White House Puts Face on North Korean Human Rights

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

She showed up at a school in a coastal city in China nearly five months ago and begged for help. Instead, she was deported to her native North Korea and never seen again.

Now the case of Kim Chun Hee has made its way to the desk of President Bush, threatening to complicate the first White House visit of China's leader tomorrow and further irritate an irritable relationship.

Urged on by evangelical supporters from his home town and other activists elsewhere, Bush has taken a personal interest in human rights in North Korea and decided to make an example of Kim's asylum case. Alerted to her situation by a South Korean lawmaker, the White House issued a rare statement last month pronouncing itself "gravely concerned" about her fate and chastising China for sending her back.

The story of how an obscure instance of individual hardship came to figure in a meeting between two of the world's most powerful leaders sheds light on the crosscurrents of U.S. foreign policy under Bush. The son of a former envoy to Beijing, Bush has worked to build stable relations with China and wants its help on urgent priorities such as curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Yet the same president has proclaimed expanding freedom to be the guiding principle of his foreign policy, with the goal of "ending tyranny in our world."

So as diplomats and bureaucrats throughout the U.S. government in recent weeks assembled briefing books on the Chinese currency and the trade deficit and other issues of importance to Bush's business backers, another corner of government, much smaller, has worked to put on the table China's treatment of desperate North Koreans who slip across the border.

They have been aided in that quest by a growing movement of Christian activists who lately have adopted North Korea as a cause, much as they earlier did Sudan, and pushed Congress into passing legislation intended to make human rights in Asia's last Stalinist outpost a higher U.S. priority.

"We just feel this is what we're commanded to do," said Deborah Fikes, executive director of the Midland Ministerial Alliance from the president's Texas home town. "If you're a follower of Christ, this should be one of your number one priorities, speaking out for the oppressed, and I can't think of anybody more oppressed than the North Koreans."

The case of Kim offered an opportunity to put their concern front and center. Never before has the Bush White House singled out a North Korean asylum seeker by name and held Beijing responsible for her fate, according to U.S. officials and human rights workers. The timing was especially pointed, coming just before the arrival of Chinese President Hu Jintao, who will be greeted tomorrow by a 21-gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House.

Administration officials said Bush feels strongly about the situation. "He's taken a very personal interest and a fairly significant interest in the issue of human rights," said Jay Lefkowitz, whom Bush appointed last year as a special envoy for human rights in North Korea. "He fundamentally believes the character of the North Korean regime is defined by its human rights conduct."

The White House statement cheered many who have been working on the issue even though they said it represents just a fraction of what should be done. "I'm glad they did it, but it's not enough," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in February seeking more action by the administration.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch said: "The real question is whether the president's going to actually say anything to Hu. I'm happy they did it. But do they see this as a signal of what they're going to do or as a substitute?"

Not much is known about Kim beyond the bare bones of her travails. An account pieced together from a South Korean lawmaker, a U.S. diplomat in the region, South Korean media and her sister suggests Kim's experience resembles those of many seeking to escape the North.

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