More than 110,000 people join SaveMyFriend campaign
Holding a sign reading “save my friend,” a female North Korean defector chants a slogan during a rally held in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, urging China to stop sending North Korean defectors back to their home country, Friday. / Yonhap
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Hundreds of thousands of Internet users around the world have flocked to a website to sign an online petition to help North Korean defectors who are to be repatriated after being caught and held in China.
Until Friday, more than 110,000 web users from more than 100 countries joined the SaveMyFriend campaign (www.savemyfriend.org) launched by several Koreans in their 20s about a week ago.
Andrea Choi, a fellow of The Malaria No More Policy, a Washington-based non-profit group, and her friends launched the website to raise global awareness of the plight facing some 80 North Korean defectors stuck in China.
“Many others have cried out for help before, but we hope that this time the international community will take an unprecedented stance to convince China to do what it has been striving to do, abide by the human rights convention and have a positive influence on issues related to North Korea,” Choi told The Korea Times.
China is poised to repatriate all defectors held there to North Korea where they are expected to suffer all sorts of inhumane treatment, including torture, possible public execution or human trafficking. A non-profit group based in Seoul said China had already repatriated three North Korean defectors early this week.
While pushing the online campaign, Choi has been working closely with her colleagues, including Jiyou Kim, a recent graduate of Sogang University in Seoul, and Moses Bak, a North Korean defector who graduated from Yeomyung School in Seoul for North Korean defectors.
Kim, who was born in Korea but lived in Kazakhstan from 1993 to 2004, has been active in matters related to Korean diaspora and has many friends who are North Korean defectors. Bak is in charge of operating the online petition.
To be sure, the online campaign has drawn keen international attention.
Choi quoted a pastor, who has been traveling the world to shed light on the defector issue for the last 10 years, as saying recently that he has a sense of optimism for this issue to be resolved as things stand now.
“Our government’s active stance on this issue has been immensely encouraging,” Choi said. “Those who were not ignorant of this issue are beginning to show interest in SaveMyFriend.”
She said the online petition was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
“About a week ago, we heard that a relative of one of our friends had been caught by Chinese authorities while trying to escape North Korea. We spontaneously got together to save the relative,” Choi said.
“Of course, we have heard of North Korean refugees being repatriated, but never took action. However, when we hear about a distress facing a friend, we usually do what any social being would do ― try to save him.”
Over the past 20 years, China has repatriated North Korean defectors caught there, describing them as criminals having illegally crossed the border.
The campaign urging China to stop repatriating defectors has gained momentum as the South Korean government, lawmakers and the international community are taking part.
Rep. Park Sun-young of the minor opposition Liberty Forward Party began a hunger strike Tuesday near the Chinese Embassy in Seoul to protest China’s repatriation of defectors.
Park said she will continue the protest until China decides to stop repatriating the North Koreans.
On Friday, the National Assembly foreign affairs committee adopted a resolution urging China to stop the repatriation, which was submitted by Rep. Park.
The resolution lashed out at China for its double standards on human rights as the world’s most populous country put North Korean defectors in danger by sending them back to the North although it is a member of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Twenty-nine lawmakers, including former National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyong-oh, signed the resolution.
Rep. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Saenuri Party visited Park when she launched a hunger strike and called on China to change its policy on North Korean defectors.
On Wednesday, President Lee Myung-bak urged China to handle North Korean defectors held there in accordance with international regulations.
If they are not criminals, it would be fair for China to handle the defector issue based on international rules, he said.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced plans to address the issue at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council to be held in Switzerland next week.
재중 탈북자를 돕기 위한 운동이 전세계적으로 확산되고 있다. 탈북자를 돕기 위한 온라인 서명운동인 SaveMyFriend 사이트 (www.savemyfriend.org) 에는 전세계 100여개 국가에서 금요일 오후 5시 현재 110,000명이 넘는 사람들이 서명에 참여했다.
동 사이트 운영자 중 한명인 Andrea Choi 씨는 코리아 타임스와의 인터뷰를 통해 온라인 서명운동을 1주일 전에 시작을 했는데 전세계적으로 뜨거운 반응을 받는 것이 놀랍고 매우 고무적이라고 밝혔다. SaveMyFriend 온라인 서명운동에는 탈북자인 모세 박 (가명)씨와 최씨 그리고 김지유씨 등 20대 한국인들이 주도적으로 참여했다.
최씨는 온라인 캠페인을 주도하게 된 배경에 대해 일주일쯤 전에 한 친구의 친척이 이번 중국에 억류된 탈북자라는 사실을 알게 되었고 곤경에 처한 친구를 돕기 위한 순수한 마음으로 시작하게 되었다고 밝혔다.
최씨는 탈북자 북송 문제의 심각성을 전세계에 알리기 위해 10여년간 노력한 한 목사님의 발언을 인용하며 정부와 국제사회 그리고 언론 등이 이번 재중 탈북자 문제에 깊은 관심을 보이면서 “이번처럼 강한 희망의 징후를 느낀 적은 없었다”고 밝혔다.