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De-fang by defection

International | NORTH KOREA: Can the United States end the nuclear nightmare in Pyongyang one defector at a time? It's worth a try

Issue: "Arafat: The devil you know," Sept. 20, 2003

North Korean weapons expert Ri Chae Woo sneaked into the Australian consulate in Guangzhou, China, dressed as a maintenance worker. The disguise didn't work. Chinese authorities knew Dr. Ri was trying to defect, and local policemen arrested him in a fire-escape stairwell. His wife and two teenage children managed to escape through a nearby fast-food restaurant.

So goes the account given by human-rights activists of Dr. Ri's Sept. 5 capture. Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician who is trying to help bring down the Pyongyang regime through mass defections of North Koreans, said Dr. Ri was still in Chinese custody as of last week.

Dr. Ri left his job at the Chiha-ri Chemical Corp. in Anbyon in June, bound for China. Dr. Vollertsen said the defector was armed with a dossier detailing human experiments used to help develop North Korea's biological- and chemical-weapons programs. Chinese authorities have denied that they arrested Dr. Ri, or that he tried to defect. "We don't think such a thing happened," said Sun Wei De, a Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher also said he had not heard of the case.

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China's denial could mean any number of things, ventured South Korean activist Douglas Shin. Fellow activists could have circulated the report of the botched defection as a smokescreen to protect the real identity of someone trying to defect. Another possibility: Other countries, such as the United States, were coordinating Dr. Ri's defection. Or it could be the standard ignorance Chinese authorities claim. "What we know for certain is his papers are still at large-they're being moved to a safe location," said Mr. Shin.

If Dr. Ri is in Chinese custody, authorities could send him-one of about 200,000 North Korean refugees in China-back to his homeland. That could have already happened, worries Washington, D.C.-based human-rights activist Michael Horowitz: "They could have already turned him over to North Korea and they've killed him. That's what scares me about this. And the Chinese and the North Koreans are going to act as if he never existed."

Dr. Ri is just the kind of defector the United States is looking for. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and other lawmakers are working on a bill that would increase from 250 to 3,500 the number of American visas offered to foreigners who can help fight the war on terror. The measure would especially target officials such as Dr. Ri, who have insider knowledge on rogue states' weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.

American policy toward North Korea in general needs recrafting, said Mr. Horowitz. He has tried to pry open the doors for more defectors to come to the States-but has encountered bureaucratic waffling from government officials. "When I've sent them potential defectors, they've sent back five-page single-spaced requests for these people to provide biographies."

The authors of the new bill propose ratcheting up pressure on North Korea and its neighbors to prevent human-rights abuses. Among the suggestions: no U.S. funds in any agreement unless there is progress in areas such as concentration-camp monitoring and religious freedom; a change in Chinese policy to offer sanctuary to North Korean refugees; and no aid to South Korea to help it cope with the North's collapse unless it stops providing financial support to Kim Jong Il's regime.

Meanwhile, North Korea engaged in more posturing: On the eve of the country's anniversary festivities, its ambassador to Russia denounced negotiations as useless and said the state had no choice but to increase its "nuclear deterrent." Activists such as Dr. Vollertsen also deal in stark choices-forcibly bring down the government or North Korea's brutal reign continues.

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