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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 22, 2006

Seoul strangely silent on N. Korea abuses

By Richard Halloran

South Korean protesters in Seoul shouted anti-American slogans Thursday during a news conference called to protest the inaugural meeting of a newly established high-level security forum between the two allies dubbed the "Strategic Consultation for Allied Partnership."

LEE JIN-MAN | Associated Press

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Books on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il are displayed at the North Korea Reference Room of Unification Ministry in Seoul.

AHN YOUNG-JOON | Associated Press

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Among the policy differences dividing the United States and South Korea, one that stands out is the divergence over the issue of North Korea's abuses of the human rights of its own citizens.

In the U.S., President Bush, both houses of Congress and private, bipartisan committees have condemned the North Korean abuses and have urged the South Koreans to do likewise. The U.S. ambassador in Seoul, Alexander Vershbow, has been particularly outspoken.

Last week, Vershbow chided the South Koreans for not standing up to the North Koreans. "I think all South Koreans," he said, "should be worried about a regime that threatens its own people so badly, that wastes its scarce resources on nuclear weapons, and that engages in counterfeiting, drug trafficking, money-laundering and the export of dangerous military technologies."

Instead, President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea, who was a human-rights lawyer before entering elective politics, has been strangely subdued on this question.

Senior officials of his government have argued that it is better to be "prudent" than to provoke the North Koreans with criticism. Some have demanded that the American ambassador be recalled.

In a news conference with President Bush during his visit to South Korea in November, President Roh asserted in a convoluted argument that his approach on the North Korean human-rights issue was similar to that of President Abraham Lincoln in freeing the slaves during the American Civil War.

"President Lincoln's first priority was unity among the states of America," Roh contended in referring to reunification of divided Korea. "I think that this is quite similar to the position we are taking when it comes to North Korean human-rights issues."

The dispute over how to handle this issue comes against a backdrop of rising anti-Americanism in South Korea and a nascent anti-Korean backlash in the United States. In particular, Washington and Seoul disagree over how to negotiate with Pyongyang on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, the Americans taking a hard line, the South Koreans advocating "flexibility."

The United States and South Korea disagree on military matters. The South Koreans have said they will cut their troop deployment in Iraq by one-third this year while the Americans will move forces from positions close to the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean Peninsula to camps farther south despite South Korean objections. Command of Korean forces in wartime is in dispute.

Indeed, relations between the United States and South Korea have deteriorated so far that some specialists on Korea have begun privately to speculate that the alliance will be diluted or possibly dissolved in five to eight years even though Presidents Bush and Roh have proclaimed it to be in good shape.

A particular point of contention has been two reports issued by the non-profit U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The first, "Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea," said that 1 million North Koreans, or about five percent of the nation's population, had died of famine over the past two decades because "the government was culpably slow to take the necessary steps to guarantee adequate food supplies."

Written by Stephan Haggard of the University of California-San Diego, and Marcus Noland of the Institute of International Economics in Washington, D.C., the report concluded: "It is difficult to imagine a famine of this magnitude, or chronic food shortages of this duration, occurring in a regime that protected basic political and civil liberties."

Roh's government objected, contending that, contrary to the report, South Korea had monitored its food aid to North Korea to assure that it was being distributed equitably to reach the people who needed it. Haggard and Noland disagreed in a rebuttal.

Earlier, the U.S. committee issued a report entitled "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps." Based largely on information from North Korean prisoners who had defected to South Korea, the report assessed two different systems of prisons. One set comprised forced-labor camps, the other to punish North Koreans who had fled to China and had been returned.

Written by David Hawk, a human-rights researcher who has produced reports on abuses in Cambodia and Rwanda, the study pointed to citizens arrested for guilt by association and life sentences for three generations of political prisoners.

Hawk portrayed forced abortions for pregnant women who had fled to China and were forcibly sent back to North Korea or "murder of their newborn infants." Further, he said: "The practice of torture permeates the North Korean prison and detention system."

Honolulu-based Richard Halloran is a former Asia correspondent for the New York Times. He wrote this article for The Advertiser.