Leading democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Tuesday that he "strongly support[s]" the nationwide Korean-American church campaign demanding human rights for North Korean refugees.
In a letter addressed to the Korean Church Coalition for North Korea Freedom, Obama called the desperation of North Korean refugees "an injustice that must be addressed."
"North Koreans should not have to flee their country just to enjoy the most basic rights of life, liberty, and conscience," wrote the Illinois senator to Sam Kim, the executive director of KCC.
If they do leave their country, Obama noted, they should not be "forcibly returned into persecution," but rather have protection which asylum seekers and refugees are granted under international law.
"These issues should be on the table when we talk to countries in the region, including China," he said.
At least 500,000 North Koreans have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years to escape hunger and oppression under dictator Kim Jong Il. Although North Koreans who flee to China are considered by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea as "refugees," China claims they are "economic migrants" as an excuse to repatriate them to North Korea where they face imprisonment, torture, and sometimes execution for leaving the country – a state crime.
In response to China's treatment of North Korean refugees, KCC has organized prayer vigils every Tuesday at one or more Chinese consulates in the United States. The prayer rallies began in April and will continue until the start of the Beijing Olympic Games on Aug. 8.
"We hope that China will finally open its ears and eyes and realize that they have a legal and moral obligation to protect and safeguard the human rights of the refugees residing within their borders," said Kim, when the prayer vigils first kicked off on April 1.
At this week's prayer vigil, more than 300 KCC members marched in front of the Los Angeles Consulate of the People's Republic of China. The rally also featured a special 30-minute opening dedicated to victims of China's monstrous earthquake. Banners reading, "Our hearts and prayers go out to China's earthquake victims," were displayed at the rally.
The prayer vigils are part of the KCC's "Let My People Go Before 2008 Beijing Olympics" campaign that aims to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to display banners and bumper stickers throughout the country before the Olympic Games.
KCC is making three requests to China: for Beijing to grant refugee status to North Koreans instead of calling them economic migrants; stop forced repatriation of North Koreans back to their country; and allow them safe passage to a third country that is willing to allow them to resettle.
"We are determined to make a big impact and we will continue to speak out for the North Korean refugees who have no voice of their own," Kim said earlier.
In addition to Obama, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas also sent a letter of support for KCC's prayer vigils. Brownback, who has been a long-time advocate for North Korean refugees and persecuted Christians, said "now is the time for China" to reach out to people without voice, hope, and freedom.
"Thank you for coming tonight and for believing in the power of prayer to win the freedom and peace of our brothers and sisters in North Korea," Brownback wrote.
According to the Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors, North Korea is the most repressive regime in the world in terms of how it treats its Christian population.
Obama, along with rival Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, have both called on President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games if China does not improve its human rights record in the months ahead of the Games. In particular, they are upset over China's involvement with human rights violations in Darfur and Tibet.