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Obama urged to ask Hu to accept N.K. refugees

WASHINGTON (Yonhap News) ― A human rights group here on Tuesday urged U.S. President Barack Obama to press China to stop repatriating North Korean refugees.

“We urgently request that during your meetings next week with President Hu Jintao ... that you request China to end its current policy of repatriating North Korean refugees back to North Korea,” Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, said in an open letter to Obama.

“We believe that ending this policy of repatriation would have a very positive effect for China and North Korea.”

Hu is due in the United States early next week for a state visit, including a summit with Obama and a state dinner on Jan. 19.

High on the agenda will be North Korea’s provocations and nuclear weapons programs, the Chinese currency yuan’s revaluation, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other issues of mutual and global concern.

Hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees are believed to be hiding in China, trying to find their way to another country, mostly South Korea. Those repatriated back to the North are subject to “a minimum of five years of labor correction” or “indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property or death,” a U.S. State Department report released last year said.

South Korea has received more than 20,000 North Korean defectors since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. The U.S. has taken in about 100 North Korean refugees under the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which calls for provision of financial aid to help improve North Korea’s human rights and accept North Korean defectors into the U.S.

China has come under criticism for repatriating North Korean refugees under a secret agreement with North Korea, categorizing defectors as economic immigrants rather than refugees, despite the danger of them being persecuted back home.

“It is China’s repatriation policy that has created an environment in China that has led to human beings being bought and sold, as over 80 percent of North Korean females are trafficked,” Scholte said in the letter.

“It is China’s repatriation policy that has prolonged this refugee crisis by allowing the regime in North Korea to resist taking any reforms that would create an environment in which its citizens do not want to flee.”

She said her coalition will organize a candlelight vigil in front of the White House on the evening of the state dinner for Hu to “remember those North Koreans who have died because of China’s repatriation policy.”
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