Yesterday marked the resumption of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programs. South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and America have resisted adding other topics, especially human rights in North Korea, to their agenda. Given the urgency of the North’s nuclear threat and potential for proliferation, this reluctance is understandable, but it is a grave mistake.
The atrocities committed by Kim Jong Il’s regime against its own people are known, though not well enough publicized. For 32 years, Freedom House has produced a detailed annual survey of freedom in every country and territory in the world. Only one country has received the lowest possible score in every category in every year — North Korea.
The regime earns this ignoble distinction by repressing its people with unmatched zeal. Concentration camps with roughly a quarter of a million political prisoners litter the otherwise barren countryside. Punishable offenses include accidentally dropping a Kim Jong Il lapel pin and failure to keep his government-mandated home portrait spotlessly clean. Whole families may be incarcerated for three generations because of an “offense” by one of their members, which results in children, some as young as nine years old, being consigned to the camps. Prisoners are routinely required to witness and endure torture, starvation, forced abortion, and public executions. Many live by eating rats and snakes.
Even with deadly force, hawkish surveillance and continual propaganda, Kim barely keeps his government from crumbling. Decades of economic inefficiency meant that perhaps 2.5 million starved to death in the 1990s alone.
Kim’s brutality has pushed his desperate subjects northward to China, in hope of food and a modicum of freedom. Fearing floods of refugees, the Chinese government, in violation of international law, has hired packs of refugee hunters, tasked with forcibly herding Koreans back to their hellish homeland. There they are branded as traitors and face certain imprisonment, forced labor, likely torture and perhaps execution because they sought food and freedom. One refugee testifies: “For North Koreans in China, the word ‘repatriation’ is more dreadful than the word ‘death.’” Despite China’s efforts to stem the flow, it has become home to tens of thousands of hiding North Korean refugees.
The Bush administration stresses that promoting freedom is a key component of its security strategy. In his second inaugural address, the president declared that America will, “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” This is more than rhetorical flourish. It is provoking change in the Middle East, just as similar previous policies helped the collapse of the European communist powers. The sections of the 1975 Helsinki agreements that required signatories to support a broad range of humanitarian and political rights for their inhabitants were often regarded by foreign-policy realists as window dressing, but the pressures they released eroded authoritarian rule in the Soviet bloc.
However, this approach has been slighted in Korea policy, most notably in South Korea’s naïve Sunshine policy of one-sided concessions to the North. It should be slighted no longer. A wide range of religious groups and other human-rights organizations in the U.S. are combining to call for a Helsinki style regional-security pact that would include monitoring humanitarian aid, resettlement of refugees, family reunification, and religious freedom. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has suggested important elements for such a pact, recommending that the U.S. and its allies should:
- Urge China to honor its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, including temporary asylum for refugees, providing the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees unrestricted access to North Koreans in China, ensuring that refugees are not forcibly returned, and allowing greater access by international humanitarian organizations.
- Urge the North to admit U.N. Special Rapporteurs to assess the human rights situation.
- Use appropriate international fora to condemn the North’s egregious human-rights abuses and seek protections and redress for victims
- Expand radio, television, Internet, and print information alternatives for North Korea.
- Delegations visiting North Korea should seek access for international monitors, as promised by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-gwan to visiting U.S. Senate staff in 2003.
President Bush has said to those under tyranny “the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors,” has received former North Korean political prisoner Kang Chol-hwan at the White House, and will soon appoint a special envoy on human rights in North Korea, as mandated in the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act. Now he should also act on his commitment to make “clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.”