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Human rights pressure on N. Korea urged

WASHINGTON (BP)–Two Southern Baptist public policy leaders have joined a diverse coalition to urge the Bush administration to make human rights a part of negotiations with North Korea.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, united with more than 30 others in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to express their opposition to providing sizable monetary assistance to the Asian country without advances in human rights by the totalitarian regime. The signers ranged from conservative organizations such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy and Traditional Values Coalition to typically liberal groups such as the AFL-CIO and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

The letter went to Rice shortly before Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill traveled to Beijing, China, for talks in an effort to resolve an impasse with North Korea.

In February, the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il agreed to shut down a nuclear facility in 60 days as part of a plan to dismantle its nuclear programs in exchange for limited energy aid. North Korea refused to follow through, however, until $25 million in a Macao bank and linked to the communist regime is returned. No financial institution has been found to transfer the funds, however. A sizable portion of the money in the Macao bank was amassed through criminal activities, according to a U.S. investigation.

The coalition told Rice it believes the United States “must raise” human rights in discussions with the North Koreans, whether they are in negotiations between the U.S. and the Pyongyang regime or as part of the Six Party Talks. Those negotiations involve not only the U.S. and North Korea, but China, Japan, Russia and South Korea as well.

The letter signers also said the U.S. should insist in Six Party Talks that China abide by treaties it has signed to protect North Korean refugees. They also said China must permit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to have access to those refugees. China has been returning refugees fleeing Kim’s regime to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture and even death.

The coalition asked for a meeting with Rice to gain her promise the U.S. “will vigorously promote improvement of North Korea’s abysmal human rights and humanitarian conditions.”

The letter also was sent for informational purposes to some of the presidential candidates: John Edwards and Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party, and Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, as well as Sens. Sam Brownback and John McCain, among Republicans.

Human rights and personal freedom do not exist in North Korea, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported.

Kim’s regime is a perpetrator of a variety of human rights violations, among which 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 inmates have died in those prisons in the last three decades. The regime has diverted foreign food aid to the military or the black market, thereby contributing to the starvation of from 2 million to more than 4 million North Koreans since a famine began in 1995.

The regime is especially repressive of Christians and other religious adherents. North Korea is one of eight governments designated by the State Department as “countries of particular concern,” a category reserved for the world’s most severe religious persecutors.

The ERLC’s Duke said the letter “signals the extent of American concern for the plight of millions of North Koreans. We cannot sit back and be idle while these atrocities take place.”

“While I am very pleased that the administration is attempting to end Kim Jong Il’s ambitions to be a nuclear power, I do not want to gain that peace of mind at the expense of millions of suffering North Koreans,” Duke told Baptist Press. “As long as Kim Jong Il is a menace to his own people, I think the entire world should consider him a menace to peace in the region and throughout the world.

“If he can demonstrate a willingness to relieve the suffering of his own people, I will be willing to believe that he is prepared to respect the well-being of the citizens of other nations,” Duke added. “The United States must continue to remind Kim Jong Il that his mistreatment of millions of his own citizens is a stumbling block to negotiations.”

The letter’s call for human rights to be included in negotiations with North Korea does not mark a new approach for Land, Duke or many other signers. They have consistently urged such an emphasis in the past.

Among others signing the May 25 letter to Rice were Gary Bauer, president of American Values; Rich Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Morton Halperin, executive director of the Open Society Policy Center; Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute; Donna M. Hughes, professor at the University of Rhode Island; Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch; John Miller, former U.S. ambassador at large on modern day slavery, and Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom.

Also endorsing the letter were representatives of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Jubilee Campaign, Korean American Church Coalition, Korean American Foundation, Leadership Council for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights and the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.