SEOUL—North Korea experts and defectors are urging U.S. president-elect Barack Obama to keep up pressure on the Pyongyang regime on human rights and nuclear issues, and to accept more North Korean defectors into the United States.
“The new U.S. administration needs to realize that the core of the nuclear issue in North Korea isn’t necessarily the possession of nuclear weapons in itself, but the fact that a regime that totally disregards human rights is in possession of such weapons,” Chuck Downs, executive director of the advocacy group U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said.
Pressuring North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s regime to scrap its political prison camps—believed to hold thousands of North Koreans who have fallen afoul of the reclusive, Stalinist government—should be a top priority, he added.
I hope the new U.S. administration will emphasize that political prisoner camps should be dismantled."
Defector Kim Young Soon
Several defectors, interviewed the day after Obama’s historic Nov. 4 election, cited Obama’s legal education and familiarity with civil rights issues as reason for believing his administration—which takes office in January—will make human rights a priority.
Call to close prison camps
They also said Obama’s election as the first African-American U.S. president would undermine a key element of North Korea’s anti-American propaganda, which frequently takes aim at what it describes as deep and rampant racial discrimination in the United States.
“Those in the class-one political offender category have been punished and wiped out,” said Kim Young Soon, a former inmate of the infamous Yoduk prison camp, imprisoned for being the best friend of Kim Jong Il's mistress.
“Those in class two, three, or four are still alive, though, and in order to rescue them, I hope the new U.S. administration will emphasize that political prisoner camps should be dismantled,” said Kim, who is now settled in South Korea.
Former North Korean youth propaganda official Park Sang Hak, chairman of the Democracy Network against the North Korean Gulag and vice chairman of the Exile Committee for North Korean Democracy, said he believed Obama’s Democratic Party paid more attention to human rights than the rival Republican Party.
“I think that the new U.S. Administration will not give in to threats by the North Korean regime, will not be deceived by Kim Jong Il as it approaches the Six-Party Talks, and will pay more attention to the suffering of North Korean people enduring the brunt of [Kim's] tyranny,” Park said.
Rare delegation visits
The Six-Party Talks, which comprise North and South Korea, China, the United States, Russia, and Japan, aim to resolve security concerns related to North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Washington and Pyongyang fought on opposing sides in the 1950-53 Korean War. They have no diplomatic relations and bilateral talks are rare. However, a North Korean delegation led by a senior official from Pyongyang is scheduled to pay a rare visit to New York on Nov. 7, just three days after the U.S. election.
Li Gun, director general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau, is to lead the delegation on Nov. 7, which comes at the invitation of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and the Korea Society.
On Oct. 11, the Bush administration removed North Korea from a list of nations considered state sponsors of terrorism.
But despite an apparent warming of ties, Kim Heung Kwang, of the North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), urged Obama’s government to continue to press Pyongyang to behave better.
“I hope that the new U.S. Administration will sympathize with North Korean refugees and defector intellectuals,” Kim said, adding that he hoped the new government would take into account their views.
Group wants more refugees
“As a matter of fundamental principle, I hope it will signal to North Korea that, in order for the United States to assist with its economic and social development, it needs to act like a responsible member of the international community,” Kim added.
Kay Seok, a North Korea researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, hoped Washington would admit more North Koreans as refugees, noting that fewer than 100 have immigrated since passage of a 2004 law to expedite their resettlement.
“Not so long ago, it was made public that the U.S. State Department would provide funding to civic groups advocating for the democratization of North Korea, but I believe that the U.S. government needs to seek more pro-active and comprehensive involvement on the issue of human rights in North Korea,” Seok said.
Suzanne Scholte, president of U.S. nonprofit Defense Forum Foundation, also urged the new administration to pressure China to stop repatriating the thousands of North Koreans who have fled across the Chinese border to escape repression and hunger at home.
Human Rights Watch has estimated that as many as 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China, where they survive at the mercy of human-traffickers and often unscrupulous employers and are under constant threat of repatriation.
Original reporting by Jung Young and SW Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Acting Korean service director: Francis Huh. Additional editing by Sooil Chun. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Luisetta Mudie.