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from the Korea Times

What President Obama Should Do About North Korea
by Suzanne Scholte

Although President Barack Obama will have his hands full of both domestic and foreign policy challenges during his first year in office, he will also have an obligation as the leader of the free world not to forget the least free people on earth, the people of North Korea. His election offers an enormous opportunity to learn from the past and set forth a North Korea policy that does not sacrifice the lives and well-being of the North Korean people for the Kim Jong-il regime’s empty promises on the nuclear issue.

Both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush set out with the best intentions to engage North Korea to give up their nuclear ambitions through Clinton’s Agreed Framework and through Bush’s Six Party Talks. Both helped provide food aid to North Korea to try to stop the deaths of millions of North Koreans from starvation. Both intentionally sidelined human rights concerns, making them secondary to addressing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Despite their efforts, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have not been thwarted, their proliferation of their nuclear technology to countries including Iran and Syria continues, and most recently, North Korea went off the 6 Party Talks Agenda and “upped the ante” declaring it would not give up its nuclear weapons accusing the United States of hiding nuclear weapons in South Korea.

Meanwhile, despite tons of food aid and billions in economic aid, millions of North Koreans have starved to death and continue to starve to death even today. The human rights conditions in North Korea are the worst in the world: massive political prison camps where at least 200,000, including children born in these camps, are worked to death; torture, imprisonment and public executions for those who try to flee starvation; while not a single human right is observed in North Korea: no freedom of thought, movement, or assembly. And the North Koreans are not the only ones who suffer from Kim Jong-ill’s brutal dictatorship but South Korean POWs, South Korean, Japanese and other abductees from other counties continue to be held against their will in North Korea.

President Obama can learn from his predecessors and set forth an agenda that can greatly enhance security on the Korean peninsula by adopting these four specific strategies:

First, Save the North Korean Refugees: Obama should work with South Korea and Japan and other countries in the region to establish a First Asylum policy for North Korea refugees, as was done to save the Vietnamese boat people, and call on China to honor its international treaty obligations by stopping its repatriation of North Koreans. Right now, the situation for the North Korean refugees is worse than even before the Olympics when China had a massive crackdown on both the refugees and anyone daring to shelter and feed them. China has continued to thwart efforts by the UNHCR to interview and shelter North Korean refugees and has increased police surveillance around the embassies and consulates of South Korea, the United States, and other countries sympathetic to the plight of the refugees. China’s cruel policy of repatriation has not only led to the imprisonment, execution, and torture of hundreds of North Koreans, it has also resulted in a rampant trafficking situation , where 80% of North Korean females, including older women and young girls, have been subjected to forced marriage, forced prostitution, rape, and terrible physical and psychological abuse. Most North Korean men and women who finally make it to South Korea have suffered post traumatic stress disorder.

The Obama administration should join with the Republic of Korea and Japan to call upon China with one voice to stop forcing refugees back to North Korea to face certain torture, certain imprisonment, and increasingly execution for fleeing conditions in their homeland. The recent tripartite meeting hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Aso Taro with China’s Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, is a huge opportunity to enhance greater cooperation on this issue.

Working with South Korea, the United States should also quietly encourage Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, to provide temporary asylum to these refugees, not to punish them, to help alleviate this enormous human rights tragedy. In Thailand, for example, North Koreans are forced to serve a detention sentence because of entering the country illegally before they can pursue resettlement in South Korea.

The Chinese Government and even U.S. policy makers have an unfounded fear that if China showed compassion to the refugees, this could cause de-stablization: they fear China would be flooded with refugees and this could lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime. This fear is not only unfounded, but is prolonging this suffering of the North Korean refugees. This refugee situation is unlike any in the world as the refugees have a place to go – South Korea and other countries! Furthermore, refugees are leaving North Korea mostly because of famine-like conditions and most want to go back – even those who have resettled in South Korea want to go back to North Korea once Kim Jong-il is gone or reforms are enacted. If fleeing refugees could lead to the collapse of the regime, it would have happened by now. After 500,000 crossed the border and 3 million people died, Kim Jong-il’s grip on power never faltered. By abiding instead by its international treaty obligations and allowing refugees safe passage to South Korea, this would instead be a means to subtly pressure Kim Jong-il and his regime to reform, something that is also in China’s best interest. When reform comes to North Korea, conditions will improve and China will no longer have to deal with this refugee problem, because North Koreans will not need to flee — so China is prolonging this refugee problem by their policy.

