WASHINGTON-Under umbrellas shading them from the baking sun, Koreans gathered Tuesday in front of the U.S. Capitol with a new energy in the fight for human rights in North Korea-the vocal support of South Korea.
South Korean elections last year ushered in a new president, Lee Myung-bak, who is conservative and promised to draw a curtain over past administrations' "Sunshine Policy" of peaceful coexistence with North Korea. Last fall, the government set up a commission to investigate human rights abuses in its northern neighbor, the sort of confrontational move the government had previously avoided. Then, for the first time, the country signed a United Nations resolution condemning North Korea's human rights record.
The new leadership has emboldened South Korean groups to speak out more forcefully about what some are calling the greatest violation of human rights today. Thirty defectors from North Korea gathered for the rally as well-the largest number ever for North Korea Freedom Week in Washington.
South Korea's ambassador for human rights, Jhe Seong Ho, came and spoke out at the events for the first time.
"We should not be ashamed to raise the North Korea issue," he told me. "There is a widespread opinion that raising human rights is very confrontational or anti-spirit of unification. It is a wrong perception. Without improvement of North Korea human rights you can't deal with unification of South and North Korea."
Three million people are estimated to have died of starvation in the isolated country since the 1990s. North Koreans, by some reports, have a life expectancy that is 20 years shorter than South Koreans. They are also several inches shorter, on average, assumedly due to malnutrition.
Pastor Sharon Lee of International Calvary Church prayed at the rally that North Koreans would be able to worship freely and that children there would grow fat.
"We believe all of this will take place sooner or later, because you are a wondrous God," she prayed.
Many accuse China of abetting the North Korean regime's abuses by repatriating fleeing North Koreans-relegating them to alleged harsh treatments or execution. The State Department under Hillary Clinton has not shown significant departure from the prior administration yet on policy towards North Korea.
"They're not taking a strong stance," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who has traveled to North Korea. "[Clinton] should have leveraged more on China on this issue."
North Korea has shot into headlines again recently for its failed launch of a long-range missile and its promise to get its nuclear reactors up and running again. In March, the regime there booted out all relief organizations, despite reports that the country is in desperate need of food aid.
Also in March, the government arrested two American journalists near the country's border with China, accusing them of "hostile acts." They will be tried in North Korea. Seong-Ho called the Americans a "bargaining chip" for North Korea.
The man commissioned with monitoring human rights in North Korea under the authority of the U.N., Vitit Muntarbhorn, has been entirely shunned by the North Korean regime. But a few weeks ago, after five years of one-sided conversations, he received his first communiqué from officials in response to his inquiries about the journalists-the letter said the two had consular contact.
Despite the government's persistent brush-offs, he said he sees results in the small reforms the totalitarian government has made over the years-relaxing prohibitions against cell phones, for example. Negotiating with the country must be done without vitriol, he said.
"It doesn't have to be done frontally," Muntarbhorn told me. "You don't have to say the word, whatever it is."
Despite his assessment, the South Koreans are taking a more "frontal" approach.
"Sunshine Policy has no concept of human rights," Seong-Ho told me.
At the beginning of May, 191 countries will gather to review the global nuclear non-proliferation treaty-North Korea will not be present, and has withdrawn from the six-party talks on the issue. The nuclear dilemma, activists at the rally argued, shouldn't overshadow the country's dire human rights conditions. Public executions, torture, prison camps, and neutering of the disabled are still reported practices, as well as an expected crackdown this year on home gardens and trading in marketplaces-but Muntarbhorn is positive.
"Human rights work is hopeful work," he said. "I do see tunnels-and ends, and lights."