How a U.S. Consul Helped Send Six North Korean Refugees to Kim Jong Il’s Gulag

[Update: The Shenyang Six were freed from a Chinese jail in August 2007.]

The Secretary of State shall undertake to facilitate the submission of applications [for political asylum]  by citizens of North Korea seeking protection as refugees  …. (Title 22, United States Code, Section 7843)

Back in  January, I told you the story of the Shenyang Six, a group of six North Korean refugees who sought  refuge from persecution and starvation in their homeland, and how the Chinese authorities, following their long-standing custom, hauled them back to spend  whatever remains of their  lives in  Kim Jong Il’s gulag.  Readers will recall that LiNK’s (Liberty in North Korea)  Executive Director, Adrian Hong, was also arrested by Chinese police and held for several days.  What I did not know until  now is that the indirect  cause of this tragedy was a U.S. Consul who was willing to flout a binding U.S. statute and consign six innocents to almost certain death.  I have asked our Shenyang Consulate for its side of the story, and I’ve promised to print their entire response.  But from Adrian Hong’s statement below, now a part of the Congressional Record, it looks like our own State Department has less regard for U.S. statutes, or the lives of innocent people,  than it does for Kim Jong Il’s feelings, or Hu Jintao’s.  And that calls into question just who and what our diplomatic facilities in China even represent.


Stephen Wickman, U.S. Consul General, Shenyang

Shenyang, in northeast  China, is the closest major Chinese city to North Korea, the only one in the region with several foreign consulates.  That makes it a destination  for  many of the up to 300,000 North Koreans fleeing starvation and persecution in their homeland.   Scandal recently enveloped the  South Korean Consulate in Shenyang after it turned away (or perhaps, betrayed)  nine family members of ROK prisoners of war from the Korean War, who had escaped from the North.  Even before this, the ROK Consulate’s reputation was such that  four refugees had previously overpowered security guards and jumped a wall into the U.S. Consulate next door.  Three of these were later permitted to fly directly to the United States.  Apparently, the Consul got instructions from Foggy Bottom not to let it happen again.  From here, I’ll let Adrian Hong pick up the story:

Adrian Hong, Executive Director, Liberty in North Korea.

“Last December, our field workers had moved to help 6 North Korean refugees from our underground shelters in China seek asylum. These refugees were judged to be high-risk; two orphan teenagers, a young 22 year old woman, and three older women. Many of the refugees have chronic injuries and illnesses. One of the refugees is mother of a North Korean refugee now resettled in the United States. During our underground railroad operation, our refugees and their escorts made the dangerous trek to the United States Consulate in Shenyang without incident, although not without several very close calls. 

Upon arrival in Shenyang, I notified the authorities at the Consulate of our identities and intentions, to seek asylum and protection for these NK refugees. I took extensive measures, as always, to remain discrete, speaking over safe phone lines and using words and phrases that would signal our situation to educated Consular staff, but not to an eavesdropper. As the group waited a few hundred feet from the main gate of the US Consulate, in view of the United States flag and gates, I was told that someone would call me back. 

A while later I received a call from a gentleman who identified himself as a member of the US Consulate. He referred to me by name, and said that they could not accept us, and that they suggested for us to “take the North Korean refugees and go to the UNHCR in Beijing. It goes without mention that US posts are subject to intense electronic surveillance, and sure enough, a short while later large numbers of Chinese authorities and police began to show up in the vicinity of our location. 

I moved the refugees to a more discreet but still very close location, and called into the US Embassy in Beijing. I was told in very strong, scolding terms, that I had jeopardized the lives of the refugees, and that China’s Public Security Bureau had informed the US and other nations with posts in the area that North Korean refugees were seeking entrance to their compounds. I responded that the refugees took the calculated risk to seek asylum with the United States because their situation was already very dangerous, and that the Chinese authorities had likely been alerted by the irresponsible and indifferent actions of the US post in Shenyang. I spent quite a bit of time on the phone pleading with the officer in question.

At that point we were literally less than 100 feet away from the main entrance to the Shenyang post- it would have been a simple matter for any consulate official to step out and wave our refugees in, past the Chinese authorities, as is done for many visitors to the Consulate. 

The officer continued to refuse and redirect us to the UNHCR in Beijing, despite my pleas, and we had no choice but to head towards Beijing. En route, our 6 refugees and their 2 American escorts were apprehended, and I was detained in Beijing. The group was imprisoned in Shenyang. Our LiNK workers were released and deported to the United States after 10 days; our refugees are still in Chinese custody today. 

It is deplorable that the Chinese government continues to actively hunt down, imprison and repatriate North Korean refugees, in violation of their obligations under international law. It is further reprehensible that underground activists remain in prison to this day, for the “crime” of helping North Korean refugees. But that is China. 

I have confidence that underground networks can rescue thousands of North Korean refugees, if only they had a nation willing to accept them. It is absolutely unacceptable and shameful that a United States post will turn away legitimate asylum seekers, especially those that are targeted for capture and repatriation by local authorities. These and other refugees and their guides take tremendous risk upon themselves, with their hopes placed on the principles of the United States, and the North Korean Human Rights Act. That they are turned away, literally at the gates, and sent elsewhere is a betrayal of American principles, and perhaps laws. 

