A joint hearing of two congressional subcommittees has focused on the importance of broadcasting to bring accurate news and other information to the people of North Korea. North Korean refugees also testified to the congressional panel about continuing human rights violations, and refugees caught up in human trafficking.
Under the North Korean Human Rights Act approved two years ago, Congress said it wanted U.S. international broadcasting to North Korea to be expanded.
The Voice of America, as well as another U.S.-funded broadcaster, Radio Free Asia, both transmit programs to North Korea where the Kim Jong-Il regime tightly controls all media.
In 2004, Congress endorsed increasing U.S.-funded broadcasting to North Korea, saying such transmissions should be increased to 12 hours a day. That goal has still not been met.
Kelu Chao, associate director for language programming at VOA, says Voice of America doubled its Korean broadcasts in 2003, despite the lack of additional funding and resources.
She outlines the importance of the broadcasts and the risks North Koreans take to listen to external broadcasts.
"The extremely closed environment in which North Koreans live has made this population desperate for news about their country and the world," she said. "Radios must be registered and dials are fixed. Anyone who tampers with a radio or dares to listen to us can expect to be imprisoned."
She and Daniel Southerland, vice president for programming of Radio Free Asia, say both stations could do more, expand news coverage and the current seven hour per day schedule, if they had more money.
Mr. Southerland says one focus of RFA programming is the stories of those to manage to flee the North, by whatever routes they can.
"All of a sudden you see North Koreans getting all the way to Burma. They get to Laos, they come out through Vietna," he explained. "This is unbelievable what people go through to escape from North Korea."
Both broadcast officials say the radio stations bring North Koreans information they cannot otherwise obtain, adding that listeners know the difference between objective news and propaganda.
"People who live under dictatorships [are] very familiar with propaganda, and they know [instinctively] what it is, so if we provide or anybody provides propaganda, they will turn us off immediately," she explained.
In other testimony, North Korean refugees painted a picture of harsh conditions for people there, and the dangers awaiting those who manage to flee.
Ma Soon Hee fled North Korea in the 1990's, ending up in China, and eventually South Korea. She spoke through a translator, about how she and her daughters were caught up in human trafficking in China.
"From early morning to late night, we would be working and working and working, and we didn't have any rights, we weren't able to speak our minds, and we were not able to spend money as we wished to," she explained. "The logic was they had purchased us, they had paid for us so they had the right to use us for whatever need or purpose."
Congressman Chris Smith, who chairs the House committee on Global Human Rights, said such experiences are all too common and criticized China's unwillingness to cooperate more with the UN refugee commission.
"China's refusal to grant the UNHCR [High Commissioner for Human Rights] access to the border provinces despite being a party to the refugee convention and its protocol, and its general refusal to allow the UNHCR to process most North Korean refugees in China, is absolutely unacceptable," he said. "So is the Chinese government's blind eye to human trafficking."
U.S. officials have told Congress about difficulties getting more cooperation from Asian countries used as transit points by North Korean refugees.
Congressman Smith renewed calls for Beijing to change its policies, and said he is also troubled by what he calls the apparent inability of the United States to implement the North Korea Human Rights Act and do more to assist and resettle refugees.