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Let's talk it over

International | NORTH KOREA: U.S. officials press for a new round of diplomacy with North Korea-as some in the Senate emphasize the dismal human-rights conditions under Kim Jong Il

Issue: "Iraq: Bloody Ramadan," Nov. 29, 2003

American officials are trying to nudge a diplomatic beast-six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program-with gain and no pain. Hwang Jang Yop knows pain. After the former Communist Party official fled North Korea and became its highest-level defector, he learned that his wife reportedly committed suicide and one daughter died mysteriously. Another daughter and son have been confined to labor camps.

Despite his recent trip to the United States to brief lawmakers on repression in his homeland, U.S. officials are more focused on the urgency of disarming the North Koreans. A second round of talks could take place in Beijing by mid-December, four months after the first talks ended. The first round concluded with the participants -North and South Koreas, Japan, Russia, China, and the United States-agreed on one point only: To keep talking.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are working to soothe their allies' concerns that the United States might be watering down defense in the area. Mr. Rumsfeld told South Korean officials that plans to move American troops away from their border with the North would put U.S. forces in better positions to deal with an attack. Mr. Kelly assured Japanese defense officials that an American offer of security guarantees to North Korea would not compromise Japanese-American security agreements.

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Back in Washington, lawmakers and lobby groups want to draw attention to North Korean human-rights abuses. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is heading an effort to introduce the North Korea Freedom Act before this session of Congress ends. It would withhold 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 an end to South Korea's financial support of Kim Jong Il's regime.

On Nov. 4, activists testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the horrors endured by North Koreans under Kim Jong Il. The springboard for the hearing was "The Hidden Gulag," a report on the tens of thousands of North Koreans put into the country's political and prison camps. "Most of those imprisoned are there by virtue of a system of guilt by association, in which not only the perceived wrongdoer, but members of his or her family up to three generations, are imprisoned at hard labor," said the report's author, David Hawk, describing the political camps.

With the help of Mr. Hwang, conservatives succeeded in swinging the spotlight to other North Korean issues. On his first American visit, Mr. Hwang met with State Department officials and lawmakers eager to mine nuggets of unknown information about Kim Jong Il's regime. His only fully public appearance came on Oct. 31 on Capitol Hill, at a luncheon forum titled "What America Needs to Know About North Korea."

Mr. Hwang was the primary architect of juche, the Korean philosophy of self-sufficiency that bolstered the Communist state. Disgusted with Kim Jong Il's brutality, he defected to South Korea in 1997. Reports of government retribution against his family reached him there. The most recent report came just as he left Seoul for the United States, when Mr. Hwang received word his son had been in an "accident," a possible ploy to cow him into silence before his trip.

That may have worked. At the luncheon, Mr. Hwang was circumspect. "I know a lot of you came here with high expectations," he said. "However, I have decided since coming to the U.S. to speak only of things I've seen. I do not wish to speak of things that I can only speculate."

Mr. Hwang said he knew little about the extent of North Korea's nuclear-weapons development or how close the country is to collapse. He also said he was not qualified to comment on the effectiveness of U.S. policy toward North Korea. "My basic position, as I've stated earlier, is Kim Jong Il should be eliminated, and I hope U.S. policy can reflect my wishes," he said to applause.

Mr. Hwang's reluctance to speak on U.S. policy surprised attendee Mark Palmer, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and a one-time ambassador to Hungary. "I don't really know why he said that, if it was because he didn't want to alienate people here or alienate his South Korean minders," he said.

The South Korean government provided Mr. Hwang with a delegation of guards throughout his trip. Those who met with Mr. Hwang told WORLD they weren't sure if South Korean minders were protecting Mr. Hwang's life from a potential Kim assassin or protecting the exile from saying something that would embarrass the South. In either, their presence was plainly meant to intimidate as much as protect.

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