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A Korean Catastrophe

Richard G. Lugar, The Washington Post, Arab News Agency, Al-Jazeerah, 20 July 2003

WASHINGTON, 20 July 2003—Much of official Washington is worried, quite rightly, about the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang’s secret program to make bomb-grade uranium, its eviction of nuclear inspectors and its claims to have reprocessed spent reactor fuel for nuclear weapons pose direct threats to US national security. I encourage President Bush to keep working with our friends and allies in the region to persuade North Korea to change course.

In addition to efforts on security issues, we need to address a parallel humanitarian problem in North Korea that now appears to be worsening. Up to 300,000 North Korean refugees are stuck in China. Many of them live in hiding in the border areas of northeastern China, fearful of being arrested by Chinese authorities and being sent back to North Korea. Many of the women are exploited by Chinese gangsters and forced into prostitution or abusive marriages.

A large number of those who are caught face an even worse fate when they are returned to North Korea. Because leaving North Korea is considered treason, many returnees are imprisoned, interrogated under torture and sometimes executed. China’s actions contravene international conventions it has signed, and Beijing won’t let the refugees pass on to South Korea. From the flood of North Korean refugees last year, only a trickle, an estimated 1,200, made it to the South. Most of them were people who had managed to get beyond the border area and find a foreign embassy in Beijing.

This refugee problem is caused in turn by another humanitarian failing, the decade of food shortages in North Korea. In the mid-1990s a devastating famine struck: Estimates of the number who starved to death range from 600,000 to more than 2 million. By 1997 North Korea’s rulers, who hold a political philosophy called juche, or self-reliance, finally allowed the United States and other countries to start donating food to ease the suffering, but conditions remain bleak. Many of the refugees are fleeing simply because they’re hungry.

Nearly one North Korean child in 10 suffers from acute malnutrition, according to a United Nations-European Union survey last year, and four out of every 10 children are chronically malnourished. This is partly the result of bad weather and poor farming conditions, but the primary cause is decades of government mismanagement of the economy and the agriculture system.

Instead of trying to feed its people, Pyongyang is obsessed with developing nuclear weapons and missiles, and fortifying its 1 million-man army. The CIA estimates that North Korea devotes nearly a third of its economic output to military expenditures.

The outside world has tried to assist the North Korean people, despite their government. The United States has donated some 1.9 million metric tons of wheat and other items to prevent starvation in North Korea, primarily through the World Food Program, a UN agency. China and South Korea have also been major donors of food and fertilizer, and other countries have contributed as well. But there is evidence that some of the donated assistance never makes it to its intended recipients, and Pyongyang’s stubborn refusal to abide by international rules has prevented more aid from flowing.

Unlike all other countries that receive WFP donations, North Korea does not allow full monitoring to make sure that supplies aren’t being siphoned off. It won’t permit unannounced inspections, and won’t even admit inspectors who speak Korean, forcing the WFP to rely on government-supplied interpreters. Donor countries are weary of Pyongyang’s game-playing and are walking away. Last year the WFP got only 80 percent of the amount of donations it requested for North Korea. So far this year it has received pledges of food amounting to only two-thirds of what it hopes to distribute.

The United States has provisionally pledged up to another 100,000 metric tons of food aid for this year, less than we have in the past. That’s not enough, in my view, but Congress and the administration won’t send additional help until they can be sure it is getting to the right people. By simply adhering to international norms, Pyongyang could open the aid spigots.

It is clear that absent a major shift in policies by their government, desperate North Korean citizens will continue to flee the country. The United States has repeatedly urged China to live up to its obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention, which prohibits the forced return of refugees to places where they face possible persecution. China has refused, citing an agreement it has signed with North Korea to send such ’food migrants’ back across the border. The administration and Congress must continue to press China on this point.

As an added humanitarian measure, the United States, along with the United Nations and other members of the international community, should demand that North Korea allow the WFP to provide food directly to the country’s vast, inhumane prison camps, where many of the repatriated refugees, as well as thousands of other political prisoners, are kept in unspeakable conditions.

In the meantime, we should authorize the resettlement of some North Korean refugees in this country, and press our allies to do the same. If this sparks a greater flow of North Koreans from their gulag-like country, some would argue, that could help keep pressure on North Korea or even hasten the fall of the Pyongyang regime, much as the flight of East Germans in 1989 helped undermine the Communist system there. International steps to help North Korean refugees would also be an unmistakable signal to Pyongyang that the world community will not turn a blind eye to the regime’s systematic human rights violations and its unconscionable neglect of its people’s basic needs. Regardless, we should offer resettlement options to North Koreans because it’s the right thing to do.

These proposals are controversial. Some will draw objections from Pyongyang, or frankly, from some of our partners and allies in the region. That is no reason not to act. It is time for the United States to lead on these issues.