My experiences in December showed me that three years after the North Korean Human Rights Act has passed, nothing has changed on the ground for North Koreans. Refugees are being turned away from the gates of US posts and sent to the UNHCR in Beijing – a dangerous journey that very few manage to make without capture. Funding for NGOs and underground workers has not been released; and less than a paltry three dozen North Korean refugees are now resettled in the United States. Our own refugees that I personally escorted to US custody last October arrived just last week- nearly four months after they had been accepted! It is my understanding that delays on their arrival here were not from the Chinese, but from our own State Department. 

We have a tremendous opportunity here to save thousands of refugees and effect real change for human rights and liberties for North Koreans. It is with regret that I say that despite our high rhetoric and the promises we have made to these people with no other advocate in the world, I believe the United States is squandering that opportunity. Unless our State Department and this Administration is held to account for its lack of action for these people, it will continue to be that way. 

So long as this government continues to drag its feet on bringing about real, tangible change on this issue, the North Korean Human Rights Act will simply be a paper tiger, and no government or leader in the world will take US policies and rhetoric about North Korean human rights seriously. If we have not followed through with our actions before, why would we in the future? 

The United States can effect tremendous change in the world on this single issue, and hold the Chinese and North Koreans to account for their treatment of the North Korean people. The lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and millions of North Koreans who remain inside the DPRK, are at stake. We are hopeful of the day when the United States sees their welfare and liberty as a real priority, because we are already very late. 

New readers may ask, so why not go to the UNHCR?   Well, some have  tried.  The UNHCR  has consistently been the single most worthless entity since this hidden refugee crisis first emerged, as the first mass  graves were being filled in the barren hills around Chongjin.  I frequently wonder what the U.S. taxpayers are getting for their money from the UN as a whole, and that concern begins with the conjoined failures of the UNHCR and the World Food Program in North Korea.

What is clear to me from all of this is that the world’s governments and institutions have failed in ending, peacefully,  an engineered mass starvation of millions that has become a de facto genocide.  This is exactly the kind of situation the United Nations is obligated to alleviate, as  did China when it signed the Convention on Refugees.  According to China’s unique interpretation of this Convention, it drags  refugees back to North Korea strung together with wires through their noses

Safe to say, then, that any  peaceful or legal means available to ordinary North Koreans  have been exhausted, and the United States certainly hasn’t reached out to the North Korean people with any constructive alternatives to “die in place.”  The betrayed and increasingly desperate people of North Korea will not passively accept their betrayal and extinction.  Like any other people faced with that situation, they will turn to violence.  And the governments in the region — particularly China — will have no one but themselves to blame when the mayhem strikes them, too.


  1. What we need to know first is; a) who was the consular officer, by name; b) who was that person’s direct supervisor.

    Then who and where to contact about this.


  2. I take the approach that the Consul General is responsible for what happens in his facility, and furthermore, that this could not have happened without Washington giving instructions to that effect.

    In other words, I believe that the person responsible is Condi Rice. And she has a boss, too.

    When the Koreans had a scandal like this one, they fired a telephone operator, though that operator was almost certainly doing precisely what she was told to do. The curious thing here is that there is absolutely no information about the Consul General on the site, and no current information that even identifies him, although you can see the text of a speech he gave recently.


  3. And when I write a post like the one yesterday being highly critical of how things actually work in the world, I throw the US in too.

    The US is voted off the UN Human Rights Council, and a significant voting block on it are nations who flaunt human rights with impunity, because the US didn’t sign up for the International Criminal Court and pulled out of the Kyoto environmental treaty, and so on…

    This is why I say it would not be too difficult for me to wash my hands of the whole thing and concentrate on life in my own little neighborhood in my own little world —– because the BS comes from all sides and swirls around countinuously.

    I greatly admire the members of LiNK who find the strength to work hands-on with these issues and give even more admiration to those who can do so for years without letting it beat them down.

    And I admire you and others who take the time and energy to keep up with these things – and writing about them on the internet – though you have day jobs that are not pieces of cake.

    It becomes too depressing afterawhile for me…


  4. Christ. I thought I’d looked at every page at that site sixteen times, and you just pull it up. Thanks.


  5. Having worked around State a good bit, and having been to ~25 embassies and consulates, I can tell you that the theory is not always the practice. There are plenty of jackass consular officers out there who sometimes apply what they think should be policy not necessarily what is, and that could have been one of them. Which is why I doubt such policy came from Rice.


  6. Why, Joshua, why? Our Congress, regardless of which party holds the majority, can issue scathing annual human rights reports that infuriate the Chinese, who respond with their own condemnation of the US, yet we cannot help six desperate people escape from a regime labeled by the Bush administration as the evil empire.



  7. Digging around some, it looks like the Consulates in China report to the U.S. Mission in China. Logic, misleading as it can be, would lead one to believe that the Chief of Mission in Beijing, a/k/a, The Ambassador, is Mr. Wickman’s boss.

    Here’s his bio.