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North Korea's "human traumas" must be addressed, Congressman says

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Representative Leach urges firmness toward leaders, compassion for populace

The international community cannot remain silent in the face of the "documented privations and depredations" being suffered by the people of North Korea, says Representative James Leach.

Leach, chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House International Relations Committee, spoke at a July 19 conference on "Human Rights in North Korea," sponsored by the independent nonprofit organization Freedom House.

"[W]e now know that the people of North Korea have endured some of the greatest human traumas of our time," the Iowa Republican said. "Inside that nation, individuals suffer at the hands of a totalitarian dynasty that permits no dissent."

It is estimated that more than 2 million North Koreans have died of starvation since the collapse of the country's centralized agricultural system in the 1990s, and some 40 percent of North Korean children continue to be chronically malnourished, Leach said.

Even as refugees, North Koreans have faced unique difficulties, he added.

"Many thousands have sought refuge inside China, which currently refuses to allow the [United Nations] High Commissioner for Refugees to evaluate and identify genuine refugees among the North Korean migrant population," according to Leach. "China forcibly returns North Koreans to their homeland, where they routinely face imprisonment and torture, and sometimes execution. Inside China, North Korean women and girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation."

The United States distinguishes between people-to-people and government-to-government relations and has provided millions of tons of food assistance to North Korea since 1995, Leach said.

He urged further development of a U.S. policy "that speaks with clarity about the nature of the North Korean regime and applies measured firmness toward its leaders, but shows compassion toward the subjected populace."

THE NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACT OF 2004

In support of that goal, Leach said he had introduced, and Congress had passed, the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004. The legislation "was designed to promote respect for human rights, transparency in the delivery of humanitarian aid, and protection for North Korean refugees," Leach said.

"The law was not designed as a hidden strategy to provoke North Korean collapse," he emphasized.

Nor was the law intended to provoke conflicts with the United States' allies in South Korea, Leach added. Continued coordination between the United States and South Korea is essential to success, he said.

"Washington can prudently agree with Seoul that there is no policy preferable to the calibrated engagement of 'sunshine,' provided that we all recognize the dark shadows cast by the North Korean dictatorship over populations both within and beyond its borders."

Leach said he believed the North Korean leadership would recognize the purpose behind such an approach and would react reasonably.

"The North Korean leadership is too intelligent and self-interested to provoke fundamental conflict simply because the international community begins speaking about the actual conditions facing the North Korean people," he said.

MOVING FORWARD

Leach strongly cautioned against "rhetorical saber-rattling."

"I can think of nothing more foolhardy than military engagement with North Korea," he said.

Facilitating normalization of North Korea's relations with the international community might be the best way to proceed, Leach suggested. He recommended a number of policy steps to protect the national security of the United States and the interests of the North Korean people, including:

  • A realistic international assessment of circumstances inside North Korea;

  • Diplomatic initiatives to secure the definitive "denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula;

  • Provision of humanitarian assistance to those in need, both inside and beyond North Korea's borders;

  • Cultural exchanges to increase understanding between peoples; and

  • In the event of credible normalization of political relations, an effort to open general commercial ties, ending North Korea's trade in illicit commodities such as drugs, weapons, and counterfeit currencies.
Leach expressed hope that the revival of the Six-Party Talks among the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea, which are intended to eliminate nuclear programs on the Korean Peninsula, would lead to a "policy shift" by Pyongyang -- away from isolation and repression, and toward international cooperation and prosperity.

"One of our many tasks is to make this previously unthinkable possibility impossible for the North Korean leadership to ignore," he said.

Acknowledging that other nations' capacity to impose change on North Korea is limited, Leach suggested that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il might consider the paths followed by China or Vietnam as examples of "economic reform with gradualist political change."

"Our common challenge in the days ahead is to speak the truth with compassion, and to seek humanitarian progress even if we cannot presently see the proximate means of its realization," Leach concluded.

Following is the full text of Leach's statement:

(begin text)

Remarks by Rep. James A. Leach
Chairman, House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific
at Freedom House conference on "Freedom for All Koreans"
July 19, 2005

I would like to thank Ambassador Palmer and Freedom House for the invitation to address this gathering today. I also want to commend Dr. Jae Ku for his hard work in giving shape to Freedom House's North Korea campaign. The interest manifested by this conference demonstrates the prominence that these issues have assumed.

