NEWS
06/20/2016 12:20 EDT | Updated 06/21/2017 01:12 EDT

Plea to help to North Korean defectors is personal for one Canadian senator

OTTAWA — Somewhere in North Korea, Canadian Sen. Yonah Martin may have a living, breathing cousin. Or she may not. That's just one more secret of the world's pariah state.

Before she was born and before the Korean War that split the country along the 38th parallel, Martin's father fled southward, but he left behind a sister unable to travel. She was nine months pregnant.

"We don't know what happened to them," Martin recalled Monday. "Because of the armistice and the war that technically continues to this day, I have no way for knowing if my family survived."

That personal connection infused Martin's work in preparing a Senate report, released Monday, that calls on the government to do more to help North Korea defectors, who are caught in an international legal limbo.

The few defectors who actually escape are automatically granted South Korean citizenship.

But that can block them from applying to third countries as refugees.

Meanwhile, some languish in Thailand detention centres if they're lucky enough to make it that far, or must go underground to avoid abuse and repatriation to North Korea when they cross the border into China, the report says.

It says Canada is different from the United States, which has legislation that allows North Koreans to be treated as refugees.

Martin and her fellow Liberal and Conservative senators on the Senate human rights committee realize a similar law would take much work, so for now they are asking Immigration Minister John McCallum to exercise his discretion and change the designation, with a focus on helping women and children.

McCallum said he's prepared to discuss the idea.

"I'm open to hear their arguments," he told reporters.

The report cites a dramatic drop in North Korean refugee applicants to Canada, to zero on 2015 from 720 in 2012. That coincides with how the government has viewed North Korean refugee applications.

In 2010, a Federal Court ruling declared that South Korean citizenship should not be seen to be automatic for North Korean defectors. In 2012, a government study reversed that finding, the report says.

For her part, Martin acknowledged the intractable global security risk now posed by the nuclear-armed North Korea. But attempting to help North Korean defectors would represent at least one possible positive step.

"Canada can do something to be part of the solution, addressing the human rights and human need," she said.

Martin, who came to Canada at age seven with her family after being born in South Korea, became the first Canadian parliamentarian of Korean origin when she was appointed as a Conservative senator in 2009.

Sen. Jim Munson, the committee chair, said Martin was the catalyst behind the North Korean study.

Munson said he visited North Korea twice in his previous career as a journalist. "It's beyond Orwellian as far as I'm concerned."

North Korea actively searches for its escapees in neighbouring countries, said Munson, noting that "spies and secret police are always hunting."

Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, the committee's deputy chair, said female North Korean escapees are subjected to a variety of horrors after they escape, including resorting to the sex trade to make ends meet or becoming unwilling brides.

Pregnant escapees who are captured and repatriated are forced to have abortions if they can't prove their child is North Korean, she said.

The committee's witnesses included a noted voice among North Korean defectors: author Hyeonseo Lee who currently lives in South Korea.

In powerful testimony, she recalled her stark upbringing in North Korea under its grisly totalitarian rule.

"We grew up amid constant public executions in North Korea. I saw my first public execution when I was seven — a man who was hanging by his neck under a railroad bridge."