First Step to Freedom for North Koreans

( [email protected] ) Jul 27, 2004 03:22 PM EDT

On July 21, 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 – a bill that calls for peaceful changes for and by the people suffering in the communist regime through a $24 million yearly budget.

The bill, introduced by representative Jim Leach (R-Iowa), calls on the U.S. to take several indirect steps in humanizing what activists call “the most repressive regime” in the world.

Such steps include: discussing the North Korean human rights issue as a major topic for Northeast Asian states; providing financial support for North Korean human rights groups; expanding radio services to North Korea, thoroughly inspecting the distribution of humanitarian assistance to North Korea; establishing international refugee camps for defectors; and permitting defectors to apply for asylum in the United States.

Numerically, the bill calls for $24 million in financial support annually, beginning from the 2005 fiscal year. Of this, $2 million will be dedicated to activities improving human rights in North Korea, $2 million will be for promoting the freedom of information in North Korea and $20 million will provide refugee assistance.

In South Korea, most conservatives and Christians have applauded the vote as one necessary to bring freedom to their oppressed brethren in the North. However, those on the leftist camp – the Uri (Our Open Party) party – criticized the bill as an effort by U.S. lawmakers to interfere in North Korean affairs.

Uri members, who planned a protest to the bill, said the law would raise the risk of Pyongyang boycotting future nuclear weapon talks. Uri members have long-supported the past South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s failed “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the vicious North Korean dictator and have rallied against the current South Korea president Roh Moo Hyun’s plan to send 3,000 troops to liberate Iraq.

Uri representative Chung Bong-Ju said the party has yet to take an official stance on the North Korean Human Rights Act and questioned the U.S.’s intention on passing the bill. Bong-Ju hinted that the bill was intended to prepare for a future attack against North Korea, in the same way Congress called for a free Iraq before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched last year.

"We have to prevent the U.S. Congress from giving the Bush administration a cause to launch military actions in North Korea," Chung said.

"Though we agree with the improvement of universal human rights, driving Pyongyang to the edge by making an issue out of its human rights will dampen inter-Korean rapprochement," Chung said.

However, the conservative Grand National Party complimented the North Korean Human Rights Act and reproached the bill’s critics for placing inter-Korean dialogue before human rights. The Korean Herald also criticized the past president Kim Dae-Jung’s administration and the Uri party on the same grounds.

"It has been an embarrassing irony that the South Korean government has kept its eyes closed to the plight of the North Korean population, officially and publicly at least, in an effort to avoid provoking North Korea's leaders," the daily newspaper said.

Douglas Shin, a Korean-American pastor working with North Korean refugees, commented to CNS that if the bill was signed into law, it would be "like tolling the bell for Kim."

"That's why South Korean leftists are going nuts," he said in a phone interview. "This means something."

Rep. Leach stressed in his statement to the House that the North Korea Human Rights Act was brought by a “sincere desire for progress in human rights, refugee protection and transparency in humanitarian assistance,” rather than as a “tactic concealing hidden strategies seeking the collapse of the North Korean regime.”

Human rights groups have applauded the bill as a necessary first step to fully liberating the North Korean people from the communist nation. Currently, the bill – which passed the house unanimously in only 13 minutes – has yet to face the more liberal senate. Should the bill be ratified, it will become the foremost U.S. law on the North Korean human rights issue, and would therefore greatly influence the North Korean policy of nations worldwide. In addition, it would change the status of North Korean defectors – many of whom were forcefully sent back to the repressive regime and subsequently killed – to that of international refugees.

In North Korea, there are at least 200,000 political prisoners in the “gulag system” where captives are constantly tortured, biologically tested, forced to abort and publicly executed. There were some 400,000 deaths in the gulags during the last three decades alone. The North Korea Human Rights Act would provide sanctuary for those defectors who run away from this oppressive system.

Additionally, North Korea is the world’s leading recipient of food assistance, but more than 4 million has died from starvation since 1995; food aid is reportedly diverted to the military or sold on the black market. The North Korea Human Rights Act will strengthen the monitoring of this aid.

Also, in North Korea, there is no religious freedom and no freedom of the press. According to the North Korea Freedom Coalition, all radios and television sets are fixed to a very few government channels and their users are required to be registered. Owners are subject to random government inspection for illegal modifications at any time of the day or night, and possession of any set that can receive foreign broadcasts is illegal. The North Korean Human Rights Act would provide funds to increase broadcasting of radio programs in the communist nations – specifically for Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America.

Suzanne Scholte of the Human Rights group Defense Forum praised the bill and called the U.S. House of representatives a “true citizen’s assembly” for reflecting American concerns on the plight of the “brothers and sisters” under the “barbaric regime.”

