Committee on Foreign Affairs
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515-0128
Testimony of Mr. Timothy A. Peters
Founder and Director, Helping Hands Korea and Ton-a-Month Club
Presented to the House Committee on International Relations
Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific
“North Korea: Human Rights and Humanitarian Challenges”
May 2, 2002
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your invitation to testify and this opportunity to address the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, on humanitarian and human rights concerns related to North Koreans. In this written statement I will briefly address the humanitarian aid aspect of our work, then give special emphasis to our efforts to ease the plight of North Korean refugees in China.
Background of our Relief Efforts
Helping Hands Korea is a Christian charitable initiative based in Seoul that was founded in 1990. In October of 1996, our organization significantly shifted its primary focus from activities within South Korea to the desperate needs of North Koreans. Our first project to help needy North Koreans was a grassroots initiative we named Ton-a-Month Club. Its genesis was a small prayer meeting around our kitchen table in the summer of 1996 and took as its goal providing humanitarian food aid to the most vulnerable victims of famine in the North. With a staff limited to my own family and a handful of volunteers with limited resources, our project has not gained official charitable status with the Republic of Korea government, so our fundraising has relied principally on rallying sacrificial donations from concerned South Koreans, expatriate residents in South Korea and several longstanding and faithful supporters in the U.S. to purchase one ton per month (or its equivalent value) of desperately needed foodstuffs to send as famine-relief to the North Korean civilian population. In the six years since its inception, Ton-a-Month Club has dispatched food aid to North Koreans through a number of channels: Korean National Red Cross, The Internet Campaign to Help North Korean Flood Victims, Good Friends, as well as a wide range of independent deliveries that have been arranged with the assistance of aid workers on the border of China and North Korea to bring rice, corn, wheat flour, and a mixture of goat and soy milk to individual villages and towns in the neediest areas of Hamkyoungpuk-to Province of North Korea.
Like many other humanitarian aid initiatives large and small, we at Helping Hands Korea continue to have serious concerns regarding North Korean government interference in the delivery of food aid to the most vulnerable sectors of its population: children under age six, orphaned children, pregnant mothers, the handicapped and the elderly. It is our understanding that North Korean society is divided into 52 strata, and the basis for these divisions is essentially the degree of loyalty to the Kim Jong-il regime. Humanitarian aid given in government-to-government transfers to North Korea becomes a reward to the loyal and its deprivation constitutes a punishment for the disloyal.
It is apparent to us that the priorities of the North Korean government in awarding food aid to its citizens is fundamentally at cross purposes with our own desire to see the neediest taken care of. For that reason, we have periodically conducted in the past four years combined fact-finding trips to Northeastern China (as well as an actual monitoring trip to the Rajin-Songbong area of North Korea itself) to regularly seek out more effective and transparent methods to ensure that our donors? wishes to feed the most vulnerable were being honored.
Refugee Assistance: An Outgrowth of Famine Relief
In the course of the abovementioned fact-finding trips to northeastern China in a quest to continually improve our Ton-a-Month effectiveness, we grew increasingly aware and deeply concerned by the discovery of a considerable number of North Koreans who had fled their nation due to hunger, privation, and fear of political and religious persecution. In China we began to visit secret orphanages for North Korean children and temporary urban shelters for adults. On two occasions we have also invited a physician to join us for the purpose of bringing medical attention to North Koreans in a mountain hideaway as well as urban shelters in northeastern China.
The more we personally investigated and interviewed individuals in this large-scale exodus, the more shocked we became at a growing body of reliable reports that the number of North Korean refugees had swollen to a quarter million or more in China, not to mention those who had fled to other surrounding countries such as Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Accordingly, we at Helping Hands Korea decided that, in addition to helping malnourished North Koreans in their hometowns, we would actively address the needs of North Korean refugees in China by devoting a significant proportion of collected donations to this second crisis. To make it easier for donors to distinguish between the two projects in designating their donations, we have maintained the name Ton-a-Month Club to denote famine relief within North Korea and now use Helping Hands Korea to specify refugee assistance. Donors are invited to clarify how they would like their donations used.
