North Korea recently reminded the world that it was still around and capable of causing trouble. We have nukes and we don't want to talk about it, said Pyongyang in effect. The announcement set off the usual hand-wringing and pontificating in capitals around the world.
In fact, no one outside of the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea really knows if the North has turned plutonium into bombs. The Kim regime's latest claim could be a grand, bombastic bluff. Or it could reflect the DPRK's determination to become a full-fledged nuclear state.
Maybe "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il hasn't decided, and he's simply ratcheting up the pressure in advance of another negotiating round. Knowing so little about both the North's capabilities and intentions makes developing rational policy extremely difficult.
But one issue involving North Korea should be simple: welcoming refugees. The totalitarian state no longer is able to hermetically seal its borders, so increasing numbers of DPRK residents have been fleeing.
Who wouldn't try to run? German doctor Norbert Vollertsen worked in North Korean hospitals in 1999 and 2000 and has written of "a human tragedy of hellish dimensions" in the North. Estimates of the number of dead from starvation in the late 1990s run up to three million, an astounding number for any nation, especially one with only around 23 million people.
Modest economic reforms may have brought some relief, but the DPRK recently cut the food ration sharply. Reports of some relaxation of domestic controls, and even signs of opposition activity, merely highlight the sheer horror of the regime.
Indeed, despite reports that returning refugees are being punished less severely than before, Lim Young-sun, a North Korean escapee who now works with defectors, says that those repatriated "get jail terms of up to 17 years." Moreover, the Seoul-based Commission to Help North Korean Refugees reports that as many as 70 defectors were executed last month. No independent confirmation is possible, but such brutality matches the regime's reputation.
The U.S., as befits its history of relative generosity towards political refugees, has supported humane treatment of those who escape the DPRK hellhole. Last year Congress enacted the North Korea Human Rights Act, intended to promote human rights in the North and aid escapees.
But the best transit route obviously is through China, not America. Alas, Beijing has sought to impede North Koreans seeking refuge and sends many of them back when it discovers them.
This comes as no surprise: high profile tactics, such as occupying diplomatic missions, would unsettle even a less authoritarian regime. And the People's Republic of China brutally suppresses democratic "disorder" by its own people.
Moreover, upwards of 200,000 to 300,000 illegal migrants in the provinces adjoining North Korea creates social and economic problems. And when Beijing has allowed refugees to leave, North Korea has protested loudly.
Still, there is no excuse for returning escapees to Pyongyang's brutal embrace. Even China has indicated its frustration with lack of reform and unpleasant saber-rattling by the DPRK. Allowing desperate North Koreans to leave the PRC for the South (or elsewhere) is the humane solution for a country seeking to take on an ever-increasing global role -- as well as a subtle means to pressure the North to moderate its worst excesses.
BUT THE REAL SCANDAL isn't China. It is South Korea. If any nation should welcome desperate North Koreans, it is the Republic of Korea. Yet, writes Vollertsen, "South Korean authorities work actively to foil our attempts to bring North Korean refugees to freedom."
Some 1,300 DPRK escapees reached the South in 2003 and another 1,800 did so last year. But Seoul wants fewer, not more, refugees. It recently slashed the stipend that it gives escapees by two-thirds.
Moreover, Unification Minister Chung Dong-young complained: "It is not desirable for anyone to organize defections, intentionally bringing people out of North Korea." The ROK says that it wants reunification with the North. But it apparently doesn't want the North's people.
Appeasement is a term too-often used against anyone anywhere who opposes any war advanced by the most extreme hawk. But Seoul has done more than simply push for engagement with the North. It has showered Pyongyang with material rewards without holding the Kim regime responsible for any of its crimes.
Even worse than its reluctance to accept refugees, however, is its refusal to seek an accounting for the nearly 500 South Koreans thought to have been abducted by the DPRK since the Korean War. A much smaller number of kidnappings of Japanese has destroyed the North's pursuit of detente with Tokyo. But Seoul appears to have done little to seek justice for its own citizens.
Obviously, South Korea is entitled to set whatever standards it desires for welcoming refugees and appropriate whatever sum of money that it desires to give them. Given its proximity to the heavily armed North, Seoul understandably pursues policies intended to foster good bilateral relations.
The South also can legitimately disagree with Washington over the best strategy for dealing with the DPRK. Argued President Roh Moo-hyun: "Many people might think that this is the better way to address the issue of the human rights predicament in North Korea. However, I feel that the more advisable course would be one that would not drive North Korea into a corner."
Fair enough. However, there is no excuse for discouraging starving and oppressed people from fleeing the North. Nor should the ROK government ignore the fate of its own citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang. The DPRK should be expected to give something in return for the billions of won in aid and trade emanating from South Korea. Such as an accounting for those abducted.
Publicly labeling North Korea as a member of the "Axis of Evil" probably was counterproductive. But the North Korean system is evil. Which other nations, especially South Korea, should remember as they develop policies towards the North.
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