If you have ever started to emerge from one nightmare only to find yourself plunged into a new one, you will find the ordeal of Ri Song Dae frighteningly familiar.
In August 2001, Ri entered Canada with his wife and their 6-year-old son, Chang Il. They were defectors from the monstrous dictatorship in North Korea, and had come to Canada to seek asylum.
For 10 years, Ri had been a low-level trade functionary, periodically sent abroad to purchase foodstuffs like corn and rice. He had long known of the savage brutality of Kim Jong Il's regime, of course; no government official could fail to be aware of it. What finally prompted him to flee was seeing the horrible treatment meted out to escaped North Koreans who were caught and returned. According to human rights monitors, that treatment includes humiliation and torture, typically followed by slow starvation and slave labor in a prison camp -- or public execution.
Ri filed a formal claim for refugee status for himself and Chang Il four months after arriving in Canada, but by then his second nightmare had begun. His wife, browbeaten by her Japanese parents for her "betrayal," attempted to commit suicide, then agreed to leave her husband and son and return to North Korea. She was seized in Taiwan en route to visiting her parents, turned over to North Korea, and executed in April 2002. Ri's father was executed as well, in keeping with the North Korean policy of ruthlessly punishing not only "criminals," but also their parents and children.
On Sept. 12, 2003, more than two years after Ri's plea for asylum was filed, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board issued its ruling. It was an Orwellian stunner.
Board member Bonnie Milliner ruled that Ri's young son was entitled to stay in Canada, since he would face severe persecution if he were returned to Pyongyang. But Ri's appeal for refugee protection was denied, even though Milliner agreed that "he would face execution on return to North Korea." Why would Canada send a man back to his certain death? Because, Milliner wrote, "there are serious reasons for considering that [Ri] has committed crimes against humanity by virtue of his long-standing membership in the Government of North Korea."
In other words, Ri was deemed complicit in crimes against humanity solely because he had held a government job. Milliner acknowledged that there was no evidence he had committed any atrocities at all -- indeed, Canada's War Crimes Unit confirmed in writing that Ri was "not a person of interest to them." But he knew of the regime's savagery, yet waited 10 years to defect. To the Immigration and Refugee Board, that added up to a case for sending him back to be killed.
If the board's decision were to stand, Ri would be sent off to die and his 6-year-old would become an orphan. His prospects grew even bleaker on Feb. 20, when Milliner's ruling was upheld by Canada's citizenship and immigration ministry. Canadians express pride in their country's humanitarian values, but it has been hard to detect any of those values as this case has moved through the Canadian bureaucracy.
Fortunately, Ri has just received a last-minute reprieve. Yesterday afternoon, Canada's public safety minister, Anne McLellan, granted the frightened defector permission to stay in Canada indefinitely, since his life would be in danger if he were deported. Her decision effectively overrules the earlier decrees. Ri's long nightmare may at last be over.
But back in North Korea, there are no happy endings.
Media coverage of Kim Jong Il's government has been focused on its illegal nuclear weapons program and its proliferation of missile technology to other dangerous regimes. But even more ghastly is the suffering it inflicts on its own people.
The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday on Pyongyang's use of political prisoners as chemical-weapons guinea pigs. A senior North Korean chemist who escaped in 2002 described a military facility in which prisoners were kept in stacked cages made of concrete and wire. On one occasion, he testified, two prisoners -- so emaciated that ``they looked barely human'' -- were placed in a testing chamber that was outfitted with a large window and a sound system so scientists could see and hear the victims' reactions when they were sprayed with poison.
"One man was scratching desperately," the defector recollected. "He scratched his neck, his chest. . . . He was covered in blood. . . . I kept trying to look away. I knew how toxic these chemicals were in even small doses."
It took, he said, three agonizing hours for each man to die.
When I wrote last month about North Korea's concentration camps and gas chambers, many readers wrote to ask: What can I do? The first and most important step for anyone who wants to help is to learn more. Three excellent sources of information on North Korea are The Chosun Journal (http://www.chosunjournal.com), the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (www.nkhumanrights.or.kr), and the US Committee For Human Rights in North Korea (www.hrnk.org). All three provide vital, and often heartbreaking, details on the horrors of Kim's tyranny, as well as many options for further action. They should be the first stop for anyone for whom "never again" is not just an empty slogan.
Ri Song Dae and his little boy are safe now, but 22 million of their countrymen remain trapped, at the mercy of the most evil government on earth. Learn what is happening to them. Cry out in protest. This is not a time for silence.