"CATASTROPHIC" was the word picked last week by Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, to describe the exodus he expects from Iraq if the United States goes ahead and removes Saddam Hussein.

Given the uncertainties of war, maybe Lubbers has it right--but maybe not. What produced a devastating refugee crisis for Iraqis in 1991 was not the war to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, but the failure to remove Saddam from power. This round, with President Bush staking his foreign policy on the liberation of the Iraqi people, there's every reason to expect that America will be ladling out aid and shoring up safety for the Iraqis faster than you can say "So long Saddam." That could go far to stay the refugee tide that Lubbers fears.

Even so, Lubbers's assessment might be compelling had he built up credibility by his handling of an actual refugee catastrophe already unfolding on his watch. This is the flood of North Koreans seeking haven in China.

As Lubbers knows, the North Korean refugee crisis has been going on under the nose of the UNHCR's Beijing office for almost a decade. This is not a short-term displacement occasioned by a war of liberation. The estimated 300,000 North Koreans on the lam in China are fleeing a holocaust inflicted by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il on his own people. Hundreds of defectors have testified to human tragedy on a colossal scale. More than one million people in the past half decade have starved to death. Hundreds of thousands have been consigned to wither and die in a gulag that rivals Joseph Stalin's. Stories have emerged of people flayed alive in Kim's prison camps; of the systematic murder of babies born to women prisoners; of a country in which people both in and out of the camps have been reduced to eating rats and dirt, or even to cannibalism.

One might imagine that the plight of human beings fleeing this hell would be a top priority for the leading international agency protecting refugees. But in order to aid these people, the UNHCR would have to stand up to the Chinese government, which has so far refused to acknowledge the Koreans' right to asylum under U.N. rules. By Beijing's lights, not a single North Korean can qualify as a refugee. All are "economic migrants." As such, they are hunted by Chinese security, and when caught they are sent back--sometimes to immediate execution, often to terms in the prison camps that amount to death sentences.

This puts China in breach of a series of lofty deals it has signed with the U.N., including the 1951 convention on refugees and 1967 additional protocols, as well as a 1995 U.N.-Beijing treaty that allows either party to call for independent, binding arbitration should any dispute arise over the handling of refugees.

But no dispute has arisen, no arbitration has been invoked, for the simple reason that no high official at the U.N.-- not Lubbers, and certainly not his boss, Secretary General Kofi Annan--seems to believe these North Korean refugees are worth fighting for, or even speaking out about, at least not in terms stronger than a kind of vague U.N. "concern." A higher priority for the U.N. is to humor the Chinese authorities so that the UNHCR can keep its office in Beijing--from which to pursue what UNHCR officials call their "quiet diplomacy." Years of this tactic have produced less than nothing. China's authorities have learned that ignoring the UNHCR's muttering carries no cost.

In fact, with the tacit consent of the UNHCR, China's tyrants preen themselves on their model behavior as members of the civilized community. Beijing holds a seat on the guiding body of the UNHCR, the Executive Committee. At a December 2001 shindig hosted by Lubbers in Geneva, Switzerland, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the U.N. convention on refugees, Chinese vice foreign minister Wang Guangya blathered on about how "China has always conscientiously fulfilled its international obligations" and lauded the refugee convention as the "magna carta of international refugee law." Meanwhile, back in China, the hunting and returning of refugees (known as "refoulement," which is banned by the convention) continued apace.

When U.S.-based refugee rights activist Suzanne Scholte wrote last month to China's authorities protesting the imminent return of some North Koreans recently seized in China, she received a letter from China's ambassador to the United States, Yang Jiechi. Yang explained that "the prevailing view of the international community is that they are not refugees, . . . they are illegal economic migrants." Yang went on to protest that "some of them have committed further violations of more Chinese laws by breaking into foreign diplomatic and consular missions in China." He was referring to the few score North Korean refugees who over the past two years have made a desperate bid for international help, risking arrest by storming foreign legations in China.

To find the only effective source of help for the North Korean refugees, don't even bother checking the UNHCR's payroll. Genuine relief comes only via a loose network of private individuals, who--often at risk to their own safety--have helped smuggle some out of China to asylum in third countries. Best known among this group is a German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, who had the chance about three years ago to witness what he describes as the "holocaust" in North Korea, and has since dedicated himself, in the face of death threats, to speaking out, organizing protests, doing anything he can to save the North Korean refugees.

When I asked a UNHCR spokesman last week to spell out how North Koreans can secure asylum in China, he repeated the agency's line: The UNHCR is denied access by Beijing to the border areas where the refugees arrive; and North Koreans seeking asylum must first request refugee status from the Chinese authorities. He acknowledged that seven North Koreans who tried this in Beijing last August were arrested on the spot and that the UNHCR has had no news of them since.

From an agency so sensitive to human suffering as to be sounding advance alarms on Iraq, one might have expected words at least as strong as "catastrophic"--one might even have expected actions--to muster help for the North Koreans in China. What we have instead is the U.N.'s quiet diplomacy, and from the thousands of North Koreans turned back by China, a terrible silence.

Claudia Rosett is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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