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House passes N. Korean human rights bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, providing final congressional approval for legislation to aid people living under one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

The House agreed to the bill without opposition during a voice vote Oct. 4, closing a week of quick action as members of Congress prepare to go home to campaign for the November election. The Senate approved the measure by unanimous consent Sept. 28.

President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law.

North Korea is one of eight governments labeled by the State Department as “countries of particular concern,” a designation reserved for the most severe violators of religious freedom. Among the human rights violations under the communist dictatorship of Kim Jong Il:

— widespread detention, torture -– including forced abortions –- and execution of political prisoners. It is estimated by human rights specialists at least 200,000 political prisoners are in North Korea’s gulag system and about 400,000 prisoners have died in the system during the last three decades.

— diversion of foreign food aid to the military or the black market, which has contributed to the starvation of more than 4 million North Koreans since 1995, human rights officials have reported.

The newly approved legislation, H.R. 4011, establishes the position of special envoy for North Korean human rights and calls for U.S. negotiations with the regime to be tied to human rights progress. It also authorizes the president to provide funds for nonprofit groups in order to advance human rights and democracy in the country. It seeks to assure increased protection for North Korean refugees.

Among other provisions, the bill requires verification that humanitarian and non-humanitarian aid is used for non-political purposes.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other members of a diverse coalition working for the bill’s passage applauded the congressional action.

The bill’s passage is “a wonderful victory for the millions of suffering North Koreans,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy. “This bill, and the unanimous vote it received, sends an unmistakable message to Kim Jong Il that we will not turn a blind eye to his treatment of his people in exchange for his empty promises on weapons of mass destruction.”

In the last two years, North Korea has acknowledged it has been secretly developing nuclear weapons.

“The United States will not be bullied or dictated to, certainly not by a man who has shown such total disregard for human life,” Duke said. “Under this man’s rule, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are languishing in a vast gulag system, where they are subjected to such inhumane treatment as starvation, torture, rape, gas chambers, infanticide and hard labor. Millions of North Koreans have starved to death, while Kim Jong Il and his supporters have lived in luxury off of the world’s kindness. And in return, Kim Jong Il exports such products as illicit drugs, counterfeit money and weapons systems.”

Americans “are a generous people, and rightly so; God has been very good to us,” Duke said. “But we cannot allow our generosity to be misused.”

The House originally passed the measure in July. The Senate amended that version, approving the special envoy as one of its additions.