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Countering Kim

NORTH KOREA: Is diplomacy the solution to Kim Jong Il's tyranny?

THE SECRET FOOTAGE OF THE country hospital is three years old, but it hasn't lost its shock value. Dozens of sick North Koreans piled onto an open-bed truck, a makeshift ambulance. A blood-stained operating table from 1946 at the center of a bare concrete theater with no running water. Patients forced to hoist themselves through an open window, the only working entrance to the building.

German doctor and human-rights activist Norbert Vollertsen played his videotape during the Institute for Korean-American Studies symposium on Oct. 14 in Washington. He showed photographs-the ones he's shared before with journalists-of gaunt, hollow-eyed North Korean children resembling concentration camp inmates.

"I'm very impatient," Dr. Vollertsen said. "As an emergency doctor, you have to be. I'm not a politician. I learned that they are starving, they are dying, and I cannot wait for reunification in 10 years. I have to do something now."

Dr. Vollertsen's irritation over the international community's plodding talks with North Korea and its inattention to the country's human-rights abuses made him a lone voice. The other speakers, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian diplomats and former State Department official Charles Pritchard, were more hopeful that engaging North Korea would help disarm the rogue state of nuclear weapons.

"I will dispense with emotion," said Russian Counselor Iskander Azizov, stepping up to the lectern after Dr. Vollertsen's presentation. He said tackling other problems, such as North Korea's missile and chemical weapons possession and human-rights abuses, would dilute the chances of the country surrendering its nuclear weapons: "At this point in time, you should think hard if you should be distracted from your main goal."

Given their own track records, Russia and China would be unlikely contenders for upholding human rights in North Korea. And China has so far refused to recognize an estimated 200,000 North Koreans within its borders as refugees. Last month, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees pressured China to allow his agency access to the North Koreans. That has not produced any change in Chinese policy. Youming Yang, head of the international section at the Chinese embassy, told the symposium that his government considers refugees from the Kim regime to be "illegal immigrants." In that case, China is more likely to return them to North Korea than to grant them refugee protection.

The diplomats supported the recent six-party talk format promoted by the United States, which brings North Korea, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States to the negotiating table. At the first round in late August the parties agreed to a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons and a peaceful resolution of differences. Other than that, the countries have not decided when they will next meet.

Mr. Pritchard was less complimentary of the United States' sole reliance on six-party talks to curb North Korea. He said the North Korean government was expecting one-on-one negotiations with the United States after it admitted one year ago to making highly enriched uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons. "I don't view going into a room and holding your breath till your face turns blue, hoping someone else will negotiate, as a hard-line policy."

Mr. Pritchard resigned his post as a State Department special envoy to North Korea in August because of the Bush administration's refusal to hold bilateral talks. The costs of not fully engaging the North Koreans, he said, are too great. "We will be faced with a North Korea that has something along the lines of 30 nuclear weapons a year." But dialogue with the country may only produce identical results to the Clinton administration's 1994 agreement with North Korea, which offered economic aid in return for its abandoning nuclear weapons development. The North Koreans cheated: In addition to uranium, the country said it was pursuing a plutonium program in direct defiance of the agreement.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, seems wedged between refusing to fall into old engagement traps and still pushing for a diplomatic solution. Dr. Vollertsen has what he hopes is a swifter plan to deal with the communist dictatorship: Bring about a peaceful, East German­style collapse by creating a flood of refugees into surrounding countries. "There is only one way to get rid of North Korea's nuclear threat," he said. "And that is to get rid of North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il."

Priya Abraham

Priya Abraham