In the final leg of a story shrouded in mystery, two South Korean airliners coming from Vietnam recently landed on an airfield outside of Seoul. They brought approximately 450 North Korean refugees in a successful escape to South Korea. From there they have been spirited to a hidden location for debriefing, training for a new life, and ultimate resettlement. As Winston Churchill famously said, ‘this is not the beginning of the end, but may be the end of the beginning.’ Were that true in regard to the horrific regime of dictator Kim Jong Il then we would have good news indeed. For by any standards North Korea’s successive father-son dictatorial tag team matches today’s worst human rights violators.
What makes the situation especially frustrating for those who share their anguish is the world’s indifference. North Korea is hermetically sealed; little news gets in or out. Human rights organizations like Helsinki Watch and Amnesty International have no access to North Korea and must rely on second- or third-hand sources. Paucity of news means little gets reported. That has improved as organizations like the Washington-based North Korean Freedom Coalition work tirelessly to call attention to state-sponsored abuse of the North Korean people. The Coalition arranges for refugees to inform the world of their plight through the medium of Congressional testimony. At last concerned legislators are acting.
A major success occurred on June 21 when the House passed the North Korean Human Rights Act. If the Senate acts on its even stronger version, immigration to the US will be easier for North Korean refugees, and human rights issues would weigh heavily in any future dealings with Kim Jong Il’s regime. Some, particularly in the State Department, decry such an action because it threatens their beloved ‘stability.’ Given the fact that Kim’s regime has been a loose cannon rolling across the decks of diplomatic harmony in the region relations could hardly get worse. If enacted and enforced, it might help the forlorn cause of the hapless citizens of North Korea who are by any standards at the bottom of the food chain both figuratively and literally.
One odd fact about assistance to North Korean people – ranging from favorable legislation to accountability in distribution of relief supplies to the ultimate benefit, regime change – is that in America it originates, as British analyst Aidan Forest-Carter notes, from ‘the Republican right.’ How can this be, when Republicans are routinely castigated as friends of none save those who line their pockets? It is true; many conservatives demand that Kim Jong Il adhere to higher standards of human rights. To their shame, some leftists in America and abroad eschew human rights and oppose assisting the North Korean people because they fear angering Kim Jong Il.
Indeed, one of the things that makes the arrival of 450 North Korean refugees in Seoul a point to celebrate is that for many years the left-leaning South Korean governments of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun have seemed willing to sacrifice their brethren in North Korea to the dreadful tyranny of Kim Jong Il as long as their economic and political boats were left unrocked. In fact there is growing testimony from insiders that Kim Dae Jung bribed the North Koreans through Hyundai and other major South Korean conglomerates to the tune of $1.5 billion to pretend to come to the peace table and discuss peaceful co-existence and dismantling of their nuclear program. Kim did this, former subordinates have emphatically stated, with the express purpose of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
So does this acceptance of North Korean refugees portend a major policy shift in South Korea? Will the government of South Korea, which for decades has stated that all Koreans on the peninsula are citizens of South Korea, actually begin to accept refugees in earnest? If it does it will mark a long overdue, positive step toward helping the North Korean people. Continued progress requires courage, a quality considered abundant among the good citizens of South Korea. They must hold their leaders accountable on behalf of their imprisoned fellow citizens.
The ruthless persecution of its own people is a primary reason that President Bush added North Korea to the Axis of Evil. He has placed the regime on notice. A likely Kerry position, a return to the Carter-Clinton policy of blind appeasement toward Kim Jong Il, would be unacceptable. Future US actions toward North Korea have major foreign policy consequences and must be raised and debated by the presidential candidates.
Understandably the North Korean refugee problem frightens players in the region, especially China, perhaps even more so than Kim’s nuclear weapons do. Best estimates say that there are as many as 300,000 refugees in the provinces of China bordering North Korea. The Chinese verge on panic contemplating disposition of even this relatively modest number. They fear what most observers predict: an economic or political implosion within North Korea could force two million or more desperate, sick, starving people to seek refuge by fleeing into China. Crafting a solution to the refugee threat is a first priority and is essential to convince China that eliminating the Kim regime is in its best interests.
Americans strive to share our light of freedom and democracy with oppressed people around the world. The North Korean people have suffered enough: they deserve freedom now.