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Envoy: Pressure from U.S., others needed on N. Korea regime

WASHINGTON (BP)–North Korea, widely considered the world’s worst violator of religious freedom and other human rights, will follow the former Iron Curtain countries that escaped totalitarian rule in the late 1980s and early 1990s “only if there is concerted international pressure,” a special envoy for President Bush said.

While the United States and other countries are supporting transformation in North Korea, the South Korean government regrettably remains polarized over the issue, Jay Lefkowitz and other speakers said at a recent briefing on religious freedom in the northeast Asian country.

South Korea is the key to what happens on the Korean peninsula, said Lefkowitz, Bush’s special envoy on human rights in North Korea, and Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

It is “important for the South Korean government to listen to the people of South Korea,” Lefkowitz said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. The people of South Korea -– because they share a common culture and many have family members in North Korea –- are the most important group regarding relations with their neighbor.

Malinowski told the audience “credible human rights reporting” is necessary to persuade South Korea to overcome its polarization over North Korea.

North Korea’s communist dictatorship under Kim Jong Il has been, and continues to be, a perpetrator of a variety of human rights violations, according to reports. Among these are the detention, torture -– including forced abortions -– and execution of political prisoners. Human rights officials estimate 200,000 political prisoners are in North Korea’s gulag system and about 400,000 prisoners have died in those prisons in the last three decades. The regime has diverted foreign food aid to the military or the black market, which has contributed to the starvation of an estimated 2 million to more than 4 million North Koreans since a famine began in 1995.

No group is “being deprived any more than the North Korean people,” Lefkowitz said. The North Korean regime “spares no effort in repressing religion,” he said.

The State Department has designated North Korea as one of its “countries of particular concern,” a label reserved for the most severe violators of religious liberty.

In November, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report chronicling violations of religion and belief in North Korea. Of the about 7,000 North Koreans living in South Korea, 40 such defectors were asked, among other questions, if religious freedom existed in their former country, said David Hawk, who prepared the report for the USCIRF, a bipartisan panel that reports to the White House and Congress on religious liberty overseas.

“They all said, ‘No,’” Hawk said at the briefing. “Some thought it was a really dumb question.”

The defectors also were asked if they had ever observed a religious service and if they had ever met a religious leader. The overwhelming response was negative, although two defectors said they had witnessed executions in the 1990s of people who were caught with Bibles, Hawk said. The interviewees described anti-religious propaganda they were exposed to in North Korea through education, beginning in middle school, and the media, he said.

North Koreans are required to attend sessions at least once a week at the Kim Il Sung revolutionary research centers, which total about 450,000, Lefkowitz reported. Kim Il Sung is the father of the current dictator and the ruler who led his regime to abolish Christianity and all other religions shortly after the Korean War in the early 1950s.

North Korea “has been likened to a steel box with a few holes” in it through which light may enter, Malinowski said. The strategy needs to be to put “more holes in that box,” he said.

While South Korea is stymied by its polarization over the issue, the United States can act to aid the North Korean people, the panelists said.

The United States can increase broadcasting to North Korea, accept refugees from that country and avoid providing humanitarian aid to North Koreans without effective monitoring, Lefkowitz said at the March 30 briefing.

About one-third of North Koreans have modified their radios to receive more than the regime’s propaganda, Lefkowitz said. While the United States wants “to accept North Korean refugees,” it “is never going to be the solution” for most people fleeing that country, he said.

The United States can help human rights in North Korea by continuing “to take a leadership role,” by accepting refugees and by issuing a declaration in support of freedom for all Koreans, said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Harvard University professor. Accepting just a “few dozen” refugees this year or next year would send a “powerful” international message, he said.

Malinowski said of the conditions in North Korea, “I don’t expect dramatic change soon,” but he added he is hopeful.