On September 28, the United States Senate unanimously passed the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. The bill, which must now pass the House of Representatives, authorizes the naming of a human-rights envoy and allows the release of humanitarian funds to nongovernmental organizations that aid North Korean refugees. Human-rights advocate Michael Horowitz, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, discussed the meaning of the legislation with Associate News Editor Stan Guthrie.
What is the significance of the passage of this act?
Here's an abused term, but in this case, I have come to feel that it is literally correct to call this success a miracle. The odds couldn't have been heavier. Here was a bill that had to come before the United States Senate in the closing days of the congressional session, under circumstances where a single Senate objection would kill the bill. It had to operate under a unanimous consent procedure, and where the bill was being bitterly opposed by the South Korean government. The North Korean regime was claiming the passage of the bill would be provocative and lead to every apocalyptic threat they could issue. Many in the State Department were absolutely hostile to the bill's purposes. There were a number of Democratic leaders who had every reason to find in the bill real barriers to their preferred approach for dealing with North Korea. What the bill did was elevate the status of human rights in North Korea and make it a necessary element of any bargaining process and relationship that the United States and [North] Korea had. And of course this ran directly contrary to the views of people who want to resuscitate the so-called "framework agreement" that the Clinton administration, had where we gave them legitimacy and billions of dollars in exchange for WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] promises. And it ran directly contrary to the Sunshine Policy, so called, of the South Korean government, which had repeatedly said, had literally said, that a high policy priority the South Korean government, indeed its highest policy priority, was to keep the Pyongyang regime in business because the economic consequences to South Korea of the collapse of the North would be too troublesome, too grave.
And not only was it passed, but remarkably, the final Senate version was considerably stronger than the House bill, that all of these forces tried to block.
What were the key elements of strengthening?
There were two powerful additions, and there were others as well. The first was that the Helsinki model was explicitly set out as the model that the United States ought to follow in its dealings with North Korea. The Helsinki model involved negotiations with the Soviet Union during the Nixon years where bluster and threat from the Soviet Unionjust as it's coming from North Koreaand the threat of nuclear war unless the security needs of the Soviet Union were satisfied by the West was backed by the United States with a willingness to deal with those issues, provided that the entire basket of human rights issues within the Soviet Union itself would be on the table. The Soviets agreed to thatand of course, in the process, wound up swallowing the poison pill. That was the first, and in many ways the critical, step in the implosion of the Soviet Union, letting that genie out of the bottle of making the issue of human rights central and having the Soviet Union acknowledge the legitimacy of those issues.
The second, in a practical way, was just an astonishing change. The Senate bill calls for the appointment of a special envoy for human rights to be designated by the President. And the legislation further provides that this person must be a person of recognized international stature in the field of human rights.
It's all based on the Danforth model for Sudan, where now UN [United Nations] Ambassador [John] Danforth, a former senator, was named as the special envoy for Sudan. He then became the focus of U.S. policy towards Sudan and raised the issue to a much higher priority level than it would otherwise have had.
What are the prospects for passage in the House?
I would say 100 percent. One is always reluctant in politics to say 100 percent. It will probably go before the House sometime [this] week. There's a commitment from the leadership. There is broad consensus in the House of Representatives as well about this bill because they all had input into the bill.
Does this bill have the support of the Bush administration?
Well, the Bush administration has been very mixed on North Korea. I think the President personally has just been powerful in his condemnation of the human rights violations of the regime. The administration didn't take a prominent role. This was a matter that moved forward because of the powerful evangelical community and evangelical human rights effort.
What are some of the bill's other provisions?
One, it will force the United Nations to more aggressively confront China for China's failure to allow refugee status to be granted to many of the escapees from North Korea now happy to be eating tree bark in China. It almost seems the Promised Land compared to North Korea.
How does the bill do that?
Well, it will press the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to exercise many of the powers it has to force China to live up to its treaty obligation to allow the UN to have access to these refugees. And there's a kind of implicit warning the U.S. funding even for the UNHCR is going to be, in some measure, conditional on the UN taking a much more aggressive posture vis-à-vis China, which now simply declares all by itself that every refugee is an economic migrant, rounds them up, in some cases sticks barbed wire through the noses of the North Koreans rounded up, and then gives them over to the North Koreanswhere if they are suspected of being Christians, they are sent to the most brutal gulags that North Korea has.
Next, the AID [United States Agency for International Development] administrator is told very, very clearly, and he's got to report to Congress on this, that U.S.-provided food has got to be distributed on a needs basis and no more of the business of U.S. food feeding the army while selective starvation of the population takes place at the hands of the regime. So there's a very clear congressional expression on that issue.
There will be expanded radio broadcasts into North Korea. There will be greater use of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and particularly some of the Christian NGOs, to distribute the humanitarian aid, rather than the UN.
There will be provisions in the bill that will make it easier for North Korean escapees to achieve refugee status in the United States and come to the United States as refugees.
It's going to make it very difficult for U.S. dollars, no matter who is President, to be used by this regime, no matter what it promises to do, to build more gulags.
But given the nature of the North Korea regime, are you concerned that this legislation could backfire and make things even worse in that country?
Well, let me put it this way: The advocates of status quo in these human rights dialogues always try to impose an unfair set of ground rules by which policies are to be judged. Those of us who want to promote human rights and put it on the table in the face of bluster from the regime are accused of creating risks that the regime will react and start World War III. Hard to imagine how they are going to start World War III because we don't give them more aid. We're not invading them. We're just conditioning our aid on progress on the human rights side. But we're accused of creating threats. And I acknowledge in every policy there is risk.
