At the end of a private Oval Office meeting this week, President Bush asked a North Korean defector to autograph his book recounting a decade in a North Korean prison camp.
"If Kim Jong Il knew I met you," Bush then asked, referring to the North Korean leader, "don't you think he'd hate this?"
"The people in the concentration camps will applaud," the defector, Kang Chol Hwan, responded, according to two people in the room.
Bush lately has begun meeting personally with prominent dissidents to highlight human rights abuses in select countries, a powerfully symbolic yet potentially risky approach modeled on Ronald Reagan's sessions with Soviet dissidents during the Cold War. Besides Kang, Bush played host to a top government foe from Venezuela at the White House and met Russian human rights activists during a trip to Moscow last month. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met opposition leaders from the former Soviet republic of Belarus.
The sessions -- which come at a time when the Bush administration has itself come under international criticism for abuses at the prison facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere -- represent a personal follow-through on Bush's inaugural address in January, when he vowed to activists around the world that "we will stand with you" in battles against repression.
"He likes to talk to people who have experienced these things firsthand," said Michael J. Gerson, Bush's strategic policy adviser, who sat in on the Kang meeting Monday. "But there clearly is a signal here and a symbol that human rights is central to our approach, that there is a kind of moral concern."
As Bush himself acknowledged to Kang, such meetings, although heartening to activists, will surely aggravate the leaders of repressive countries. In the North Korean case, it could complicate or even derail the latest attempts to coax Kim back to multinational negotiations over his nuclear weapons program. So far, Bush has focused his attentions largely on activists from countries with which he is already openly hostile, while those from allies such as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not won Oval Office invitations.
A test of the extent of Bush's commitment to this hands-on approach could come in the next two weeks when Mohammed Salih, chairman of the Democratic Erk Party of Uzbekistan, a leading opponent of the Central Asian government, visits Washington. The Bush administration has been torn over how forcefully to respond to the recent massacre of hundreds of protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan, with the State Department pushing for a firm repudiation and the Pentagon resisting for fear of jeopardizing its base there.
Salih, who received a U.S. visa on Monday and will be in the United States from June 27 to June 30, hopes to meet with senior Bush administration officials and to describe the situation in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov has banned genuine opposition parties and independent media and imprisoned thousands of government critics.
"We have calls out to everybody, and, right now, we don't have a yes or no from anybody," said Frank Howard, a media liaison for Erk. A high-level meeting, he added, "has not only symbolic importance, it has potential real importance."
Karimov's government has curtailed U.S. military flights at the Uzbek base in response to the Bush administration criticism, but Rice promised rights groups yesterday not to ease up on calls for an international investigation of the Andijan massacre.
"I told her that the State Department approach was absolutely right, but they're being completely undercut by the Pentagon, and the Uzbeks are playing them," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'We will not let Karimov play us.' "
The recent Bush and Rice meetings have won applause from organizations seeking to highlight despotism around the globe. "These meetings send a signal so that it's not only the government that's on the agenda of the [U.S.] leadership but the people who are on the forefront of fighting for change," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, which promotes liberty abroad.
Windsor, Malinowski and other activists gave Rice a list of imprisoned political activists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They recommended that she press the governments there about their fates during her upcoming trip to the Middle East, much as Reagan did with the Soviet government. Windsor said she also urged Rice to meet with the demonstrators who were beaten by pro-government mobs in Egypt. Rice encouraged the activists to also focus on North Korea and Venezuela.
Bush rarely met with dissidents during his first term, but he appears to be more eager to do so in his second. After reading former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky's book extolling democracy late last year, Bush invited him to the White House for a meeting. He similarly became interested in Kang after former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger recommended the North Korean's book two months ago.
"I thought the book gave a good description of life in North Korea," Kissinger explained in an interview yesterday. Bush's meeting with Kang "signals that the president of the United States is concerned about their fate, and not just their individual fates, but the conditions that made their fates possible."
Bush plowed through the book, "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag," and then began urging advisers such as Rice and Gerson to read it as well. During their 40-minute meeting Monday, also attended by Vice President Cheney, Bush asked Kang to describe life in the prison camp, where he was forced to perform hard labor starting at age 9.
According to an account published by Kang in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo -- and confirmed by Gerson -- he urged the president to make it his priority to free those held in North Korea's prison camps. "For North Koreans," Kang said he told Bush, "human rights issues are more desperate than nuclear issues."
Bush, according to Kang, said he thought that the human rights situation in North Korea was serious but that others often did not understand it. He told Kang that "it breaks my heart" to learn of pregnant women and children starving in North Korea. Kang told him that the North Korean military often takes donated international food for itself. Bush said that if Pyongyang makes fundamental changes, "the U.S. will deliver a lot of food and funds to North Korea," Kang recalled.
Bush's meetings with such figures can carry unintended consequences. Bush met May 31 with Maria Corina Machado, founder of a Venezuelan civil society group called Sumate and a leading critic of President Hugo Chavez. Machado faces a possible prison sentence after receiving a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy.
In an interview from Caracas, Venezuela, yesterday, Machado said the meeting with Bush stretched from a scheduled 15 minutes to 50 minutes and was a "recognition and signal that the world does care about what is happening" in her country. She added that it has inspired people who face intimidation by the government. But she also said that the government has reacted negatively to the meeting, with its allies in the news media and the legislature threatening to revoke her citizenship.