A congressional committee has heard testimony about humanitarian and human rights problems in North Korea. The hearing took place against the background of a news report of heightened U.S. government concern about North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
A Washington Post report that U.S. officials may raise their estimate of how many nuclear weapons North Korea possesses hung over the hearing, as did a Bush administration statement reiterating concern over Pyongyang's nuclear intentions.
At the same time, Congressman Brad Sherman is among lawmakers impatient with recurring North Korean appeals for aid, including one after the recent train explosion near the border with China.
While humanitarian needs are important, in Mr. Sherman's view, North Korean threats to U.S. security cannot be ignored.
"There is another human rights issue," he explained. "That is the right of my constituents and yours Mr. Chairman, to go to sleep tonight not having to worry that a nuclear weapon constructed in North Korea will be smuggled into America and exploded. And that is a human rights issue, whether it is the actuality, which would be devastating, or even the potentiality, which is harmful to every American, every night."
North Korea expert Gordon Flake said that the central issue underlying the debate over conditions in North Korea remains how to bring about change, namely an end to the regime in Pyongyang.
Mr. Flake calls this unlikely, but added that governments and Western aid organizations must adopt a stronger approach regarding humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang.
"North Korea has continued to insist that organizations and individuals dealing with North Korea basically did so strictly on North Korean terms," he said. "It's very important for us to define and adhere to international standards of monitoring, of access to the people we are trying to help and assist in North Korea."
Susan Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, had strong words about the North Korean regime's treatment of its people, and about China's attitude toward refugees. She said that it's time the United States and other governments to stand firm with North Korea on the question of human rights.
"We continue to fall into the trap, set up by the Kim Jong Il regime, which despite its cruelty is also quite cunning, in getting commitments for humanitarian aid if the regime promises not to "nuke" (attack with nuclear weapons) us," he stated. "The fear was prevalent in the Clinton administration and it exists today."
Legislation in the House of Representatives called the "North Korea Human Rights Act" was recently approved a key House committee.
It calls, among other things, for a ban on assistance if Pyongyang does not certify aid is used only for humanitarian purposes. It also urges China to guarantee humane treatment of North Koreans fleeing their country.
Tim Peters, director of "Helping Hands/Korea", presented a list of Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese jailed by Chinese authorities in connection with helping North Korean asylum-seekers. He referred to a recent incident in which a North Korean was reported shot and killed.
"A new threshold was crossed where a North Korean refugee was shot, at the border of [Inner] Mongolia and China," he said. "Our reports are that he was shot in the back, and possibly other refugees, a group of 24, was attempting to cross over into Mongolia, quite possibly others were wounded."
The House committee also heard from survivors of North Korean prison camps, as well as a former prison camp guard, Dong Chul Choi, who detailed torture and inhumane treatment, and executions of those attempting to escape.
In often emotional testimony, all called on Congress to take an even more intense interest in human rights violations in the north.