What they do, they work until 5 o'clock and then they go home and then they don't have their own life. They're going to have a meeting until 11 p.m., 12 a.m. to educate them about communism. They teach you to blackmail your own parents. It's way beyond imagination.”
Chu, who lives in Flushing, joined the South Korean army and fought during the Korean War. After he was shot in the arm, he was honorably dispatched to the United States as a liaison officer. He then worked as a prisoner of war investigator who dealt with people coming out of North Korea.
“Now, even after 50 years, it's the same thing,” Chu said. “Their goal and their way of doing things has not been changed. There is absolutely no freedom, and there is a lot of starving population.”
Ellen Kang said her goal is to collect at least 5,000 signatures and to send the petition to Brownback, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), the United Nations and Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico who has dealt extensively with North Korea as a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.