WASHINGTON – The State Department admitted Friday that it had received a letter requesting asylum on May 8 from five North Koreans who sought asylum at a Japanese consulate in China the same day and are now in South Korea.
The State Department has a copy of the letter sent by the Defense Forum Foundation, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said at a regular briefing.
The nonpartisan foundation has been involved in drawing attention to the situation in North Korea and the plight of North Korean refugees.
“The message stated that the family sought asylum in the United States,” Reeker said. “Unfortunately, the letter was not transmitted to relevant offices in the department that were handling this matter.”
Reeker said the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Bureau would have been the correct office.
On Wednesday, Reeker had said, “We were not approached to provide resettlement in the United States.”
But Reeker changed his position Friday when he confirmed the letter had been received via fax in the office of Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for global affairs.
The five North Koreans — a couple, their 2-year-old daughter, the man’s mother and his younger brother — were seized by armed Chinese policemen at the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, Liaoning Province.
The incident has sparked a bitter diplomatic row between Tokyo and Beijing over whether the police were given consent to enter the consulate, as China maintains.
The family was allowed to leave China and arrived in South Korea via Manila early Thursday morning.
Asked in the briefing if the North Koreans could have been resettled in the U.S. if the letter had not been misplaced, Reeker said, “I can’t say what would have happened in the event that more people had been aware of the letter. And anyway, our focus has been the safe passage of these people.”
The New York Times reported May 12 that the asylum seekers carried with them a letter indicating they wanted to defect to the U.S., in part because they feared being attacked by undercover North Korean agents in South Korea.
The paper added that if Washington directly granted them political asylum, it would put new pressure on its already delicate relationship with China and almost certainly scuttle efforts by the administration of President George W. Bush to restart a dialogue with Pyongyang.
Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, said the U.S. government should have immediately accepted their asylum request because it was difficult for the North Koreans to contact the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees when they were being detained by the Chinese authorities.
Commenting on resettlement of the refugees in a third country, Reeker said it “would obviously be up to UNHCR to determine whether any individuals qualify as refugees to resettlement in a third country.”
Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, has said he would assist with visas for the five to relocate to the U.S.
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