According to the South Korean daily paper Chosun Ilbo, Name Jae Jung of the AEGIS Foundation – a North Korean defector protection group – said that “if one reflects upon North Korean human rights and the dire situation faced by defectors, the bill is insufficient, but since it represents a start to approaching the North Korean human rights issue through legislation, it was a historic first step.”

Rep. Leach is co-sponsoring another bill that includes tougher measures in seeking the collapse of the communist nation. The measure, entitled the North Korea Freedom Act, is endorsed by numerous Christian evangelical figures, including Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In April, Richard Land, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, released a statement promoting the North Korea Freedom Act and chiding the dictator Kim Jong Il.

“I call for a complete cessation of all aid to North Korea by the United States until the fair distribution of that aid can be monitored and assured. I for one am not interested in trading the lives of millions of North Koreans for a worthless commitment by Kim Jong Il to dismantle his nuclear weapons. We should not allow this gangster dictator to hold his nuclear missiles over our heads in order to extort our continued support for his poisonous regime,” Land wrote.

“Kim Jong Il, free your people, feed your people, care for your people, and the world will rush to your aid. Until then, we cannot, we must not, we will not enrich you further while your people starve and suffer,” said Land.

The North Korea Freedom Act has also been handed to the Senate for deliberations, along with the North Korea Human Rights Act.

The following is the entire 13 minute statement of Rep. James A. Leach on the North Korea Human Rights Act:

I yield myself such time as I may consume.

During the past two and a half years, the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific has received testimony from a number of North Koreans who have survived some of the greatest rigors of the human condition. Their accounts buttress the growing awareness that the people of North Korea have endured some of the most acute humanitarian traumas of our time.

Inside North Korea, they suffer at the hands of a totalitarian dynasty that permits no dissent and strictly curtails freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly. The regime maintains a brutal system of prison camps that house an estimated 200,000 political inmates who are subjected to slave labor, torture, and even lethal chemical experimentation. 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.

North Koreans outside of North Korea are also uniquely vulnerable. Many thousands are hiding inside China, which currently refuses to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to evaluate and identify genuine refugees among the North Korean migrant population. China forcibly returns North Koreans to North Korea, 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.

Provoked by these crises, this broadly bipartisan legislation aims to promote international cooperation on human rights and refugee protection, and increased transparency in the provision of humanitarian assistance to the people of North Korea.

On the human rights front, the bill underscores the importance of human rights issues in future negotiations with North Korea. It authorizes funds for programs to promote human rights, democracy, rule of law, a market economy, and freedom of information. It also urges additional North Korea-specific attention by appropriate UN human rights authorities.

On the humanitarian front, the bill authorizes increased funding for assistance to North Koreans outside of North Korea, including refugees, orphans, and trafficking victims. It endorses, but also seeks greater transparency for, the delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid inside North Korea. Finally, it would condition direct assistance to the North Korean government on human rights and transparency benchmarks, but allows the President to waive those restrictions for national security purposes.

In terms of refugee protection, the bill requires a formal clarification of U.S. policy and affirms the eligibility of North Koreans to seek protection as refugees under U.S. law. It also urges the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to use all available means to gain access to North Koreans in China. Although the principal responsibility for North Korean refugee resettlement naturally falls to the Government of South Korea, the United States should play a leadership role in focusing international attention on the plight of these refugees and formulating international solutions to their profound humanitarian dilemma.

I want to remove any danger that overseas audiences may misunderstand the intent or content of this bill. Allow me to state unequivocally: This legislation is a purely humanitarian endeavor; there is no hidden agenda. Indeed, the Committee of jurisdiction is deeply indebted to the concerns expressed by thousands of American citizens of Korean descent, who are convinced that for too long the international community has largely ignored the plight of their brethren in the North. As explained in the Report of the Committee on International Relations: "H.R. 4011 is motivated by a genuine desire for improvements in human rights, refugee protection, and humanitarian transparency. It is not a pretext for a hidden strategy to provoke regime collapse or to seek collateral advantage in ongoing strategic negotiations. While the legislation highlights numerous egregious abuses, the [Congress] remains willing to recognize progress in the future, and hopes for such an opportunity."

Similarly, with regard to China, this bill is not solely critical, it is also aspirational. It makes clear that the United States and the international community stand ready to provide more assistance to help defray the costs associated with the North Korean migrant presence when China begins fulfilling its obligations as a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. We genuinely hope for that opportunity also.

I would like to thank my colleagues for their strong, bipartisan endorsement of this bill. In particular, I would like express my gratitude to the Committee on International Relations and the Committee on the Judiciary for their expert consideration, and to the House Leadership for promptly scheduling this important legislation. Finally, I would like to thank Senator Sam Brownback, whose leadership in the other body has both informed and inspired House action on these issues.

H.R. 4011 is a responsible, creative approach to an ongoing human tragedy, and deserves our unanimous support. I reserve the balance of my time.