Sunday, November 13, 2005

Unwelcome Truths

North Korea's highest-ranking defector arrived safely in Washington DC despite North Korea's threat to "shoot his plane out of the sky" if he dared to visit the U.S.

Hwang Jang Yop brought with him a two-prong proposal for what he calls the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula: regime change and greater international focus on the human-rights abuses of the North. Mr. Hwang said: "I want to emphasize the importance of eliminating the Kim Jong Il regime." How to do that? "The U.S. should put the issue of human rights at the top of its agenda in its dialogue" with North Korea.

Hwang Jang Yop is an unlikely champion of human rights in North Korea. (Mr. Hwang , the former head of North Korea's Workers Party and president of Kim Il Sung University had defected to South Korea in 1997.) Now in his 80’s, he spent his career in the service of the brutal regime he now denounces. He was the North's ideologue-in-chief--founder and leading proponent of the "juche" ideology of self-reliance that Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il, used to justify his totalitarian rule.

One would think that the one place in the world where the campaign to free the North Korean people would be taken most seriously would be South Korea, where Mr. Hwang lived under virtual house arrest until recently. Think again.

Most Koreans are well informed about the brutal realities of life in the North but prefer to look the other way. It's much pleasanter to contemplate reunification fantasies such as the one portrayed in a hit movie about a cross-border romance between a South Korean woman and a North Korean soldier.

If the South Korean people seem indifferent to the plight of their brothers and sisters in the North, it's in large part because their political leaders remain silent. President Roh Moo Hyun was a human-rights lawyer before taking office but human rights north of the DMZ is way down on his priority list.

South Korea's constitution requires it to welcome any North Korean who wants to come to the South. Yet in the 50 years since the end of the Korean War, the South has accepted around 3,000 refugees. Most have come in the past two years, thanks in large part to the efforts of several private groups dedicated to helping North Koreans find refuge in the South.

The rescuers, many of whom are Christian, differ among themselves over how best to help. One faction prefers to work out of the public eye. Another faction pursues high-profile tactics such as helping asylum-seekers flood embassies in China. Its aim is to draw international attention to the plight of the quarter-million or more North Korean refugees hiding in China.

There's another aspect too--money. "I don't mean to sound mercenary," says Tim Peters, an American missionary here. "But in some respects running into a consulate in China is cost effective." Smuggling a refugee out through Mongolia or Vietnam costs $1,000 to $3,000 per person, he says. Mr. Peters adds that money also talks in North Korea's gulags. "It's easier to spring someone from a North Korean prison than from a Chinese prison," he says.

Word filtered back to Mr. Hwang in Seoul about the fate of the family he had left behind [in North Korea]. His wife committed suicide. So too, the reports said, did one of his daughters. She is said to have jumped off a bridge to her death while being taken to a prison camp. Two other daughters and a son are lost in the gulag.

This is the reality of life in North Korea--and the truth that Mr. Hwang is speaking out about.

[Excerpted from an article by Melanie Kirkpatrick, Wall Street Journal]

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