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President urged to push for human rights in North Korea

WASHINGTON (BP)–A coalition that includes a Southern Baptist entity urged the White House to press for human rights reforms in North Korea during six-party talks Feb. 25 in Beijing, China.

The talks, involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan and both Koreas, began two days after the communist regime in North Korea was named the leading persecutor of Christians for the third consecutive year. Open Doors, a ministry to the persecuted church, ranked North Korea No. 1 on its “world watch list.”

In a Feb. 24 letter to President Bush, the North Korea Freedom Coalition called for U.S. negotiators at the talks not to agree to demands for humanitarian aid in exchange for a freeze in the totalitarian state’s nuclear weapons program. The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is a member of the coalition.

“To truly succeed in the war against terrorism, and to do our part to see that the women and men of North Korea one day live in a free society, any taxpayer-funded support to the North Korean regime must be accompanied by significant improvements in respect for human rights and religious freedom,” the coalition said in its letter. “Conditioning U.S. funds on tangible progress on issues such as Korean family reunification, expanded religious freedom, free migration for families of persons kidnapped by North Korea, modification of the regime’s ‘political crimes’ laws and active gulag monitoring by outside observers displays America’s commitment to freedom and our refusal to prop up dangerous dictators.”

North Korea’s regime, ruled by Kim Jong Il, began issuing threatening rhetoric more than a year ago. It acknowledged it had been secretly developing nuclear weapons. It banished United Nations inspectors, then withdrew from the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in January 2003 and threatened to resume nuclear missile tests. The highly secretive country is not only a leading persecutor of religious adherents but a notorious suppressor of human rights, with an estimated 200,000 political prisoners. It has been plagued in recent years by a widespread famine.

When asked at a Feb. 24 news conference if the U.S. State Department had signaled it might pledge aid without North Korea freezing its nuclear program, coalition chair Sandy Rios said, “We have indications that we need to keep their feet to the fire.” Rios is president of Concerned Women for America.

Coalition leaders said they want the United States to provide food and other humanitarian aid for North Koreans but only when delivery to the people can be verified. There have been many instances where food and medical aid intended for needy North Koreans have been distributed instead to the military, with what is left over sold to the people, coalition spokesman Sei Park said.

The coalition also reiterated in its letter to Bush its support for the North Korean Freedom Act, S. 1903 and H.R. 3573. The expansive bill is designed to provide humanitarian aid to North Koreans, protect refugees from the Asian country and promote democracy. Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., and Rep. Jim Leach, R.-Iowa, are the chief sponsors of the bills.

The regime of Kim Jong Il “holds the entire population under his heel and crushes any opposition to his tyranny,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “People of conscience cannot possibly sit by idly while millions of people are suffering under such inhumane conditions. The American people must come to their aid, and the North Korean Freedom Act is a crucial way to help. I hope we can see passage of this legislation this year.”

A year ago, ERLC President Richard Land and 16 others called on Bush to agree to North Korea’s demand for negotiations while requiring the regime to include human rights in those talks.

Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller called North Korea “the most repressed and isolated nation in the world” in regard to its rating as the foremost persecutor of Christians.

“It breaks my heart to hear some of the atrocities against our brothers and sisters there,” Moeller said in a written release. “Tens of thousands of Christians are among 200,000 prisoners held in politico-labor camps. Yet we hear reports of how the church in North Korea continues to grow.”

Others in the top 10 of Open Doors’ list of worst persecutors, in order beginning with No. 2, were Saudi Arabia; Laos; Vietnam; Iran; Turkmenistan; Maldives; Bhutan; Burma; and China.

Open Doors bases its rankings on reports from contacts in the countries, as well as field workers and Christians in those countries. The entire list of top 50 persecutors may be accessed at www.odusa.org.