IT'S A SMALL PIECE of legislation -- a gesture, really. But human rights diplomacy is often a collection of gestures, and this is one that needs to be made. In July, the House unanimously adopted the North Korea Human Rights Act, a moderate bill that, among other things, provides some humanitarian assistance for North Koreans, conditioned on improved transparency and monitoring; gives North Koreans the right to apply for refugee status in this country and broadens U.S. support for them; and establishes Congress's general belief that negotiations with North Korea should include, in diplomatically unspecified ways, concern for human rights.

Now it's the Senate's turn. Senate Republicans have agreed to let the bill pass with a voice vote. Senate Democrats have not yet joined them, largely, they say, because they want to better acquaint themselves with the legislation. Fair enough, but they should make sure they consider it carefully. There have been some signs that North Korea, long held to be impervious to outside pressure, could be more vulnerable than was thought. A North Korean official recently agreed in principle to allow the British Foreign Office minister responsible for human rights to visit the country -- and the British official is, he says, pushing for "unfettered access" to North Korea's notorious prison camps. This could prove an excellent chance for Congress to add its voice to the growing international chorus of North Korea critics. It would be foolish to pass this up.