Two Critical Advantages in Helping North Korean Refugees
The more we analyzed this second initiative, the clearer it became that support for refugee “safehouses” and “secret orphanages” for North Korean children in China, carried with it a double advantage. On one hand, the quality of monitoring our donors?aid, a chronic difficulty in direct or indirect dealing with North Korean bureaucrats, was immediately enhanced through our newfound direct access to refugees. By assisting refugees, we were personally able to deliver donations to like-minded humanitarian workers and receive feedback from the refugees themselves. Hence, we received the implicit and enormous strategic advantage of eliminating from our aid delivery chain the “middleman” of the North Korean bureaucracy and its well-documented and dubious agenda in food distribution. [See reports on this issue from Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Oxfam, etc.] A second advantage, in our view, when helping refugees is the ability we have of directly rewarding those individuals who exhibit personal bravery and the sovereignty of free choice by leaving destitution and oppression so rampant in their own country and forging into the unknown in the quest of a better life, despite the inherent dangers of an unprotected existence in China or Russia.
Although refugee children naturally rank first in our list of priorities for assistance, it must be emphasized that tragedy can be witnessed at virtually every age group of North Koreans hiding in China. For example, we have brought medical assistance to a refugee who had fallen victim to a loan shark in northeastern China. An aid worker had attempted to place the threatened man in safety, but was short of resources at the time of the first visit. When I accompanied the aid worker to China on the following visit, the loan shark had already extracted his “pound of flesh” from the refugee, by hiring someone to stab the male refugee in the face and putting out one eye. The aid worker was almost beside himself with grief, feeling responsible for the loss of the refugee’s eye.
The extreme urgency of the dual crisis of long-term famine within North Korea and the North Korean refugee crisis in China and other surrounding countries, including Russia, can be encapsulated in the story I recently wrote of 10 year-old North Korean boy, Yoo Chul Min, whom I met in April and June of 2001 in China.
Who Was Yoo Chul Min? And Why Does it Matter?
A 10 year-old North Korean refugee boy hiding in China, made a sobering decision that was light years away from what most other elementary 4th graders are preoccupied with-a life-and-death gamble to cross the China-Mongolian border under the cover of darkness.
His name was Yoo Chul Min and his decision resulted in a heart-rending tragedy. Joining five other North Koreans, also desperate for even a fleeting glimpse of freedom, Chul Min and his companions became disoriented for 26 hours in the arid, desert-like conditions of the Mongolian frontier. Years of gradual malnutrition in North Korea had weakened Yoo Chul Min’s body and the normal reserve of endurance and resistance to the elements one would expect of a healthy preteen boy were sadly lacking. Yoo Chul Min died from exhaustion and exposure on July 7th, 2001. His body was carried across the Mongolian border by the remaining refugee team when they finally gained their bearings. Perhaps I’ve taken a particular interest in this story because it so happened that Chul Min and my paths crossed in the course of my work in Helping Hands Korea. I had met and just begun getting to know this 10 year-old on two occasions, shortly before his death, this year. At the time, he was under the protection of courageous Korean missionaries in the Yenbian (ethnic Chinese-Korean region) district of northeast China.
I remember noticing how withdrawn this boy was. Because he had lived in China for over a year, he did not immediately strike me as malnourished and his clothes were clean. I noticed with some amusement that he would never take off his baseball cap, even inside the house of my friend. My curiosity grew into a little personal challenge to spend some time with him and see if I could find a way to break through that shell of suspicion of foreigners and get a friendship started.
I was told by those caring for him that Chul Min was very studious and doing well in a Chinese elementary school. One day in June of this year, I happened to spot on the missionary’s bookshelf the Korean version of a book that I had read countless times with my own five children, in English, as they were growing up, The Picture Bible. Despite his initial reluctance to sit down next to a dreaded American, Chul Min’s curiosity about the book seemed to get the upper hand, and soon we were leafing through the wonderfully illustrated volume together and he was eagerly reading the Korean text aloud. It became the bridge for what I hoped would be a real friendship. Little did I realize at that time, that death was only a month away for my little newfound friend.
In the days that followed the jarring news of Chul Min’s sudden death, despite our urgent entreaties, the security officials in Mongolia did not agree to wait for Chul Min’s father to arrive in Ulan Bator to identify his son’s body and to be present at his burial. Mr. Yoo, Chul Min’s father, himself was a recent arrival to South Korea as a North Korean refugee from China, and an extra amount of time was needed for him to obtain South Korean travel documents. (The adjoining photo shows Chul Min’s father, a new Christian, mourning his son’s death shortly after seeing his son’s grave for the first time on the barren Mongolian desert near the China/Mongolian border)
The Dangers Faced by Refugee Aid Workers in China
Tragedy befalls aid workers in China also with unnerving frequency in the course of their humanitarian labors. One courageous aid worker in China personally takes care of six separate refugee shelters in China. Approached from behind in the dark over one year ago, he was stabbed in the stomach by an unseen assailant. The likeliest suspect of this hideous crime is one of thousands of undercover North Korean agents who operate in China to track down, capture and forcefully repatriate refugees back to North Korea against their will.
