Woodside woman urges reforms in North Korea

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"North Koreans, they escape the country for food and freedom," she said. "The Chinese government, they do not treat them as refugees, they send them back."

One of the provisions of the Senate bill for which she is campaigning, the North Korea Freedom bill, would require the United States to allow refugees fleeing North Korea to seek asylum.

"I think this will give pressure to Kim Jong Il," she said of the North Korean leader who inherited his leadership position from his father, Kim Il Sung. Sung was a Communist who led the country after it became independent from South Korea in 1948.

Kang, a South Korean postal worker from Woodside who has no familial ties to North Korea, organized the group Korean-American Defenders of Freedom, which drew members of groups such as the Korean-American Parents Association and the Korean Immigrant Services of New York to a luncheon in December.

She familiarized her fellow advocates with the bill in December, and since then she has spent every Sunday at churches and businesses dutifully collecting signatures of support for the legislation.

Earlier this month she brought 5,300 New Yorkers' signatures to Washington, D.C. to show the representatives support.

It was there that she met with U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (D-Kansas), the bill's sponsor, and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights).

"Sam and other members of Congress, when I delivered (the petitions) they were so glad to see me. They told me, 'you did a really, really, really great job,'" she said. "Probably it's going to help if he brings it to Congress and they see that people want this.

"They said this is not only Korean people who need to do this - the entire world needs this," she said.

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea reported that 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans are imprisoned in political labor prisons, according to a CNN report that came out after rare pictures of these camps were broadcast on Japanese television.

Brownback's bill not only deals with asylum but is also designed to "promote human rights, democracy and development in North Korea, to promote overall security on the Korean Peninsula and establish a more peaceful world environment," according to the bill's text.

Subsections of the bill describe how political action will promote humanitarian efforts in North Korea by distributing food and building democracy by broadcasting radio into the country.

"We send the freedom sounds to North Korean people," she said. "They're afraid of (Kim Jong Il)."

A Woodside-based Korean advocacy group comprised of younger generation Koreans called "Nodotdol," which means "stepping stone," may take a different stance on the bill. The group has butted heads with Kang's organization in the past and has been accused of being pro-North Korea, a charge Nodotdol denied.

"One of the problems is that any call for coupling talks around security issues and human rights violations ... will probably just make the problem worse," said Wol-San Liem, a representative for the group. "In general, we recognize this bill is going to exacerbate the problems."

While the Nodotdol has not taken an official stance on the bill yet, Liem said the group "agrees with the spirit of opposing the bill."

Until the bill is passed in both chambers of Congress - it is scheduled for a vote in the House in late April - Kang said she will continue to lobby for congressional support. As of Monday, she had collected 1,245 more signatures for support.

"Why am I in this?" she said without pausing to think, "justice, human rights."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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