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U.S. Defector Policy May Be Changing

Posted May. 01, 2006 03:34,   


A U.S. immigration court has granted political asylum status to a North Korean defector who had already obtained South Korean citizenship for the first time ever.

Jeffrey Romig, a Los Angeles immigration court judge, decided last month at the asylum trial for Seo Jae-sok (40), a former North Korean military officer, to grant him asylum status.

As the lawyer from the U.S. Immigration office gave up the appeal to a higher court, Seo’s asylum status is actually confirmed. After a year, he can apply for denizenship, and five years after that, he will be eligible for U.S. citizenship.

There have been several cases where the U.S. court granted asylum status to North Korean defectors, but it is the first time that it was granted to a defector with South Korean citizenship.

People are paying keen attention to what influence this decision will have on similar cases of defectors with South Korean citizenship in the future.

Given that U.S. President George W. Bush met with the defector family in person, and Jay Lefkowitz, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, said, “The U.S. is ready to accept North Korean defectors,” a change in U.S. policies toward North Korean defectors is expected.

So far, the U.S. government has maintained its stance to consider giving asylum grants to North Korean defectors with South Korean citizenship only if they have a desperate reason preventing them from settling down in South Korea or if they provide crucial information.

Seo, who is now staying in Los Angeles with his family, said in an interview with the Yonhap News that just after a week he arrived in the U.S. with a passport, his resident registration number in South Korea was cancelled and financial aid stopped. He said, “The immigration court has probably taken such circumstances into consideration to grant asylum status.”

Lawyer Kang Eun-ju from the human rights organization “Human Rights Project,” who took Seo’s case, said, “This decision of the court will have a positive effect on the other 10 similar cases that are currently in progress.”

But she added not to put too much hope on the result, saying, “All the cases will be decided depending on each individual standard.”

Seo said, “From what I know, currently 40~50 defectors in L.A. and 20~30 in New York are preparing for asylum. It’s less than a hundred, but a lot of defectors will come to this region in the future.”

Soon-Taek Kwon maypole@donga.com