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Speakers: N. Korea’s human rights record must be confronted

WASHINGTON (BP)–Human rights must be a central issue in negotiations with North Korea, democracy and religious freedom advocates said at a recent day-long conference.

The conference –- which featured members of Congress and the Bush administration, American and Korean religious leaders, North Korean defectors and a dissident from the former Soviet Union –- was devoted to the lack of human rights in what some observers describe as the world’s most oppressive regime. The conference, which received funding through the State Department, came only a week before the United States, North Korea and four other countries are to resume talks focused on the elimination of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

The American government must guarantee its “negotiations agenda will always include … at the highest level of priority such human rights issues as family reunification, rule of law development, religious freedom, prison monitoring and needs-based food distribution,” Southern Baptist public policy specialist Richard Land said at the July 19 Washington conference.

Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky said it is “very important” to end the policy of appeasement. While there are “clear voices” on North Korea, there also are some signs of appeasement from the United States, Europe and South Korea, he said.

“[We] must force dictators to adjust their policy,” Sharansky said. “The freedom of the people of North Korea is the best guarantee of the freedom of people in America and Europe.”

The United States should provide economic aid only if North Korea opens its weapons of mass destruction programs to inspection and renounces use of such weapons, said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“We do not believe that financial aid, or any other kind of aid, should be given to the regime if it does no more than agree to curb its WMD activities,” Land said. “An exchange of promises whereby the North Korean regime offered not to export its terrorism in exchange for a license and subsidy from the United States and/or other countries to continue acts of brute terrorism against its own people would not be moral, workable, realistic or acceptable ever.”

The day after the conference, KCNA, the North Korean regime’s official news agency, attacked the meeting, calling it “inappropriate behavior incompatible with dialogue,” according to The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, meanwhile, told The Chosun Ilbo he planned to raise North Korea’s human rights record in talks with the regime. The North Korean news agency said such a step in the six-party talks “can bring only conflict and rupture,” possibly ending the negotiations, the newspaper reported.

The six-party talks are scheduled to resume July 26 in Beijing, China. In addition to the United States and North Korea, the negotiations involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. North Korea pulled out of the talks in February when it revealed it had developed nuclear weapons, but it recently announced it would rejoin negotiations.

In addition to being a nuclear threat to other countries, North Korea is marked by a “human rights catastrophe on a scale that has seldom … been equaled,” Land said at the conference.

North Korea’s communist dictatorship under Kim Jong Il is guilty of widespread human rights violations, according to reports from the northeast Asian country. 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 anywhere from two million to more than four million North Koreans since a famine began in 1995, it has been estimated. Now, about 40 percent of the country’s children are chronically malnourished, according to an estimate.

The rights of North Korean refugees who flee to China also are ignored in many cases. The Chinese government returns refugees to North Korea, where they are subject to imprisonment, torture and execution. At the conference, it was estimated North Korean refugees in China total from 100,000 to 500,000. Between 70 and 90 percent of female refugees who escape to China become victims of sex trafficking, according to an estimate at the conference.

Conference speakers called for a change in China’s treatment of refugees. Land urged the United States to pressure China and other countries to force North Korea to transform its human rights policy.

South Korea also needs to revise its policy toward its neighbor, some speakers said.

Chun Ki-Won, a South Korean pastor who has helped more than 400 North Koreans escape, said his government is making it more difficult to resettle refugees. In the past, there have been as many as 1,500 North Korean refugees a year that safely reach South Korea, he said. Chun expects only from 300 to 500 this year, he said. Before, North Korean refugees would stay in a third country no more than two months before entering South Korea; now, it takes four months or longer, Chun said.

Kang Chol Hwan, who spent 10 years in a North Korean gulag from the age of 9, said the “lives of the North Korean people [have] deteriorated” during the eight years of South Korea’s “sunshine policy” toward his former country. That policy calls for normalization of relations with North Korea.

Both Kang and Sharansky have met with President Bush in the last year after he read their books, Kang’s “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” and Sharansky’s “The Case for Democracy.”

Kim Young Soon, a gulag prisoner for eight years whose parents were executed and a son shot dead trying to escape, told the audience through an interpreter that “people in North Korea are looking up to Heaven and looking for a savior. They are looking for someone to save them.”

“And I implore you here today, the citizens of America and also the citizens of the world, that we would put our heads together and our hearts together and would come up with a great idea, and this great idea should be able to save us all,” she said.

It was estimated more than 1,000 people attended the conference, which was sponsored primarily by Freedom House, an international organization that promotes democracy. The State Department’s funding of the meeting resulted from last year’s enactment of the North Korean Human Rights Act.