September 28, 2007

SEOUL: On Monday, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and South Korean President Roh Mu-hyun will hold a three-day meeting in Pyongyang. It will be only the second North-South summit - Kim Jong Il met Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, in 2000.

South Korean officials say Kim and Roh will discuss South Korean humanitarian aid to North Korea, which had just resumed in anticipation of the summit, and expanding economic cooperation, a prime example of which is the Kaesong Industrial Complex that employs 15,000 North Koreans working for South Korean businesses.

North Koreans who have recently left their country told us they knew their wishes would not be heard by their own leader and expressed hope that they would be heard by Roh. At the top of their list is food.

"I hope President Roh Mu-hyun will help our people with food aid," said an 18-year-old girl from Kaechon. "But I also hope he will send people to make sure that poor North Koreans receive the aid. Otherwise, no matter how much he sends, it won't make much difference to ordinary people."

"I heard there has been a lot of foreign aid in the past 10 years, but I haven't even seen its shadow," said a 39-year-old woman from Chungjin said. A 40-year-old man from Haesan echoed the sentiment: "I hope the summit will help resolve the food crisis in North Korea. I never received any food aid, nor do I know anyone who has."

A 44-year-old man from Chungjin was skeptical: "I have few expectations. When Kim Dae-jung came to Pyongyang, we expected things to improve. But nothing improved. Still, I would support whoever feeds the ordinary people."

The message was clear: South Korea needs to provide food aid to North Korea, but must ensure proper monitoring to ensure that the aid reaches the intended recipients and isn't siphoned off to party cadres, high-ranking military officers or other privileged people, or sold for profit.

The North Koreans said that the prices of staples such as rice, corn and potatoes have risen dramatically across the country. They attributed this to the suspension of South Korean food aid last year and the severe floods of this summer.

Some spoke of the recent increase in the number of homeless people, sometimes entire families, who sleep under plastic sheets near train stations, and of young children stealing food or picking up crumbs at markets. They said some people have even traded their homes for food out of desperation.

For North Koreans leaving the country to escape hunger, the situation is also becoming more desperate. Refugees told of repeated announcements warning of heavier punishment for illegal border crossings. That includes most North Koreans leaving the country, since permission to travel abroad is extremely difficult and costly to obtain. The government is said to be increasing border patrols on the North Korean side.

With only a few months left in his presidency, President Roh should consider what his legacy will be on North Korea. One achievement would be for Roh, a former human rights lawyer, to become the first South Korean leader to constructively engage Kim Jong Il on improving human rights.

Roh could tell Kim that it is not just North Korea's "enemies" that criticize its human rights record, but also many countries that have no political relationship with North Korea, as evidenced by resolutions on North Korea's human rights record adopted by a large number of United Nations member states.

As a practical matter, Roh should demand proper monitoring of the distribution of food aid.

And he should express concern about North Korea's notorious political prisoner camps and the continued imprisonment and executions of party "enemies."

He should ask Kim to allow UN or nongovernment experts on human rights to visit the country so that they can investigate the situation and make recommendations for improvements.

In short, Roh should use this historic meeting to put human rights at the heart of his legacy on North Korea. Millions of starving North Koreans would thank him for it.

Kay Seok is North Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.