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The following op-ed appeared in The Seattle Times on October 24, 2014
NORTH Korea’s release of Jeffrey Fowle, imprisoned for leaving a Bible in a public place, still leaves two other Americans in captivity. Kenneth Bae, a former Washington state resident, and Matthew Miller are serving sentences of 15 and six years, respectively, of hard labor for supposedly undermining the government.
While their continued imprisonment highlights the country’s severe human-rights abuses, Fowle’s release — coupled with North Korea’s previous moves to blunt rising condemnation of its record — reveals a mindset that is increasingly sensitive to world opinion.
Thus, in the wake of Fowle’s release, the world must not let up. It must stand with the United States for Bae’s and Miller’s freedom. It must insist that Pyongyang cease abusing its own people’s religious freedom and related rights.
North Korea holds at least 200,000 people in penal labor camps where many are starved or beaten to death. It maintains a stranglehold on religious belief and practice, which are seen as threatening the state and the quasi-religious personality cult surrounding the ruling Kim family.
The United Nations is now poised to pass a resolution condemning North Korea’s appalling conduct and calling for the abuses to end.
The resolution responds to several key findings and developments this year:
In February, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry released a report concluding that Pyongyang’s abuses are “without any parallel in the contemporary world.” It found “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association.”
In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, released its annual report confirming severe religious persecution. Since early 2013, the government has executed as many as 80 people for such crimes as possessing Bibles, while Bae was sentenced for a “national security crime” connected to his work for Youth with a Mission, an evangelical organization.
In June, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, issued his own findings unveiling North Korea’s bleak human rights landscape, as did the U.N. Human Rights Council, which adopted a similar report last month as part of the Universal Periodic Review. Also last month, the U.N. General Assembly held a high-level discussion on North Korean abuses, during which Secretary of State John Kerry, confronting its labor camps, urged North Korea to “shut this evil system down.”
All of this unwanted attention has struck a nerve in Pyongyang. Last month, North Korea responded to the Commission of Inquiry findings with an unprecedented 54,000-word denial of the undeniable. For the first time in 15 years, North Korea sent its foreign minister to last month’s U.N. General Assembly opening. North Korea recently circulated its own resolution to counter the impending U.N. resolution. And earlier this week, it released Jeffrey Fowle.
Taken together, these responses show how, despite its insular history, the Kim Jong Un regime now worries what the world thinks. The U.N. resolution can keep the pressure on, reiterating to North Korea that the world cares, and that its depredations must end.
Yet, more can be done. The United States can work more closely with allies like Japan and South Korea to raise human-rights concerns and press for improvements, including closing the labor camps. China should fulfill its international duties to protect North Korean asylum seekers within its borders, allowing the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and international humanitarian groups to render assistance. And the United States could fully implement the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2012, using authorized funds to increase access to information and news media inside North Korea, promote human rights, resettle refugees and monitor humanitarian aid delivery.
It has been famously shown that while lights span the night sky over South Korea, North Korea is shrouded in darkness. It’s time to pierce the darkness. The world must support freedom for Bae and Miller — and for North Korea’s long-suffering people.
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