Due to complicated security circumstances and a very narrow timeframe, it was necessary to bring a physician to a quiet corner of a transportation terminal restaurant to administer necessary antibiotics to the aid worker as this maneuver was shielded from the view of authorities by other members of the aid community at the table.
Many Christian and other humanitarian activists are fully aware that they face arrest and imprisonment as a result of providing food, shelter and guidance to safety to the North Korean refugees. One such heroic activist is South Korean evangelist Chun Ki Won. On the night of December 30th, 2001 Evangelist Chun was arrested near the tiny border town of Dungqi (150 km southwest of Hilar) in the northeastern area of Inner Mongolia, PRC, while attempting to help twelve North Korean refugees cross the border from China to Mongolia. To the best of our knowledge, two of the 12 North Korean refugees have been repatriated to North Korea in violation of the 1951 International Convention on Refugees of which the People’s Republic of China is a signatory. Ten still remain incarcerated at a military facility near Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia.
I had the privilege of making four separate mission trips with Evangelist Chun to Northeast China as well as the China/North Korean border area in the year 2001 (January, April, June and December). During these four journeys, I had many opportunities to observe Mr. Chun’s personal courage and sacrificial spirit as exhibited in lending vital assistance to North Korean refugees who were being hunted down by both Chinese security officials and North Korean secret police operating clandestinely within China. We opened and outfitted refugee shelters together, helped to transfer refugees to new locations within China, and provided briefings to refugees who insisted on making the hazardous bid to freedom by crossing the Chinese border with Mongolia. In certain cases, the North Korean refugees were in such a state of desperation due to North Korean secret police being in hot pursuit of their whereabouts that they declared their willingness to try to cross the “no man’s land” between China and Mongolia with or without assistance from activists.
During many months of imprisonment with only the bare minimum of diplomatic attention from his embassy in Beijing, Evangelist Chun has been subjected to degrading treatment including cleaning prison toilets and carrying human excrement to a waste area on the prison grounds. It is likely that he will be charged with the crimes of either smuggling or human trafficking, whereas in reality he has been carrying out the Biblical injunction: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down our lives for us and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (I John 3:16) In fact, he has been giving aid and encouragement to true refugees, although China fails to recognize their status. I respectfully and strongly request that the Committee on International Relations exert its considerable influence on the government of the People’s Republic of China to petition the release of Evangelist Chun Ki Won from prison.
In closing, I wish to make the point that the heartbreaking realities of Yoo Chul Min’s death and Mr. Chun’s humiliating imprisonment for helping North Korean refugees are all the more tragic because they were by no means inevitable. Had the relevant nation-signatories of the UN Charter for Refugees of 1951 in the northeastern Asian region acted upon principle and carried out their commitments to relevant charters, neither of these grievous events need have occurred.
My appearance before your Committee is largely as a representative voice for many of my colleagues in the activist community who daily lay down their lives in sacrificial service for North Korean refugees. Due to security concerns and in some cases imprisonment, these unsung heroes are unable to appear before you. But I submit to you that this small ‘ragtag’ group of volunteers has undertaken an enormous humanitarian challenge single-handedly that international organizations such as the UNHCR, with all their influence and expertise, should be addressing. However, in actual practice, the UNHCR office in China and many governments in the region have retreated from the actual fray to occupying passive seats in the grandstands as this human drama plays out, essentially taken hostage by political and economic compromises with the major violators of international treaties that should protect the rights of North Korean refugees. By doing so, they have abdicated an active role on the playing field upon which hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.
I am confident, however, that this august body, the House of Representatives, rich in tradition of heeding the cries of the oppressed, will not follow suit. I believe it will issue forth with the clear sound of a trumpet, speaking in an uncompromising voice in defense of the starving, intimidated populace of North Korea and the hundreds of thousands of refugees the North’s failed economy and style of governance have spawned.
On behalf of the North Korean refugees and the activist community that serves them, I thank you.