Mon, Nov 22, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Mongolia a haven for North Koreans

DELICATE TIES The Stalinist state's reinvigorated relations with Mongolia are seen by some as an attempt to block it from becoming a destination for North Korean refugees

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ULAN BATOR, MONGOLIA

The heavily mined demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, as seen from a military observation post on the South Korean side in this file photo.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

North Korea's brand-new embassy, painted pink and protected by coils of barbed wire, opened three months ago on Revolutionaries' Avenue.

"They are watching us very closely," Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia's new prime minister, said in an interview here, half joking.

But to American and South Korean advocates for North Korean refugees, North Korea's new diplomatic presence here, after a five-year absence for economic reasons, is seen as an attempt to block efforts to make Mongolia a haven and processing center for defectors from the authoritarian state.

In the US, the campaign to ease the plight of fleeing North Koreans is increasingly a mainstream cause.

Concerned Women for America, a public policy organization that claims 500,000 members, is organizing prayer groups for North Korea's persecuted Christians. Liberation in North Korea, or LiNK, a new American university-based organization, has held rallies in New York and Los Angeles, protesting China's deportation of 62 refugees to North Korea. Formed six months ago on the model of the 1970s campaign to free Soviet Jews, LiNK has mushroomed to include 70 chapters and a headquarters office in New York.

Bolstered by US President Bush's re-election and a new American law that calls for spending US$20 million a year to help North Korea's refugees, refugee advocates would like to see Mongolia, sandwiched between Russia and China, play roughly the same role as Portugal's during World War II; a neutral state where refugees could be processed for settlement in other countries, preferably by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mongolia has plenty of room, foreign human rights advocates say. Twice the size of Texas with only 2.4 million people, Mongolia is one of the least densely populated nations on the planet. But Mongolia's government has yet to embrace the idea.

"We are one of the few countries in the world that enjoys very good relations with both Koreas," Foreign Minister Tsend Munh-Orgil said in an interview here on Wednesday. "Frankly, I don't think we would look favorably on setting up camps of any nature on the territory of our country."

Munh-Orgil, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said that Mongolia would continue its policy of receiving refugees at border crossings. If they are determined to be North Koreans, they are fed and housed until they can be sent on to a country that will take them, usually South Korea.

"They cannot be pushed back into Chinese territory, no matter whoever they are," he said, emphasizing that Mongolia's border police have orders not to hand refugees over to the authorities in China, the most common transit territory for people fleeing North Korea.

But refugee advocates watched with wariness this fall the arrival of the North Korean diplomats and several hundred North Korean construction workers on labor contracts.

In the past month, officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as South Korean government officials, legislators and Christian pastors, have come here to investigate the North Korean refugee situation. Last year, about 100 North Korean refugees were transferred from Mongolia to South Korea.

The new American legislation eases the granting of asylum to North Koreans. In a survey of 100 North Korean refugees in South Korea conducted in September by the Segye Times, a Seoul newspaper, 69 percent said they wanted to proceed to Western countries rather than stay in South Korea.

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