April 30, 2009 | Forbes.com

Lives For Sale

Probing President Obama's resolve, North Korea is now cranking its nuclear extortion routine into high gear. Following its April 5 illicit test of a ballistic missile, Kim Jong Il's regime is threatening an in-our-face expansion of its nuclear program, along with more tests of rockets and bombs.

Unfortunately, all the signs are that President Obama, in a replay of the failed policies of his predecessors, will respond with yet more windy words, push for another round of leaky sanctions and turn to the People's Republic of China for help in bringing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea back to the bargaining table–where North Korea for years has extorted payoffs in exchange for empty promises to scrap its nuclear projects.

Here's an instance in which a change of U.S. policy is desperately needed, starting with a rethink of the basic nature of the problem. The real threat emanating from North Korea tracks back not to its missiles or nuclear stockpile per se, but to the malign character of Kim's totalitarian regime–horrifically displayed in the brutality with which he abuses his own captive citizenry of some 23 million North Koreans.

And Kim's regime survives not in spite of, but in cahoots with, China–one of Kim's major trading partners, business conduits and bulwarks of support. Whatever embarrassments China might have to put up with over this partnership, Beijing on balance derives advantages from its role as a broker of international efforts to contain North Korea. This in turn gives Beijing an interest in preserving a convenient degree of instability on the Korean peninsula.

For most of Kim's 15-year reign, since he took over from his Stalin-installed father, Kim Il Sung, Washington has tacitly accepted the grotesque nature of the North Korean regime while trying to persuade Kim to disarm. Largely ignoring Kim's gulag, America's diplomatic establishment has focused mainly on bickering with North Korea over its weapons and nuclear ambitions.

This approach, enshrined most recently in the failed Six-Party Talks–based in Beijing–has neither stopped the North Korean nuclear threat, nor has it transformed Pyongyang's government from a highly militarized proliferation-prone tyranny to something at least more benign.

To the extent that President Obama hopes to rely on words, not weapons, to deal with the North Korean threat, the most compelling case against the regime of Kim Jong Il is not the murky question of exactly how many ounces of plutonium or enriched uranium he has stashed in his vaults. The core case resides in the increasingly well-documented matter of the atrocities he inflicts on his own people.

While former President Bush, especially during his first term, did pay some attention to Kim's ghoulish record of human rights abuses, these were not placed at center stage. They became increasingly subordinated to the haggling, fawning, free food, free fuel, cash transfers and helpful cover-ups accorded by the U.S. to North Korea via the Six-Party Talks.

If President Obama wants to try something really different, then by all means go ahead with the usual round of sanctions and condemnations. But put North Korean human rights front and center in U.S. public policy toward North Korea.

For this, it is necessary to go beyond the inbred diplomatic default modes of the U.S. State Department. One of the prime places Obama could turn for help is the wildly under-appreciated Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, or HRNK. Based in Washington, and enlisting the help of hard-headed experts on both human rights and North Korea, HRNK's small shop has turned out a series of landmark reports over the past six years documenting and explaining in depth the horrors of Kim's government.

One of its most spectacular products was a 2003 report on North Korea's “hidden gulag,” by veteran human rights investigator and advocate David Hawk. Based on interviews with North Korean defectors, cross-checked as far as possible to filter out distortions and correlated with satellite photos of the areas they described, that report provided the most thorough and well-documented account to date of the network of slave labor and prison camps with which North Korea's government, in the style of Stalin, both helps itself to forced labor and ensures the terrorized obedience of its citizenry.

Other reports have followed, including accounts of the state-inflicted North Korean famine of the 1990s (in which an estimated 600,000 to 1 million or more people died, while food was rationed on the basis of loyalty to the regime); the North Korea refugee crisis (in which China treats all North Korean refugees as “illegal economic migrants” and, when they are caught, sends them back to the untender mercies of North Korea); and a well-reasoned call for the U.N. Security Council to act in defense of human rights of North Korea.

