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Sadako Ogata is the former United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. She spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels in New York.

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: An estimated 100,000 desperate North Koreans have escaped from famine and political persecution to China in recent years. Now dozens are showing up at various consulates of Western powers in China seeking asylum.

Is this something that should be encouraged? Some fear -- some hope -- it will lead to the kind of consequences such a movement did at the end of the Cold War when East Germans sought asylum in Eastern European embassies.

SADAKO OGATA: It is not a question of encouraging. It is happening. We don't know if it will get to the stage of an East German type of situation. But the problem has been simmering for some time and now is boiling over.

When I was still high commissioner in Geneva last June a group of advocates for the North Korean refugees came and pleaded their case. The Chinese position was that these people are all economic migrants and thus not eligible to seek asylum. Our determination was that there were people who went to China not as migrants but for refugee-related reasons.

For various reasons, China did not want to engage with us in a serious dialogue about this problem. Even visiting the border region to monitor the situation has been made more and more difficult for UNHCR by the Chinese.

The situation today is very worrying, both in terms of the decision-making and the way in which decisions are being carried out.

GV: Were the Chinese right in seizing these refugees as they did from the Japanese consulate in Shenyang last week? Are they right in having sent others back to North Korea?

OGATA: China, Japan and South Korea are all signatories of the international convention governing refugees. If asylum seekers come to their door, they are obliged to examine their claims and determine their status. They cannot just push them back.

GV: So China is in breach of this convention?

OGATA: I think so. At worst they are in breach. At best they are guilty of a less-than-enthusiastic implementation of their treaty obligations.

GV: Many of these people may be economic refugees, but from a totalitarian state with periodic bouts of famine. Isn't the distinction of what makes a refugee pretty blurry in this circumstance?

OGATA: If you really want to distinguish, you have to listen to their claim and find out. You just can't, wholesale, label them economic migrants not eligible for asylum, and that is that. And you are right, in a totalitarian state the economic conditions are related to government policies. That has to be taken into account. It is a difficult determination.

Even so, for now there are not yet millions of refugees, just handfuls of people. There is no reason each case can't be examined on its own merits.

GV: All indications are that the flow of such refugees will increase. What then should be the policy of any embassy or consulate that finds North Koreans seeking asylum on its doorstep?

OGATA: They are bound to examine each case and turn no one away automatically. It is time to deal head-on with this issue because the more the problem simmers without clear resolution, the more the flow of people and the greater the crisis. Once it is made clear that political refugees won't be handed back but those determined to be truly economic migrants will, then the outflow will stop. Otherwise it will grow out of control.

(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services
For immediate release (Distributed 5/15/02)