Even a few years ago, circumstances inside North Korea were not a subject of common knowledge or concern to the international community. But with the breakdown of controls on movement during the famine of the 1990s, larger and larger numbers of North Koreans began fleeing to China. They carried with them graver descriptions of conditions inside North Korea than many could have imagined. Some outsiders were even tempted to dismiss those accounts as exaggeration, if not hyperbole.

However, as a number of those here today can affirm from personal experience, we now know that the people of North Korea have endured some of the greatest human traumas of our time. Inside that nation, individuals suffer at the hands of a totalitarian dynasty that permits no dissent and maintains an inhumane system of prison camps that house an estimated 200,000 political inmates. The regime strictly curtails freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and movement. Since the collapse of the centralized agricultural system in the 1990s, more than 2,000,000 North Koreans are estimated to have died of starvation. Even today, approximately forty percent of the children inside North Korea are chronically malnourished.

North Koreans outside of North Korea are also uniquely vulnerable. Many thousands have sought refuge inside China, which currently refuses to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to evaluate and identify genuine refugees among the North Korean migrant population. China forcibly returns North Koreans to their homeland, where they routinely face imprisonment and torture, and sometimes execution. Inside China, North Korean women and girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation.

In this circumstance, it is useful to distinguish people-to-people from government-to-government relations. It is on a people-to-people basis that the United States has provided millions of tons of food assistance inside North Korea since 1995.

Speaking broadly, the goal of America should be to craft a policy that speaks with clarity about the nature of the North Korean regime and applies measured firmness toward its leaders, but shows compassion toward the subjected populace. These philosophical precepts formed the basis for my introduction on the House side of the North Korean Human Rights Act during the last Congress.

The North Korean Human Rights Act was designed to promote respect for human rights, transparency in the delivery of humanitarian aid, and protection for North Korean refugees. It received unanimous, bipartisan consent in both the House and the Senate, and was signed into law by President Bush last October. Its passage was in many ways a testament to the commitment of the many Korean-American churches that supported the legislation out of concern for their brethren in the North.

The motivations behind the legislation are solely humanitarian. The law was not designed as a hidden strategy to provoke North Korean collapse, or to seek collateral advantage in ongoing strategic negotiations. Put simply, while each of us as individuals may not be, the North Korean Human Rights Act is agnostic about regime change, but emphatic about behavior change. We genuinely hope for the opportunity to recognize improvements in the future.

A primary aim of the Act is humanitarian burden sharing, particularly in terms of refugee assistance and resettlement. The United States has by far the largest refugee resettlement program in the world. It is also home to the largest Korean population outside of Northeast Asia. Consequently, it is anomalous that the U.S. has not accepted any North Korean refugees for resettlement during the past five years. While the Congress understands the unique challenges of screening North Korean applicants, we view those challenges as issues to be addressed, rather than reasons for inaction. In this regard, I am pleased to note that the Senate Committee on Appropriations recently endorsed the appropriation of US refugee assistance funds pursuant to the North Korean Human Rights Act during Fiscal Year 2006.

Speaking more broadly, we have grown to recognize that the North Korean government funds itself through the sale of military hardware, counterfeit currency, addictive drugs and the continuous effort to blackmail various nation-states. But while the activities of the North Korean regime may be criminal, they are not lunatic, as is sometimes claimed. While Kim Jong Il's priorities may have perverse consequences for the North Korean people, from the vantage of his own perceived interests, he is playing a poor hand remarkably well.

I make this observation to dispel the supposed dissonance asserted by friends overseas between preserving peace and advocating human rights. The North Korean leadership is too intelligent and self-interested to provoke fundamental conflict simply because the international community begins speaking about the actual conditions facing the North Korean people. As such topics become a routine and unavoidable component of international dialogue, the regime will surely find ways to work beyond its cultivated outrage, which in any event should not deter us from prudently speaking the truth.

As a consequence, it is neither philosophically nor morally plausible for any nation to remain silent in the face of the documented privations and depredations being suffered today by Koreans in the North. The international community has begun to find its voice. In this regard, the second North Korea resolution in as many years, recently adopted by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, is quite welcome.