Now comes HRNK's latest report, released Wednesday: “Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China.” This 64-page document delves into the agonies that await many North Korean women who manage to escape Kim's domain by fleeing into China, only to find they have become human commodities, with no rights and no recourse. Chronically threatened with being sent back to harsh punishment in North Korea, widely abused, they are given no protections whatsoever, no refugee status, no legal rights … nothing.

To compile this report, HRNK sent a South Korean woman, Hae-young Lee, a human rights specialist, on a series of research trips to China from 2004-2006. In China, she quietly sought out North Korean women despite the risks of running afoul of the Chinese authorities–who over the years have jailed a long series of human rights activists caught inside China's borders trying to help North Korean refugees.

All told, Lee interviewed 77 North Korean women inside China, in northeastern areas near the border and sex-trade hubs such as the port city of Qingdao. From this, HRNK has distilled 53 personal accounts, summarized along with the history and context of such human trafficking of North Korean women in China.

Many of these women end up in the hands of brokers who collect fees for peddling them to the “boarding houses” of China's sex trade or sell them into forced “marriages,” in which they have no legal standing and function as virtual slaves.

“Lives for Sale” includes a price list of amounts paid in 2005 for such “wives,” with the price for a North Korean woman for life ranging from about 2000 Chinese renminbi (then $257) to upward of 8000 renminbi ($1,027).

The individual accounts, with identities disguised to protect the women, include such tales as “They beat me so frequently that I thought I would die.” A few of the women describe themselves as content with forced marriages, but the great majority describe lives of gross abuse. Some lost family members to famine in North Korea and were then deceived by human traffickers into seeking a better life in China, unaware of their real fate until the money changed hands. In some cases, they described themselves as having been kidnapped outright.

Inside China, North Korean refugees of either sex are among the world's most abandoned people. China is signatory to the United Nations 1951 convention and 1967 protocol on refugees, but utterly ignores its resulting obligations to provide protection for North Koreans–all of whom, merely by entering China, are subject to a well-founded fear of persecution if sent back.

The U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, apart from an occasional statement, has let this go largely unchallenged. The UNHCR keeps an office in Beijing, which is available to officially designated document-carrying refugees from countries other than North Korea but is effectively fortified against any approach by North Koreans–to whom China grants no refugee status.

The UNHCR's quarters are inside a gated and guarded compound. When I dropped by during a visit to Beijing last September, I found Chinese security guards manning the reception desk behind a set of locked glass doors.

For North Korean women, the problems are especially acute. China's repressive one-child policy, combined with heavy use of abortion to tip the balance toward sons rather than daughters, has produced a demographic imbalance in which there are too few women in China to go around. The flesh trade in North Korean women–human beings with no protection and no recourse–is one ugly way of filling this gap.

It is one of the world's great shames that such abuse draws almost no attention, and apart from the efforts of private individuals operating at great risk, like Hae-young Lee or her North Korean interviewees, almost nothing gets done about it. Just last week, at the U.N.'s Durban Review Conference on “racism,” held in Geneva, it was not North Korean women refugees who got a hearing but a delegate of the Pyongyang regime–wittering away to the assembled eminences about North Korea's concerns over “Islamophobia.”

Highlighting and defending the human rights of North Koreans would be a project in which President Obama could, with tremendous justification, claim the moral high ground he has been so avidly seeking in foreign affairs. That would entail not bowing to China and bribing North Korea, but confronting them both over their own abuses.

China is in clear breach of obligations it has freely undertaken toward refugees. And North Korea, instead of being wooed in the world spotlight for yet more promises to give up its weapons, needs to be called to account for the staggering list of miseries inflicted by Kim upon his own people, not only at home, but pervading their lives even when they try to escape across the border into China.

Perhaps the women surrounding Obama might want to take a look at this report? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her incarnation as First Lady, went to the U.N.'s 1995 conference in Beijing on women's rights. Does she still care? And if Michelle Obama wants to take up a cause more edifying than planting a vegetable garden for the White House staff to weed, this one is ready made.

Given the difficulties of researching the scene inside China, as well as inside North Korea itself, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has repeatedly done the world a great service by finding ways in. Repeatedly, they have found threads that might help unravel the Kim regime. President Obama, please read this report.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.


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