President Bush met privately yesterday with a well-known North Korean defector who spent 10 years in a prison camp and has since become an outspoken critic of his homeland's government, a move that could provoke Pyongyang just as it was reviving stalled nuclear talks.
Bush invited Kang Chol Hwan, a journalist and director of the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag, to visit with him in the Oval Office and recount his tale of suffering in North Korea, where he was arrested in 1977 at age 9 and had to eat rats, cockroaches and snakes to survive. The White House did not list the meeting on the president's public schedule, but a spokesman later confirmed it.
According to aides, Bush has been fascinated with Kang's story ever since he began reading the former prisoner's book, "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag," published in English in 2001. Bush has recommended the book to senior White House and Bush administration officials, who have been poring through it lately as well.
"He found the book compelling and wanted to talk to the author," said spokesman Frederick L. Jones II. "These are issues that are of great interest to the president -- freedom and democracy."
The timing of the meeting could fuel simmering tensions between Washington and Pyongyang a week after North Korea signaled that it was ready to resume six-party negotiations about the future of its nuclear weapons program. The North Korean government routinely reacts with outrage at even the slightest perceptions of disrespect and in the past has labeled Kang part of "the riffraff devoid of human dignity and values" engaged in a "foolish anti-communist smear campaign."
Bush has made no secret of his personal animus toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in the past, once telling journalist Bob Woodward that he "loathes" Kim for the way he treats his people. At a recent news conference, Bush denounced Kim as a "tyrant" and a "dangerous person" who runs "concentration camps." But after North Korea fired back, condemning Bush as a "half-baked man" and a "philistine," the president shifted his tone and even referred to Kim with the honorific "Mister."
Bush's decision to meet with Kang may aggravate the North Koreans, but it drew praise from democracy activists. "That's fantastic that he met him," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy who has written on Kang and other defectors. "It's an incredible story they have, and the world needs to be aware of it, and the North Koreans need to be confronted with it."
As a child, Kang was taken away with his family to the Yodok prison camp, where he witnessed children executed and worked to death. Children were forced to collect quotas of firewood, sift gold bits from a river, plant corn, mine limestone and cut down trees.
"Children simply disappeared from the camp," he testified in 2003 during a campaign to persuade the United Nations to address the situation in North Korea. "I can't understand how it's still there, and it's a great shame for all mankind that these concentration camps are still tolerated."