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The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

Thank you. We're a bit over, so shall we go on to 8:05? Do we have permission to do that? Ok, great. The floor is open for questions to any of the panelists, including Mr. Hayes, via video, who will be watching you as well. First question, please. Please identify yourself, and keep your questions brief and to the point, if you would.

I've lived in Korea and in China. I'm interested to know: there's a lot of talk about what role China might play in this, and particularly if the international community decides to allow for a way for the refugees from North Korea to come through China to go on to another location, and what the plans for that might entail.

As you know, the Chinese are caught on a cross-pressure here. The pressure is fairly obvious. They want to look like good international citizens for the WTO and other reasons. There are three different patterns here, and it is important to distinguish them.

There are North Koreans who move across the border and come back to Korea, and there are substantial numbers. That is an important thing because presumably they have something in their heads that presumably they didn't have before they went across that border. So keeping that border open is very important if you're really thinking about how, over time, you might change North Korea. Now there's a second group of people, migrants, who go and settle in China, and the numbers -we don't have a good ballpark, but it's around 300,000. They, I think you might say, might qualify as refugees, because if they ever went home, they might get punished. There's a periodicity to the punishment in the North. They kind of relaxed at the time of the food crisis; they let people go back and forth, seemingly, and then later on they clamped down, and it's a - you know, they do punish people, who get to work camps, or worse. So I think the bottom line of this is that you want to find a way to keep that border open, and the good doctor isn't helping by his little game of getting a few people out of North Korea and into South Korea through the embassy route. Because that's resulted, at times, in a clamping down on both sides of the Chinese border, and you want to keep that border open. So it's a very tough - I think if you go look - Human Rights Watch did a very good report, and I'd invite people to look at it - that you talk about a special humanitarian status for people, rather than call them all refugees, because their status has to be determined on an individual basis. And there might be a possibility to do that with the Chinese. But what the Chinese clearly don't want is a large and visible problem. Because this border -it's not like the Mexican- US border exactly - there's a lot of back-and-forth - and as you know, there are people of Korean extraction on the Chinese side of the border, who have been there for quite a long time. This is one where the Chinese might give a little. But if it gets to be a highly visible migration, or if you have an intense humanitarian disaster in the North, I think then it gets tougher.

I come from the Korean Consulate, but this is not a question [from the consulate], this is a personal question. I think after hearing all the speaker, I think all of you have some frustration considering the current situation. And I myself also feel some strong frustration. And now I'd like to ask Mr. Leon Sigal that until the new government will come in to South Korea … in this regard I'd like to ask Mr. Sigel if you have any piece of advice to the coming government of South Korea. Thank you.

Well, I think a lot of Koreans, and not just those in the current government or the next government, have a view of how to deal with North Korea based on a lot of experience, that the ultimate name of the game is to try and introduce change through engagement. That really is …and by the way there are conservatives, people in the right of center in Korea who share that view of how you deal with North Korea. And clearly, that's at odds with - at least with some people in the Bush administration - since there is no policy it's hard to know - clearly there are three or four different policies warring with each other in Washington right now. I think the result of the visit, if it goes forward in the way this past visit of Chung to Washington … I do think a serious bilateral consultation between South Korea and the United States would help. I'm not a big fan of foray and methodology - I think you've got to get the policy right - but I do think it could be a kind of action-forcing device in Washington - to make the administration come up with a policy. Because I think when they are faced with the political realities on the ground in South Korea, they will come to understand the very serious limitations of either a sanctions strategy or any military strategy. That that is simply not on. And there was actually a sign of this, but because we don't have very good reporting these days in America, it was kind of missed. When the Commander in Chief of the Pacific asks for reinforcement, and the Commander in Korea doesn't, it speaks volumes. And I believe that these two military officers who are quite politically astute understood exactly what they were doing when they did that - this is potentially a very serious crisis, and it is not being treated with a degree of seriousness, if you listen to the rhetoric of officials in Washington. The loose talk about compelling the collapse of Korea, the loose talk about sanctions, the loose talk about military actions, literally make no sense without reinforcements. That is the first step you would take. This was the first step taken, by the way, in 1994. Commanders need reinforcements. That will set off the political firestone. I think that has to be thought through. I know of no better way to think it through than to have a serious bilateral consultation.