It is unfortunate that this humanitarian advocacy is sometimes viewed through a partisan lens overseas. On the geostrategic level, Washington can prudently agree with Seoul that there is no policy preferable to the calibrated engagement of "sunshine," provided that we all recognize the dark shadows cast by the North Korean dictatorship over populations both within and beyond its borders. Conversely, the prevailing silence on these issues by the South Korean government unnecessarily feeds concerns among some in the U.S. that various forms of engagement are premised on unreality or willful denial. We must do more to avoid mutual misunderstandings within our alliance, particularly in the context of ongoing nuclear negotiations, which present strategic issues of paramount importance. U.S.-ROK coordination is essential to any reasonable prospect of success.

Those of us raising these issues must take care not to conflate our human rights advocacy with strategies to provoke regime collapse. Immoderate rhetoric regarding the Human Rights Act has been extremely counterproductive in the past, feeding suspicions within South Korea that the Congress is duplicitous or flippant about the prospect of crises that could involve millions of Korean lives. In reality, we seek to be advocates of progress in the protection of human dignity, not catalysts for geopolitical cataclysm. Although nothing is certain, it is quite possible that helping to facilitate North Korea's entry into the community of nations (and its complex interdependencies) may be the wisest way to proceed.

The problem with rhetorical saber-rattling is the implication that one might follow through with actual saber-slicing. I can think of nothing more foolhardy than military engagement with North Korea. It would be a disaster for Koreans on both sides of the 38th Parallel. While American and allied forces could be expected to prevail in any such conflict, it would come at a regional and worldwide cost that is all but unthinkable. If one is not committed to war, then one should not commit to the language of war. This must particularly be understood by officials and grantees of the U.S. Government, who would be well advised to respect the policy preference for peaceful, negotiated resolution outlined by President Bush. At the risk of presumptive bluntness, there may be no issue in international relations where rhetorical strategies designed to "out-macho" the Administration are more dangerous.

The national security of the United States and the interests of the North Korean people are best served by: (1) A realistic international assessment of circumstances inside North Korea; (2) diplomatic initiatives aimed at securing the definitive denuclearization of the Peninsula; (3) the provision of humanitarian assistance to Koreans in need, both inside and outside of North Korea; (4) cultural exchanges to advance understanding between peoples; and (5) if the political relationship credibly normalizes, the replacement of trade in illicit commodities with general commercial ties. In this context, a formal end to hostilities between the principal parties involved in the Korean War may be helpful.

The 20th Century was about conflicts involving "isms" of various kinds. The lessons of the century are writ large on the Korean Peninsula. The contrasting models of governance provided by the North and South stand as a kind of human laboratory experiment, where socialized oppression has produced one kind of result, and a democratic market economy another. We do not have an unambiguous right or incontestable capacity to impose change on the North, but we can suggest with more than a little confidence that there is a better way, and that there are models of gradual as well as abrupt change that exist in modern times. The miracle of the Soviet Union and, more relevantly, the smaller countries of Eastern Europe is that people peacefully rose up to cause, in relatively short order, their governing systems to collapse. The model of post-Mao China and post-Ho Chi Minh Vietnam is that of economic reform with gradualist political change. The political superstructures of these two Asian societies remain largely intact, although a new pragmatism has engulfed leadership and a new class of technocrats has begun to replace political radicals in governing positions.

China, with its decision to adopt an outward-looking market economy, is an interesting model for Kim Jong Il to contemplate, particularly because North Korea today seems to outsiders somewhat like China during the Cultural Revolution. But if the North Korean leadership's desire is to modernize without regime change, Vietnam may be the more relevant model, both because it is a smaller state and because the U.S. has recently developed respectful relations despite being engaged in a protracted war in the region a full two decades after we confronted North Korea.

Our common challenge in the days ahead is to speak the truth with compassion, and to seek humanitarian progress even if we cannot presently see the proximate means of its realization. We must exercise restraint while also conveying accurately the depth of the sufferings faced by Koreans in the North. Building this international awareness lays a foundation for the community of nations to begin addressing acute humanitarian tragedies in a credible way that commands a consensus among people of goodwill. It is my hope that the Six-Party Talks which commence next week will lead to a credible North Korean change in strategic direction away from isolation, repression, and nuclearization. Such a policy shift would put North Korea's international footing on a basis of amity and cooperation with the world community, placing prosperity for its people in close reach. One of our many tasks is to make this previously unthinkable possibility impossible for the North Korean leadership to ignore.

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(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)