For the first time, the United Nations has declared defectors from communist North Korea “refugees,” a move that bars neighboring China from repatriating the many who flee across the border, according to a Christian human rights group.

The designation will be made in a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on North Korea, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, to be presented at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, in March, says Jubilee Campaign USA, according to the Assist News Service.

Muntarbhorn was appointed in July 2004 with a mandate to investigate and report on human rights violations in North Korea and begin a dialogue with its government.

Jubilee Campaign’s Ann Buwalda said that for the past three years, her group has been pressing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to give refugee protection to North Koreans who are fleeing their homeland, which suffers famine and political repression under the harsh dictatorship of Kim Jong Il.

Buwalda said China, a signatory to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees, has “persistently sought” to characterize all North Koreans fleeing into its territory as “economic migrants.”

By so doing, she said, China can justify breaking the treaty’s requirement that the North Koreans not be sent home.

The U.N.’s new position affords protection, Buwalda said, taking into consideration the North Korean government’s “harsh treatment of repatriated defectors, which includes imprisonment, torture, internment in labor camps, forced abortions, infanticide and even execution.”

She said the harshest treatment of refugees returned to North Korea reportedly has been reserved for those who embrace Christianity while in China.

“Many Christians in the border provinces of China have provided food, shelter and protection to North Korean refugees,” she said. “Many of these refugees embraced Christianity as a result.”

Repatriated defectors who have managed to escape again after interrogation and internment in North Korea consistently report intense questioning about Christianity and contacts with Christians in China, Buwalda said. Those carrying a Bible or Christian literature are more severely punished.

She said China has made assistance to the refugees a criminal act, conducting “intense campaigns to disassemble volunteer aid and support systems that provide for refugees along the border provinces.”

“Many Christian aid workers from South Korea have suffered imprisonment in China, drawn-out court cases, torture in Chinese custody and, in some cases, have even been handed over to North Korean authorities,” Buwalda said.

One such Christian worker, wheel-chair bound Rev. Kim Dong-Shik, was abducted in January 2000 by North Korean agents in China and disappeared into North Korea without a trace, she said.

After the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office released a finding Dec. 14 that confirmed the abduction, 20 Illinois lawmakers, led by Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, wrote letters of protest to North Korea on behalf of Kim, who had lived in Chicago.

Buwalda said Jubilee Campaign will redouble its efforts to ensure that the U.N. High Commissioner heeds the special rapporteur’s report.

“China must afford unimpeded access to these refugees,” she said. “The UNHCR must enforce China’s treaty obligations and seek unimpeded access through binding arbitration. The international community is morally and legally obliged via treaty mechanisms to protect these refugees.”

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