The other Korean crisis

October 24, 2003

THE NORTH KOREAN nuclear threat - a Rubik's Cube of bad geo-political options - is most often parsed in diplomatic, military and strategic terms. Too often in the background of these complexities are the more than 20 million North Koreans - a starved people kept captive by an inherited dictatorship, largely rejected as refugees by neighboring nations, and subjected to Stalinist cruelties.

As the United States attempts to bargain Kim Jong Il into dropping his only chip - his nuclear ambitions - for a multinational security guarantee, it should not be forgotten that such a trade might buttress Mr. Kim's brutal regime. And as a new report shows, any such deal thus runs the risk of a practical accommodation with an evil - if human rights isn't also in the forefront of the agenda.

The report, released Wednesday by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, is based on satellite photos and interviews with 30 former inmates and guards at the North's forced labor camps. It details a brutal "hidden gulag" in which:

About 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners, often sentenced along with three generations of their families for political crimes, are enslaved in at least six penal-labor colonies, each 20 miles by 10 miles in size.

Inmates in these and other prisons are controlled by near-starvation rations, torture and murder. Thousands die each year.

Torture is common for refugees repatriated from China, and those who return pregnant face forced abortion or, if more advanced, infanticide.

Much of this is not new; these horrors are consistent with the tyranny of Mr. Kim and his father before him for the last half-century. Control of food, including foreign aid, has long been one of their internal security tools. In that sense, all of North Korea is a gulag, one in which 2 million people died of famine in the 1990s and almost half its young are estimated to be malnourished.

A key factor in the Kims' ability to retain their power has been the failure of China to take in North Korean refugees - an escape route that must now be opened.

China, fearful of upsetting its own tenuous social stability, continues to repatriate escapees from the North - even as it has begun to distance itself from its longtime alliance with the North. Meanwhile, an estimated 200,000 North Koreans are believed hiding in fear in China at any given time.

The human rights group hopes its new report will spur China to stop these forced repatriations and the United Nations to press for access to these refugees in China. But China - moving this year to join in a united front with the United States and the North's neighbors in the face of its nuclear threats - has so far not shown any willingness to change its position on the refugees.

The United States for now appears to have little leverage on this issue with China. However, if efforts to strike a multilateral bargain with Mr. Kim fail - and the prospects aren't good - the United States and the North's neighbors may end up moving from diplomacy to an economic blockade. In that scenario, pressure on China to provide safe harbor to these forgotten people evolves from a needed humanitarian step to a potential means of hastening this horrid regime's downfall. It's a tragedy that these desperate refugees may have to wait for that.

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