A Bush administration official Monday described the situation in North Korea as brutality and deprivation that "offend our notions of human decency," which Washington is trying to redress through diplomatic means.
"We want them (North Koreans) to have food, and at the same time we want them to have freedom," Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told The North Korean Refugee Crisis.
Craner quoted President Bush as saying, "No nation should be a prison for its own people."
Last year, about 300,000 North Koreans fled their starving homeland for China, where they live in fear of being turned in to authorities and repatriated. The Chinese government considers the refugees "economic migrants," though the panelists at the seminar said Beijing is violating an international convention on the treatment of refugees by forcing North Koreans to go back to their homeland.
Those who are repatriated may face execution.
Leaflets circulated at the AEI seminar said a protest rally is scheduled at noon Tuesday outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington to urge Beijing to halt repatriation of North Korean refugees.
North Korea is enduring an eighth straight year of mass starvation due to the policies imposed by the government of Kim Jong Il, panelists said.
Fifty-seven percent of the North Korean population is malnourished, including 45 percent of children under age 5, said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., in an opening speech.
A particularly telling statistic is that Pyongyang has lowered the height requirement for military conscripts to 4 feet 2 inches from 4 feet 11 inches, Brownback said.
In North Korea's notorious prison camps, nearly one-fourth of the population dies each year because of hardships such as hard labor, torture and withheld food, said Brownback, who has been active in developing U.S. policy on North Korea and North Korean refugees.
"Human life is treated far too cheap by the government of North Korea," he said.
The panelists heard firsthand accounts from several North Korean refugees and from a South Korean pastor who was imprisoned by China for 220 days for assisting the refugees. They spoke in Korean, which an interpreter translated.
The minister, Ki-Won Chun, said he has personally assisted 244 North Korean refugees in China to get to South Korea.
Chun, who described himself as an evangelist, said he helped rescue refugees who had fallen into the clutches of traffickers by buying them from their captors.
During his detention in a Chinese prison, he received only a piece of bread and a cup of water, once a day, Chun said.
The refugees said North Korean women who managed to reach China often were forced into sexual servitude.
Young-Hwa Choi fled to China twice--after the first time, she was reported to the Chinese police while she was working at a restaurant, and she was arrested and sent to a prison camp in North Korea.
She said her entire life in North Korea she had never committed any crime.
But she was sent to prison for running away to China.
"The most important thing for a person is to have a country, the right country, which cares about its own people," said Choi. "I appeal to everyone--please save North Koreans in North Korea and please save the North Korean refugees suffering in China," she told the audience of about 80 people.
Two other panelists, like Chun, are human rights activists helping the North Korean refugees.
"How many more testimonies, heart-wrenching testimonies, heart-breaking testimonies, mind-boggling testimonies before we act, as Senator Brownback has said, in a way that is commensurate with the gravity and the nightmarish quality of what is going on in North Korea?" asked Tim Peters, an American who is the founder of a Seoul-based famine relief program, Helping Hands Korea.
Another activist, German physician Norbert Vollertsen, first went to North Korea as a volunteer doctor. For his work, the North Korean government awarded him the Friendship Medal, which gave him a rare inside look into the country.
"The military elite they are enjoying banquets and fashionable nightclubs; in contrast was the lifestyle of the ordinary people and children--they are dying, starving," Vollertsen said.
Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, cited a recent Human Rights Watch report on North Korea, which said newcomers to North Korean prison camps are first taught how to bury the corpses.
In a camp of 300 prisoners, 10 people die each day. One such camp, Camp 22, contains relatives of those who defected from North Korea.
James R. Lilley, a resident fellow at AEI and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said the United States has leverage in its dealings with Pyongyang because North Korea desperately needs the food and oil supplies it gets from Washington.
Another AEI expert, Nicholas Eberstadt, expressed "tremendous disappointment" in the government of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights efforts.
"One of the most strange developments is a South Korean government that seems to have lost its voice (in speaking out against the North's human rights violations) ... I hope the next government (in Seoul) will be more courageous," said Eberstadt, who is AEI's Henry Wendt scholar in political economy.