Pressure Over North Korea

The Obama administration faces new calls for a more robust stance toward Pyongyang.
2009-11-18
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Panmunjom Guards 305
North Korean border guards at Panmunjom, November 2007.
AFP

WASHINGTON—U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is facing new calls to step up pressure on North Korea, ending the isolation of its people.

Citing recent comments from North Korean defectors that Pyongyang particularly fears international radio broadcasts, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce told a closed-door hearing Wednesday that the White House still has time to make a difference.

“Future historians will damn the indifference to North Korean suffering,” said Royce, a Republican from California, in his prepared opening statement.

He called for a vigorous human rights policy as a strategically sound response to the world’s last Stalinist regime.

New York-based Human Rights Watch meanwhile urged Obama to take a strong stance on North Korea's abuses during his visit to South Korea starting late Wednesday.

"North Korea's nuclear ambitions have overwhelmed all other issues for too long," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Obama meets President Lee Myung-Bak Thursday for talks expected to focus on the North's nuclear program and a stalled U.S.-South Korean free trade pact.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the two leaders "should make a public commitment to address human rights concerns in North Korea as well as the plight of North Korean refugees.

'Fine cracks'

“President Obama still has time to stir up some indignation,” Royce said in his statement, as Obama prepared to wind up a three-day state visit to China, Pyongyang’s neighbor and ally.

“North Korea is being forced open, slowly but surely,” Royce said, calling for a concerted international communications strategy to help North Koreans bring about change in their own society.

“Radios, cell phones, and computers are getting into North Korea, undermining its propaganda at home, including through communications with the refugees,” Royce told a briefing on North Korean human rights called by the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

He cited a North Korean defector who told Radio Free Asia’s Korean service that “the North Korean government’s biggest concern is international radio broadcasts," including broadcasts by congressionally funded RFA.

North Korean media remain among the most tightly controlled in the world, and unauthorized access to nongovernment media can result in criminal charges and severe punishment.

The defector, who once worked as an informant for South Korea’s Defense Intelligence Command (DIC), uses the alias Kim Ju Song. He declined to give any personal details and asked to have his voice disguised in an interview recorded for broadcast, to protect relatives still in North Korea.

Kim said North Korea had built hundreds of bunkers at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating it from South Korea even as the previous Seoul government pursued its policy of opening to the North.

Pyongyang built at least 800 bunkers, including an unknown number of decoys, to prepare for a possible invasion of South Korea while the late South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun was in office, he said.

Royce added that as North Koreans continue to flee the regime, crossing into China with some moving into South Korea and beyond, they soon realize that the world-view espoused by North Korea's ruling Workers’ Party has little to do with the outside world.

“Exposed to lands of relative economic plenty, refugees quickly see through the official lies about North Korea’s prosperity and virtues,” Royce told the commission.

“Although political and social dissent has been brutally repressed for over 60 years, the isolation making this rigid control possible is fading,” he said, adding that international radio broadcasts are “the fine cracks on the vase.”

Chinese investment

“The North Korean government’s biggest concern is international radio broadcasts like those of Radio Free Asia," Kim said.

“Content promoting democracy and disclosing leaders’ corruption as well as North Korea’s human rights situation—the Kim Jong Il regime considers this its biggest threat.”

“When people learn these things, they don’t believe in the regime anymore. In this context, I think those broadcasts are fulfilling their mission fully and serving as a pillar for the spirit of the North Korean people.

In his interview, Kim also said North Korea remains averse to Chinese investment because of its avowed commitment to self-reliance, which underpins the country’s national ideology.

“With its own style self-reliant national economy as the foundation, North Korea hopes to develop and employ its own technologies to extract and process its underground natural resources, prior to selling them on the world markets,” he said.

“However, under the current circumstances, simply selling those natural resources at a bargain price cannot earn North Korea that much money.”

Original reporting by Song-Wu Park in Seoul. Translated from the Korean by Greg Scarlatoiu. Acting Korean service director: B.H. Park. Written and produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.

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