But what is troublesome is that the proponents of the status quo, people who want to give more money to Pyongyang in exchange for some promise that they make on Weapons of Mass Destruction, never acknowledge the risks that are entailed by their policies. They act as if the only risks that take place are the risks of people who want to alter the status quo. History teaches us just the opposite, that in dealing with dictatorships, they're always more fragile and weak than they seem to be. And that when free people speak of the need for religious freedom and human rights, they unleash forces within those countries that weaken the hold of its dictatorship. Silence doesn't really work. Appeasement doesn't really work. And people who appease and who are silent are the ones who are generating risks.
What was the role of evangelicals in seeing the legislation get passed?
Oh, they played the central role here. I think it was this powerful evangelical coalition that was working with Senator [Sam] Brownback and Senator [Evan] Bayh, and this is the same coalition that worked with Senator Brownback on the trafficking bill and had worked on the religious freedom bill and worked on the Sudan legislation when it was first introduced, obviously the critical first step.
It was then the coalition, working with key Senate aides, in particular, that played this extraordinary difference in moving matters forward. There is a process in the Senate where bills get so-called "hot-wired." That means that the Senate leadership says, "We want this bill to be adopted," and they give a 24-hour period for all senators to indicate whether they object to the bill. And the bill cleared all the Senate Republicans. It had Republicans and Democrats in the House and all Republicans in the Senate unanimously approving the bill. Then it was up to the Senate Democrats, and Senate Democrats began registering objections to the bill.
At that point, there was a coalition led by the National Association of Evangelicals that prepared and drafted a letter that went to Senator [Joe] Biden, [ranking Democratic Party member of] the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator [Tom] Daschle, the Senate majority leader, and Senator [John] Kerry, the Democratic nominee for President, indicating that any one of them had the power, if they so chose, to ensure that the bill got a Senate voteand making it very clear that those three men would be held accountable if the Senate buried the vote. And there was a readiness on the part of evangelical groups to go to churches throughout critical [voting] states showing films of gulags and gas chambers. You'd better be sure that that played a role in the ultimate willingness of members of the Senate to negotiate, which they did in honor and good faith, for legislation. And then there was another element in there, which was the Korean-American [Church Coalition, KCC, which met last week in Los Angeles]. That [KCC meeting] was an amazing event. I'm still shaking.
Jewish groups played an important role. While all this was going on, the Simon Wiesenthal Center held an all-day conference on North Korea on persecution.
There were a handful of critical proponents. As always, Senator Brownback, who at least to this non-Christian is a model of Christianity in action, was the chief proponent. He flew all the way out to California to speak at the Wiesenthal Center meeting. And then one week he later took a back and forth flight, red-eye flight again to get Los Angeles to address the KCCkey player, key role.
Senator [Richard] Lugar, who's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. who is a faith-based leader also, drew a very bright line in this debate. He said whatever your views on how we should deal with North Korea, allowing that regime to bully us into silence over its human rights record is not acceptable. And so he played a very, very important role in that regard.
Then there were these moments when Senator Biden's staff person, who was the key negotiator for the Senate Democrats, one of the most important moments, as he would be the first to say, he spent a couple of hours, in private, in tense discussion with Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals and was powerfully influenced by it. He got to understand where this coalition was coming from, and something of the spirit and the determination of the evangelical community.
It was the evangelical passion in the Wilberforce spirit that was the powerful animating force, the energizing force, around this issue. And once again, teaming very particularly with some key representatives in the Jewish community, that was ultimately an irresistible combination.
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Coverage elsewhere on the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004 includes:
Human rights in the North | It is regrettable the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, approved by U.S. Senate this week and expected to become law after passage again in the House of Representatives around the end of the year, is offering more fodder for partisan dispute over here. (Editorial, The Korea Herald, South Korea, Oct. 1, 2004)
Political Circles Divided over U.S. Bill on Human Rights for North Koreans | Political parties in South Korea have mixed views on a U.S. bill that endorses financial aid for international campaigns trying to improve human rights in North Korea. (Chosun Ilbo, South Korea Oct.1,2004)
Uri Criticizes NK Human Rights Bill | Uri Party Chairman Lee Bu-young expressed ``grave'' concerns Thursday over the U.S. Senate's passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, while a number of ruling party members requested the White House to exercise its exclusive right to veto the bill. (The Korea Herald, South Korea, Oct. 1, 2004)
S.Korea's ruling party blasts US bill | The head of South Korea's ruling party expressed concern Thursday that a U.S. bill on North Korea's human rights could backfire and raise tension in the region. (United Press International, Sep. 30, 2004)
More Christianity Today coverage of North Korea includes:
Criminal Faith | Going nuclear, North Korea allows worship only of its dictator. (July 08, 2003)
Helping Refugees Run Roadblocks | No nation wants North Koreans, but Christians rally to their cause. (March 17, 2003)
Fleeing North Korea | Christians among the thousands making their way to China. (Oct. 7, 2002)
Persecution Summit Takes Aim at Sudan, North Korea | Christian leaders issue second "Statement of Conscience." (May 2, 2002)
Our Editor's Bookshelf selection for this month was Freeing God's Children, about evangelical's action on behalf of human rights world wide. Elsewhere on our site, you can
Read an extended interview with author Allen D. Hertzke
Read an excerpt of Freeing God's Children.