N. Korea Freedom Week Updates

First, please join us on the West side of the U.S. Capitol today, starting at 11:30. The rally will last well into the afternoon, with plenty of opportunities to frighten powerful and cynical people throughout the day. Some of us may even make a special appearance at the South Korean Embassy later this afternoon. At 6 PM, Suzanne Scholte of the North Korean Freedom Coalition will lead a rally at the Chinese Embassy that will become an all-night prayer vigil.

Hearing on Abductees. Thursday’s first event was a hearing before the House International Relations Committee, Asia-Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, on North Korean abductions. The testimony was too detailed and too emotional to do justice here, but two particular moments stuck with me.

The first came when Sakie Yokota, mother of abductee Megumi Yokota, described meeting a North Korean ex-spy who had first-hand knowledge of Megumi’s abduction at age 13, in 1977. Megumi was shoved into a small, dark, lower-deck compartment of a North Korean spy ship, where she cracked at the steel with her fingernails and cried, “Mother, please rescue me!” Mrs. Yokota’s voice broke as she described this, and as she held up a remarkable photo of her daughter taken in North Korea showing Megumi looking hollow and despondent. Mrs. Yokota spoke of caressing the photo and begging her daughter’s forgiveness for not rescuing her. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

I was also moved by the determination of a tiny South Korean woman, Ms. Lee Mi-Il, whose father was one of the reported 82,000 South Koreans abducted by the North during the war and never allowed to return. She lives to tell her father of how she survived and persevered despite being severely handicapped by childhood disease, and of the love of her mother, who waited faithfully for a husband who never came home. The hearing was packed; those who arrived late had to observe the first parts of the testimony from an overflow room, via video link. You can see the testimony via Internet here.

Others present were visibly affected by First Lieutentant Cho Chang-Ho’s description of 44 years of North Korean captivity. I had previously heard Lt. Cho give a much more detailed description last year. What the man survived, both physically and emotionally, is stunning.

Meeting with POTUS. Later today, Mrs. Yokota will reportedly meet with President Bush. I overheard, but can’t yet confirm, that Han-Mi, the little girl in the pink coat made famous in this photograph, will also attend with her mother. Han-Mi is now four, very cute, and feeling a bit overexposed by this week’s events. This is another good sign of a belated U.S. policy evolution, following the Kang Chol Hwan meeting last year.

N. Korean Human Rights Act Implementation. Congress is no longer merely frustrated over slow implementation of the NK Human Rights Act; it’s livid. Amb. Jay Lefkowitz faced severe questioning and criticism at the press conference and the preceding hearing from Rep. James Leach, Iowa, the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee Chairman, and from Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, a Democrat, had the temerity and insight to ask Amb. Lefkowitz how much of his time is even spent on North Korean human rights each week (he’s a part-time “special employee” and works at a private law firm the rest of his time). The question clearly jarred Lefkowitz, who reponded with “25-30 hours.” McCollum responded that at least in Japan, this was perceived as a sign of the administration’s incomplete dedication to the issue. Other harsh criticism followed at the press conference, via Rep. Joe Pitts, Rep. Ed Royce, and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, also a Democrat.

Radio Broadcasting. A press conference following Thursday’s hearing focused on the $2M of unspent money authorized but never appropriated to help North Koreans get outside sources of information. Without U.S. help, Kim Seung Min, Director of Radio Free North Korea, continues to expand his broadcasting operations despite the lack of any government support and a spate of hacks. Unfortunately, that means they are up to just 1 hour on short wave per day, plus Internet broadcasts that probably reach very few North Koreans. They eventually plan to go medium wave, too.

Radio Free North Korea depends entirely on private contributions. Unfortunately, their site is in Korean only. No doubt, they’d appreciate some competent help in that area. I can’t stress the importance of this project, and my own frustration that the U.S. government has been so dilatory in supporting it. Another radio service for North Korea is Open Radio for North Korea. Its director, Young Howard, was also present for this week’s events.

In response to my question, Mr. Kim reported no South Korean government action to shut them down, although he claims that North Korea pointedly asked for just that in recent N-S ministerial talks. Kim does report that Radio Free North Korea was hacked on two recent occasions. On 10 February, their site was hacked and replaced by [pro-North Korean?] propaganda. On 7-10 April, a spate of hack attacks originating in Australia, China, and Japan briefly shut down their server. Let’s hear it for tolerant progressivism!

The press conference was moved up to accomodate a very powerful hearing that preceded it. Unfortunately, a few members of the media didn’t get the word (the place was packed with journalists anyway; the breaking Sakie Yokota story probably explains most of that). Feel free to drop a comment here if you’d like a copy of my notes.

Wreath Laying. Gordon Cucullu emceed a small but touching ceremony, where the Exile Committee for North Korean Democracy, hosted by a local leader of the Korean War Vets’ Association, laid a wreath at the Korean War Memorial on the Mall. The small group grew larger as it attracted the attention of interested passersby. We quickly exhausted a fairly robust supply of leaflets for today’s rally. One of the North Koreans present defected across the DMZ while I was serving, and it was very gratifying to meet with a former enemy, now turned friend. My limited Korean didn’t fail me. It was just a nice moment.

North Korean Opposition. Overall, it hasn’t developed any obvious political agenda that can serve as an alternative to Kim Jong Il. It won’t attract significant support until it has that, plus dynamic and honest leaders. I’m guardedly optimistic that the Exile Committee seems to have caught on to Hwang Jang Yop’s personal unpopularity and seems to be finding a voice of its own. It will have to do more. My own personal belief is that Hwang is a major political liability. And of course, just behind the scenes, there is the predictable bickering and factionalism, which can have the effect of blinding everyone to the shared goal. Political parties in free societies bicker, too, of course. The delicate balance between compromise and principle is a one of the most difficult balancing acts of any democratic society.

Update:

White House spokesman Scott McClellan at a daily briefing said the issue is a “very high priority” for President George W. Bush. “[It is] something he brings attention to every time he sits down and meets with a world leader,” he said.
. . . .

At talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao last week, President Bush called on Pyongyang’s ally to live up to its international obligations on handling these refugees. Mr. McClellan said Pyongyang is a “repressive regime” that violates human rights.