Second, Put human rights on the agenda of any and all negotiations with or about North Korea. The human rights issue is as important as the nuclear issue and no one knows that better than Kim Jong-il. Part of his strategy to remain in power is to keep us focused on his nuclear ambitions so we will not focus on the genocide he is committing against the North Korean people. As North Korea’s highest ranking defector, Hwang Jang-yop, has described it, “Human rights is Kim Jong-il’s achilles heel.” Kim has cleverly manipulated our fear of his nuclear program to keep us focused on this issue, as he has seen what has happened to other dictators once the people get a glimpse of freedom.

Since the Obama administration plans to continue the 6 Party Talks, it can begin by raising these immediate human rights concerns which are very modest first steps, considering the situation: 1) promise continued food aid based on the ability of it to be strictly monitored to the point of consumption to ensure it is being consumed by the intended recipients and not being used as a weapon by Kim Jong-il against his own people, as has been done in the past; 2) promise delivery of food and medicines to their so called “re-reducation centers” (political prison camps) by requesting that the International Red Cross be allowed to visit these sites and provide assistance; 3) ask for a complete accounting of all deceased and the return of all living South Korean POWS and all abductees from South Korea, Japan, and other nations; and 4) condition future food and economic assistance by requiring that North Korea end its punishment of border crossers and be allowed freedom of movement within their country.

These are simple “baby steps” that must be required to put North Korea on the eventual path of shutting down its political prison camps and opening up to reform.

Third, Reach out to North Koreans: Because of the rumors and uncertainty about Kim Jong-il, it is more important than ever before to reach out to the North Korean people. They must know that the Obama administration, representing the American people, as well as the South Korean people, have been trying unsuccessfully to save their lives through food aid and other means.

The failure of the 6 Party Talks in addressing the human rights issues is giving credence to Kim Jong-il’s lie that all we care about is the nuclear issue and that we want to destroy the North Korean people. They need to know the truth now more than ever before: that the free world has delivered enough assistance to feed every starving North Korea. America and South Korea need to be the advocates for the people of North Korea, who do not realize that the source of all their misery is in fact their dear leader, Kim Jong-il, not us, as they have been brainwashed to believe.

The Obama administration should continue to support radio broadcasting into North Korea as well as other creative efforts that the North Korean defectors in South Korea have undertaken to get information directly into the hands of the North Korean people. He does not need to make statements denouncing Kim Jong-il – that’s our job as NGO leaders — but he should make strong statements of concern about the human rights conditions in North Korea and our desires for their well-being.

The ability of Kim Jong-il to completely isolate them from the rest of the world is breaking down and this offers a great opportunity to get the truth to the North Korean people about our concerns for them and about American and South Korean prosperity that is a direct result of our freedoms and human rights.

Fourth, Utilize the North Korean Defectors and Bipartisan U.S. Groups: No one knows better how to bring about reform in North Korea than the defectors themselves, especially those who were among the elites in the regime. Up until the election of President Lee Myung Bak, they were forbidden from sharing information and insights with the United States. Now, they are free to speak out and should be considered an excellent resource for learning more about the regime and how to bring about reform.

Also, there is great bipartisan consensus among policy experts on promoting the human rights issues and a good place to start for counsel and recommendations is with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea chaired by former liberal Congressman Steve Solarz and former conservative National Security Advisor, Richard Allen. The Obama administration should seek their recommendations and counsel on his North Korean policy and selection of a Special Envoy on North Korean human rights.

We must recognize that Kim Jong-il will never act in the interest of the North Korean people, and that it is the obligation of those who live in freedom to speak out for the world’s most persecuted people. By making human rights a priority, the Obama administration has a great opportunity to bring hope to the North Korean people, show the way forward for change and reform, and lead to the eventual peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. (1/20/2009)


Dr. Suzanne Scholte is the 2008 Seoul Peace Prize Laureate