This is kind of old news by now for those who have followed the abductee issue, but President Bush met with the families of several abductees and a few North Korean defectors last week:
“It is hard to believe that a country would foster abduction. It’s hard for Americans to imagine that a leader of any country would encourage the abduction of a young child,” Bush said about the North Korean regime and its leader, Kim Jong Il.
Wearing a blue badge on his suit lapel to express solidarity with the families, Bush called on Pyongyang to return abductees, saying, “If North Korea expects to be respected in the world, that country must respect human rights and human dignity and must allow this mother to hug her child again.”
In her press conference later Friday, Sakie Yokota expressed her hope that the U.S. president’s first meeting with an abductee’s family would encourage other world leaders to unite in pressuring North Korea to resolve the issue.
“I thanked the president for sharing time with us in his busy schedule. He said he was never too busy to find time to talk about human dignity and freedom. I really wish leaders of all countries would share that thought,” Yokota said.
Of course, “solidarity” is a rather vague term. To judge by precedent, the abductee issue will be readily backburnered at future meetings with the DPRK once negotiations over nuclear development start getting sticky. That’s not to cast aspersions on Bush’s sincerity or sympathy; it’s just to say that if the Yokotas and others expect a change in diplomatic approach, I’m not so sure they’ll get one.
Just in case you need your memory jogged about what a vile hellhole North Korea is, Human Rights Watch gives the genteel version here. Note that while I focus on the thirteen Japanese abductees here, the number of South Korean abductees numbers in the thousands:
According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, a total of 3,790 South Koreans were kidnapped and taken to North Korea between 1953 and 1995, of whom 486 remain detained. Some of the abductees have been used in propaganda broadcasts to South Korea, while others have been used to train North Korean spies. North Korea has rejected repeated requests from families of the South Korean abductees to confirm their existence, to return them, or, in the cases of the dead, to return their remains.
It’s not clear that having the US play policeman–a role for which it’s usually criticized–will have much effect on the issue. At the same time Washington can hardly prove to be more impotent than, say, the UN:
The North Korea Human Rights Act, which the U.S. adopted in 2004, opens up the possibility for North Korean refugees to be admitted for resettlement in the United States. Thus far, however, little action has been taken, and it is unclear how many refugees could benefit or when. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution for the third straight year calling on North Korea to respect basic human rights. In November 2005, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution against North Korea, citing “systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.”
North Korea has largely shunned talks with U.N. human rights experts, except for a few meetings on children’s and women’s rights. It has not responded to repeated requests by Vitit Muntarbhorn, special rapporteur on North Korea, to engage in dialogue.
Dialogue only works as a problem-solving tool among people who can trust one another to be working from similar principles.