“They initially wanted to go to the United States, but Washington rejected their demand, citing its position that it does not accept North Korean defectors.”
4 N. Koreans arrive in Seoul, Korea Times, July 9, 2003
“Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
Inscription on the Statue of Liberty
“Why should we expend energy and time on getting N. Koreans to the United States when they can and ought to go to South Korea which is democratic, capitalist, and has a large church presence? Not to mention, they share the same language and heritage.”
This was my response last year to the efforts of a human rights activist who was lobbying for a bill that would allow N. Korean refugees asylum in the United States.
Today I find myself in the ironic predicament of collecting petitions, talking with the media, making the case to churches, lobbying Congress, and urging our government to grant our four N. Korean sparrows’ asylum request to come to the U.S.
It was not until I read the brief letters of the four N. Koreans that I finally changed my mind. Up until that point, I was content with just helping them get out of Egypt. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that there would be a second phase to Operation: God’s Sparrows, that is, of getting these kids to the Promised Land.
Addressed to “President of America”, the letters express one dominant theme. In the words of one of the teenagers, “I desperately want to go to America and live out my dreams.” Having been born and raised in the United States, I have often taken for granted the dream that is America.
Yes, other countries including South Korea may be free, democratic, and capitalist. But only in America are people’s dreams taken seriously.
There is no equivalent in South Korea of the American dream encapsulated in the idea that children, no matter their family’s background, can be better off than their parents. The primary reason is because that is not very realistic in South Korea. That is why so many South Koreans in the past and still today have desired to live in the United States more than anywhere else in the world.
So the U.S. is a better place for some N. Koreans to live in than S. Korea. Why should Americans open their arms to them?
North Koreans should be allowed asylum to the U.S. because this is in keeping with the promise of America. This nation of immigrants, founded by refugees, welcomes not merely the best and the brightest but also those dreamers who face the most horrendous persecution and yet refuse to allow that flicker of hope to improve their own and their children’s lot in life to die out.
This was true for the Soviet Jews who could have gone to Israel but were allowed asylum in the U.S. under the Morrison-Lautenberg Amendment and Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This was true for the Cubans who have been allowed asylum in the U.S. under the Lautenberg Amendment. This should be true for the North Koreans like our four teenagers who risked deportation to a N. Korean concentration camp when they chose to escape into a British consulate in order to live out their dreams in America.
Why the Brownback/Kennedy bill has been proposed in June 2003 rather than in June 1973 is an indictment on the narcissism of the Korean-American community which recently celebrated its centennial in America. Why the U.S. State Department has opposed the enactment of this bill and the asylum of our four North Korean teenagers can only be attributed to temporary amnesia of America’s most cherished ideals and tradition.
I conclude with the bittersweet ending of Operation: God’s Sparrows. After four days in Shanghai, our four sparrows had their asylum bid rejected by Washington, DC. S. Korean officials quickly arranged their departure via the Philippines to Seoul late Monday amidst growing media attention.
These brave young four are now part of history. They were not the first to benefit from the Brownback/Kennedy bill but they will have played a significant part in getting the bill finally passed. They were not the first to settle in the U.S. but they will have broken down walls of apathy among Korean-American churches which will soon be called on to support those North Korean refugees who will make it here. They were the first to be rescued under the sponsorship of The Chosun Journal and in honor of the true Redeemer but they will not have been the last.