Where the Right Is Right

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

July 24, 2005

Liberals took the lead in championing human rights abroad in the 1970's, while conservatives mocked the idea. But these days liberals should be embarrassed that it's the Christian Right that is taking the lead in spotlighting repression in North Korea.

Perhaps no country in human history has ever been as successful at totalitarianism as North Korea. Koreans sent back from China have been herded like beasts, with wires forced through their palms or under their collarbones. People who steal food have been burned at the stake, with their relatives recruited to light the match. Then there was the woman who was a true believer and suggested that the Dear Leader should stop womanizing: after she was ordered executed, her own husband volunteered to pull the trigger.

"The biggest scandal in progressive politics," Tony Blair told The New Yorker this year, "is that you do not have people with placards out in the street on North Korea. I mean, that is a disgusting regime. The people are kept in a form of slavery, 23 million of them, and no one protests!"

Actually, some people do protest. Conservative Christians have aggressively taken up the cause of North Korean human rights in the last few years, and the movement is gathering steam. A U.S.-government-financed conference on North Korean human rights convened in Washington last week, and President Bush is expected shortly to appoint Jay Lefkowitz to the new position of special envoy for North Korean human rights.

The problem with the conservatives' approach is that it's great at calling attention to the issues, but some of its methods are flawed and counterproductive. There's talk, for example, of proposing a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods unless China protects Korean refugees - but a tariff wouldn't help Koreans and would undermine the world economy. Likewise, a campaign by well-meaning activists to help North Korean refugees in China has so far only set off a Chinese crackdown that forced some 100,000 refugees back to North Korea. The conservative approach has generally been a mix of fulmination and isolation, which hurts ordinary Koreans, amplifies Korean nationalism and cements the Dear Leader in place.

Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a bipartisan and secular group, agrees that the religious right is more active on this issue, but she wants more liberals to join the campaign as well. Her group is a good place to start: www.hrnk.org.

So can anything be done to help North Koreans? Yes, if liberals stop ceding the issue to conservative Christians. Ultimately, the solution to the nuclear standoff is the same as the solution to human rights abuses: dragging North Korea into the family of nations, as we did with Maoist China and Communist Vietnam.

Our first step should be to talk directly to North Koreans, even invite senior officials to the United States. Many conservatives would accept direct talks, as long as the agenda included human rights (on the model of the Helsinki accords).

Second, we should welcome North Korea's economic integration with the rest of the world. For example, we should stop blocking Pyongyang's entry into the Asian Development Bank and encourage visits to North Korea by overweight American bankers. In a country where much of the population is hungry, our most effective propaganda is our paunchiness.

Third, we should continue feeding starving North Koreans, while also pushing for increased monitoring. The food is delivered through the U.N. World Food Program in sacks that say, in Korean as well as English, that the food is from America. Nobody has done more to bring about change in North Korea than the World Food Program, which now has 45 foreigners traveling around the country.

Having just returned from North Korea, I see a glimmer of hope, for in Pyongyang you can feel North Korea changing. Free markets are popping up. Two tightly controlled Internet cafes have opened. Special economic zones seek foreign investment. Casinos lure Chinese gamblers. Cellphones have been introduced, with restrictions. The economy has been rebounding since 2001. Plans are under way for a new Orthodox church.

These are modest changes, but they are worth building on. For that to happen, we need two things almost as elusive as North Korean democracy: cooperation between liberals and conservatives, and acknowledgement that our long policy of isolating North Korea has completely failed.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com