As regular readers of this newspaper will know, reports on the human rights situation in North Korea tend to read more like a litany of inhuman wrongs.

Aid agencies estimate that in recent years, more than two million people have died of starvation, while a 2002 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization showed that 13 million people, more than half the population, were chronically malnourished.

This situation has barely improved since, partly because food sent from overseas is routinely siphoned off to feed the ruling class and military, prompting agencies such as Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontiers to quit the country.

Refugees and defectors testify that political and social freedoms are nonexistent, with gulag-style camps awaiting anyone who fails to toe dictator Kim Jong Il’s party line.

It’s less well known that refugees fleeing to China face huge difficulties of their own. Leaving North Korea is a capital offense, and forced repatriation is generally followed by detention, torture or execution.

Despite this, China refuses to recognize those fleeing the North as refugees. Men, women and children alike are classed instead as “economic migrants,” counter to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which China has agreed to, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As a result, refugees have to live in hiding before they can be smuggled into a third country, or try to seek asylum at a foreign embassy within China.

They’re helped by a network of activists who place themselves at constant risk of arrest and imprisonment.

With the emphasis placed on the Japanese abductees, you might be forgiven for thinking that Japanese politicians have little interest in the refugee issue. However, in 2003 three Diet members helped found the International Parliamentarians’ Coalition for North Korean Refugees, an action group whose aims include pressuring China to recognize escaping North Koreans as refugees. In recent years, the Diet has also passed laws and resolutions related to North Korean human rights.

In addition to government action, there are a number of nongovernmental organizations supporting the activists in China. One such NGO, Liberty in North Korea, founded its Tokyo chapter last year, with the aim of raising awareness here.

“I felt it was important that people know what was happening in a country that is so shut off from the world,” said Naomi Pilcher, founder of LiNK’s Tokyo chapter. “As Japan is a neighboring country of North Korea and its government can have an influence on what happens, I wanted to help promote awareness among the Japanese public, and push Japanese politicians to make a difference.”

Setting up an NGO can be a daunting task, so the first thing to do is check whether it’s actually necessary. According to Sarajean Rossitto, a full-time nonprofit NGO consultant who formed the volunteer organization People for Social Change in 2005, it may not be.

“My first bit of advice is: don’t start your own org. Assess what you want to do, then do some research. If there really isn’t a group doing what you want to do, then it might make sense to start one.”

For expats in Japan, there is also the language barrier to contend with. As Rossitto says, “There are so many people who want to do something but don’t have the language. This was one of the reasons for forming PSC, where I bring together people from diverse backgrounds who want to make a difference, people who want to get involved right here, right now.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the language barrier works both ways, with foreign loan words increasing the conceptual gap between NGOs and the Japanese public. In a country where being a “boranchia” can mean as little as half a day on litter duty, the idea of long-term commitment to a cause is much less widespread than in countries such as Rossitto’s native U.S.

“There’s no difference in one-off experience,” she observes, “but a big difference in long-term experience.”

When starting LiNK Tokyo, Pilcher experienced this disparity first-hand. “If I was in America,” she said, “I feel that setting up an NPO would be much easier because Americans tend to want to help human rights. LiNK has been a challenge here because social change rarely starts from the people. LiNK headquarters in Washington has realized that Japan is a top-down country, unlike America, which is a bottom-up country. LiNK will have to go the Japanese government and celebrities first to try to influence the public.”

In light of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that most of the volunteers are expats. Although LiNK Tokyo is widely publicized on the networking Web site Mixi and through mailings, it seems that few Japanese people are willing to become involved regularly on a long-term basis.

Despite teething problems, since LiNK started holding events there’s been an encouraging response from the public. There have been film screenings and a charity concert, all well-attended, and a benefit fashion show will be held in May.

One hurdle in running events, though, has been the cost of renting a venue. While in other countries it’s common for restaurants or bars not to charge a rental fee for charity events, in Japan they are treated no differently from regular events, with fees of up to 300,000 yen being asked for. Those held so far have been at expat-run businesses which understand the aims of charity events and asked for at most a minimal fee.

Financial resources are a crucial issue for NGOs. Rossitto provides professional budget and resourcing advice to a wide range of clients, some as big as U.N. agencies and international firms.

“Some are surprised that I include a budget,” she says, “or that I expect to get paid to create or run a project. Funding or payment usually comes from corporations or international NGO partners.”

But not everyone has this level of backing: for groups starting from scratch, it can be very difficult to expand without first having funds in place.

“When you talk about getting people together, it’s much more difficult if you don’t have resources,” says Rossitto. “It’s a matter of finding the resources to kick everything off. The amount that comes from individuals is very small, and organizations don’t have staff with PR skills to go after money [from companies]. Small income reinforces the idea that this is just a hobby or volunteerism, which I think is unique for a developed country. This is what holds the sector back from developing into a real citizens’ force to be reckoned with.”

This is borne out by Pilcher’s experience starting LiNK in Tokyo. “I started it completely alone,” she said. “I asked a few friends if they knew anyone who had interest, and found the first three people that way. The first meeting consisted of myself and three others. Between the four of us, we started asking around for other people who were interested, and began to organize the first event.”

From this humble start, and despite the challenges they’ve faced, LiNK Tokyo has expanded and continues to expand. The LiNK Xanga Web site includes a quotation of graffiti from the Berlin Wall, which could stand as a motto for the NGO field in general: “Many people who in many small places do many small things . . . can change the world.”

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