A Bush administration official described the situation in North Korea as brutality and deprivation that "offend our notions of human decency," which Washington is trying to redress through diplomatic means.
Last year, about 300,000 North Koreans fled their starving homeland for China, where they live in fear of being turned in to authorities and repatriated. Those who are repatriated may face execution.
Fifty-seven percent of the North Korean population is malnourished, including 45 percent of children under age 5, said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., in an opening speech.
A particularly telling statistic is that Pyongyang has lowered the height requirement for military conscripts to 4 feet 2 inches from 4 feet 11 inches, Brownback said.
In North Korea's notorious prison camps, nearly one-fourth of the population dies each year because of hardships such as hard labor, torture and withheld food, said Brownback, who has been active in developing U.S. policy on North Korea and North Korean refugees.
"Human life is treated far too cheap by the government of North Korea," he said.
"How many more testimonies, heart-wrenching testimonies, heart-breaking testimonies, mind-boggling testimonies before we act, as Senator Brownback has said, in a way that is commensurate with the gravity and the nightmarish quality of what is going on in North Korea?" asked Tim Peters, an American who is the founder of a Seoul-based famine relief program, Helping Hands Korea.
Another activist, German physician Norbert Vollertsen, first went to North Korea as a volunteer doctor. For his work, the North Korean government awarded him the Friendship Medal, which gave him a rare inside look into the country.
"The military elite they are enjoying banquets and fashionable nightclubs; in contrast was the lifestyle of the ordinary people and children who are dying, starving," Vollertsen said.
Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, cited a recent Human Rights Watch report on North Korea, which said newcomers to North Korean prison camps are first taught how to bury the corpses.
In a camp of 300 prisoners, 10 people die each day. One such camp, Camp 22, contains relatives of those who defected from North Korea.
James R. Lilley, a resident fellow at AEI and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said the United States has leverage in its dealings with Pyongyang because North Korea desperately needs the food and oil supplies it gets from Washington.
"We want them (North Koreans) to have food, and at the same time we want them to have freedom," Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute.
[From UPI article written by Carolyn Ayon Lee]