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Lawmakers prod US on N Korean refugee act

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Feb 24 (Reuters) The US government has failed to implement 2004 legislation aimed at promoting human rights in North Korea and giving asylum to refugees from that communist state, senior US legislators said.

In a letter this week to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, US senators and congressmen said the State Department must swiftly implement the North Korean Human Rights Act and take the lead in tackling the North's refugee crisis.

''Not one North Korean has been offered asylum or refugee status in the 16 months since the unanimous passage of the legislation,'' said the letter, signed by nine lawmakers including Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.

The act set aside 24 million dollar a year for activities including the resettling of refugees from North Korea. But the letter said the Bush administration did not include funds to implement the act in its 2007 budget request.

Experts say U.S. inaction -- especially after President George W. Bush's repeated condemnation of North Korea's human rights record -- makes promoting human rights in the North harder and leaves America open to charges of hypocrisy.

''It's become increasingly indefensible to have no refugee admissions,'' said Doug Anderson, an adviser to Hyde's committee. He noted that Belgium and several other European states have started admitting North Korean refugees.

A major cause of the delay was overlapping jurisdiction over refugee screening between agencies including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, said Anderson, who was closely involved in drafting the act.

Funding was held up in part because the bill was signed by Bush so late in 2004 that it missed the 2005 budget and was not factored into the 2006 budget request, he added.

''There are things in the works that will come to fruition in the months ahead,'' Anderson said.

U.S. FACES SKEPTICISM Experts say as many as 100,000 mostly women and children are hiding in China after fleeing impoverished North Korea, a country deeply isolated and under international pressure over its nuclear weapons programs.

Officials from South Korea, which has settled thousands of North Koreans but drawn criticism for avoiding confronting Pyongyang over human rights, have voiced an ''understandable skepticism'' about U.S. seriousness, Anderson said.

''The lull has done damage to the moral high ground the United States has had on this,'' said Adrian Hong, head of Liberation in North Korea, a grass-roots group that sells T-shirts to fund 30 shelters for North Koreans in China.

''Any time we approach the South Korean government or anyone else and ask them to accept more refugees, they'll say 'what about the United States?' and we're left with nothing to say,'' he said.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters on Thursday he wasn't sure how soon the United States would be ready to start handling North Korean refugee applications.

''We are working both internally and with other organizations and governments to establish necessary modalities for doing that kind of processing,'' he said.

Jae Ku, head of the North Korea project at the U.S.

government-funded Freedom House, welcomed the renewed congressional pressure, but added: ''I will be pessimistic until the first refugee gets processed.'' Reuters PDS VP0525

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