- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

The worst story of human savagery is coming not out of Baghdad or the Middle East or the caves of Afghanistan, but Korea, an ancient and honorable civilization that deserves better.

Twenty-five asylum seekers who fled North Korea through China via the Spanish Embassy in Beijing are starting to tell of a life of starvation and oppression so pervasive that suicide is often an option, even for children.

One 18-year-old girl went from house to house begging for food with her 15-year-old brother until they stumbled over the Chinese border half-dead from a diet of boiled grass. A mother of three took her family into China and brought cyanide with her in case they were caught and sent back to face long prison terms.

A million North Koreans may have already died in a continuing famine caused more by mismanagement than natural conditions. Yet, the government of Kim Jong-il, the first inherited communist dictatorship in history, seems fat and happy, along with its army, and not in the least destabilized by the wretched condition of Kim's subjects.

Some of the most vivid depictions of conditions in Kim's North Korea were by Jang Gil Su, a teen-age refugee who got out last summer. His primitive drawings were published in South Korea and picked up recently by the New York Times Sunday magazine. One of the most poignant of these showed a young couple slithering under an electrified fence trying to reach a fruit orchard. They were killed before they could get a taste.

Mr. Jang told of families eating a last meal laced with rat poison, families surviving by foraging for snakes, people being executed publicly for stealing food.

Most of this would have escaped notice had it not been for Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician who helped arrange for the 25 refugees to get to Beijing and storm the Spanish Embassy in what appears to be the largest mass defection since the Korean War. Dr. Vollertsen, a member of the Doctors without Borders relief organization who had once befriended the North Korean leadership, was expelled a year ago for speaking out.

Some United Nations officials and humanitarian groups have criticized Dr. Vollertsen as a publicity-seeker. But there seems to be an abundance of patience with Pyongyang and a don't-rock-the-boat approach as the North Koreans quietly starve.

President Bush's State of the Union speech, in which he nominated North Korea for axis of evil membership, was one of the few Western statements of moral indignation about this situation. But the U.S. policy of feeding and fueling North Korea's elite in exchange for its nuclear forbearance seems to be unchanged.

The sugarplum dream is the "sunshine policy" of South Korea's Nobel Laureate, Kim Dae Jung, and the objective of a soft landing for North Korea leading to unification. But the Spanish Embassy refugee flight looks a lot like the 1989 exodus from Germany through Czechoslovakia that led quickly to the fall of the Berlin wall. Vollertsen suggests there will be more of these getaways over the summer as world attention is focused on South Korea, co-host of the World Cup soccer championships.

There is a huge difference between this situation and the one in 1989 that eventually produced the fall of the Soviet empire. The Berlin wall was erected by East Germany and the Soviet Union in order to keep their own people from fleeing to the West. The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is a barrier maintained by both sides since the end of the Korea War.

The same vast fields of U.S. land mines that keep the North Korean army from streaming over the border also keep North Korean civilians from fleeing into the south. Fears of a sudden, mass migration into South Korea, bringing economic chaos and a security crisis, are very real in Seoul.

North Korea, apparently with Beijing's acquiescence, is now reported to be sending plainclothes thugs into China to hunt down its escaping subjects.

Dear Leader Kim seems oblivious to any sign of moral concern for his own people. While the world has seen this kind of callousness before, even Marie Antoinette pleaded ignorance and says she was misquoted before she went to the guillotine. Pyongyang doesn't even offer to let them eat cake.

John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.

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