Human-rights advocates are calling for the United States to put human-rights concerns higher up on the agenda in any discussion about North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. The activists also urged Washington to put pressure on China to do more to help North Korean refugees.
Human-rights and refugee experts lined up this week to testify to the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific about what chairman, Senator Sam Brownback, called the "cataclysmic" human-rights situation in North Korea.
Amid fears that human-rights issues are being overshadowed by concerns over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, George Washington University professor Mike Mochizuki said the two should be discussed at the same time.
"We [the U.S.] would offer regional security assurances, economic aid, technical assistance, and investments in order to entice North Korea to respond positively to a more ambitious agenda that would include conventional arms control and a human rights dialogue, as well as dismantling of its nuclear weapons and missiles programs," he said.
T. Kumar, Amnesty International's advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific, said his organization has been critical of the North Korean regime for torture, executions and what he described as inhuman prison conditions. But he added that death by starvation has recently become one of the biggest concerns.
"In the mid-1990s, North Korea experienced famine, and as a result of famine, starvation due to natural disasters and economic mismanagement," he said. "The result of it, which is not our figure, it is a U.N. figure, is that two million people have died because of the famine and mismanagement of economic resources," he said.
Hunger may be the primary reason most North Korean refugees cross the border into China, according to Refugees International vice-president Joel Charny. For its part, Beijing considers these same refugees economic migrants, and deports them.
"The primary motivation of North Korean refugees to cross the border is to ensure their survival," he said. "And I think I want to insist on that terminology. "Economic reasons" somehow implies they are crossing China to become businessmen or to seek employment in a factory. Fundamentally, it is about survival."
Mr. Charny says his group estimates there are as many as 100,000 North Korean refugees in China, a figure he says may actually be too low. He adds that many of those who are captured in Chinese territory and sent home are subject to months of captivity and torture.
David Hawk, who recently authored a report detailing North Korea's prison labor camp system, says the United States should seek to pressure China, within the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, to help North Korean refugees in Chinese territory.
"I hope that the U.S. will speak to the Chinese about allowing the UNHCR access to North Koreans in China, or pending that step, simply to stop the repatriation of North Koreans until it can be verified that the extreme punishments of repatriated North Koreans has ceased," he said. "I would also hope that the United States, preferably in cooperation with South Korea and Japan, can approach the Chinese about a program of orderly departure, first asylum and third-country resettlement."
Mark Palmer, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary in the 1980s, says he doubts that China will cooperate in helping North Koreans to escape across its borders. Instead, he says, Washington should look to Moscow.
"Russia's another situation," he said. "It is sort of half-democracy or half-dictatorship. I think with Putin, there is a chance, and we should work hard on him to let refugees come out in Russia, and to create the kind of flows that we saw, and I personally saw, through Hungary in 1989, which really is what led to the collapse of East Germany," he said.
Mr. Palmer stressed that improvements in human rights and the country's political system are vital to North Korea's future. If the basic nature of the country and its regime is not changed, he said he believes North Korea will continue to be a dangerous and untrustworthy place.