May 6, 2008 | Op-ed

U.S. Should Help North Koreans Flee

‘We look forward to the moment when we can celebrate the blessings of liberty with the North Korean people,” President Bush said in a statement released last week.

So we should, faced with a North Korean government whose terror-based rule displays itself both in the repression, starvation and murder of its own people, and in the building of missiles and nuclear bombs to threaten and extort concessions from the rest of us. While the State Department treats the two issues as separate – employing one U.S. envoy for nuclear negotiations with North Korea and another to address human rights – they are intimately entwined. The basic threat from North Korea stems not simply from its weapons, but from the totalitarian nature of its government. Until Kim Jong Il’s government is gone, there can be no dependable peace with Pyongyang.

How horrible, then, that despite Bush’s lip service to the cause of liberty for North Korea, the thrust of U.S. policy is to delay, rather than hasten, that moment of freedom. Indeed, in Washington over the last 15 years, it has become the practice of both Democratic and Republican administrations to do business with Kim while soft-pedaling protest over the atrocities he inflicts on his own people.

The result has been two nuclear-disarmament deals with North Korea – one under President Bill Clinton in 1994, the other under Bush in February 2007. Punctuated by North Korea’s illicit nuclear test in 2006, both deals have involved great dollops of aid to Kim’s government and deference to his negotiators.

The capper, of course, was last month’s much-delayed confirmation from the White House that North Korea, even after signing on to the February 2007 nuclear-disarmament deal, had continued helping terrorist-sponsoring Syria build a secret nuclear reactor, modeled on North Korea’s Yongbyon plant – and apparently designed for nothing other than producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. That project was stopped by an Israeli bombing raid last September. The White House, desperate to hang on to its North Korean deal, then spent more than seven months covering up for Kim before the U.S. public. Even now, the administration trundles on, determined to secure a paper legacy of false promises from Pyongyang – and, like Clinton, leave the fallout to the next administration.

There is another way, which has never been tried. That would be for Bush to take seriously his own words about freedom for North Korea and put real muscle behind the U.S. promises of recent years to help people fleeing Kim’s rule. Despite a series of measures initiated by Congress, and the heroic help provided over many years by a number of nongovernmental organizations and individuals, North Korean refugees remain among the most disenfranchised people on Earth. The grand total welcomed to U.S. shores over the last generation comes to fewer than 50.

For most, the only escape route lies through China. There, although Beijing has signed the U.N. agreements on refugees, they find no refugee havens and no safe passage. China treats them as criminals – “illegal immigrants” – pays bounties for their capture, and sends them back to North Korea. There, they face punishments, including imprisonment in labor camps and public execution.

Deferring to Beijing and Pyongyang, and fearing an exodus from North Korea if the escape route were made easier, the free world has made a grim habit of sidelining this outrage. It is way past time for the United States to stop shoring up Kim with nuclear tribute and instead start leaning on Olympic-hosting China, the humanitarian-posturing United Nations, and anyone else who might help open the floodgates out of North Korea. Short of military action, that is the best shot at bringing down Kim and the nuclear extortion racket on which he thrives.