I didn't go to South Korea to examine Kim Jong Il's human-rights record. I went to assess the chances for a deal with the North Korean dictator to end his nuclear program.
But after a week in Seoul, I found myself thinking unexpected thoughts.
The more one learns about conditions in North Korea, the harder it is to think of negotiating with Pyongyang. As I talked with North Korean escapees, I found myself getting angry -- like President Bush, who famously told journalist Bob Woodward: "I loathe Kim Jong Il" because the North Korean leader is "starving his people" and has "huge" gulags filled with political prisoners.
I found it harder to comprehend the tactics of the South Korean government. For five years it has pursued a "sunshine policy" that showers economic aid on the north but makes few demands on behalf of its long-suffering North Korean cousins. North Korea still holds 2,000 South Korean POWs from the Korean War and more than 400 kidnapped South Korean civilians. Pyongyang permits barely any reunions between families divided by the war.
A moral dilemma
So this trip to Seoul became a search for an answer to a moral dilemma: How to balance anger at human-rights violations with the need to eliminate North Korea's nukes.
Seoul is a booming, high-rise, high-tech capital built by a hard-working population. On my last trip there, in 1987, students were holding violent protests against a dying military dictatorship. Today, democratic institutions have taken root. This time I went to a huge, peaceful demonstration in downtown Seoul, where families with small children held candles and sang songs. They were protesting somewhat frivolous impeachment charges brought by opposition parties against elected President Roh Moo Hyun.
Roh will probably be exonerated, and the backlash is likely to propel his Uri Party to victory in April elections. The Uri Party strongly supports engagement with North Korea, and its members are mostly hostile to Bush.
They, and the current student generation, would rather focus on South Korean politics than on North Korea. They don't care that former President Kim Dae Jung secretly paid Pyongyang $500 million to ensure a historic north-south summit in 2000.
United States seen as threat
They see the United States as a greater threat than North Korea because they fear Bush's revulsion for Kim Jong Il may lead to a war that would devastate the south. "The younger generation of South Koreans has a great deal of ignorance about conditions inside North Korea," says Tim Peters, an American who works with defectors. They don't want the quick collapse of North Korea, which would create a huge burden on the south. Young people pay lip service to the idea of reunification but really want to put North Korea out of mind, he said.
They pay little attention to the small number of North Korean defectors who make it to South Korea and tend to cluster in places such as Pastor Chun Ki Won's church, a bare second-floor room in a southern Seoul office building. The defectors, in shabby clothes, sway in unison to hymns sung in Korean, finding solace in their shared memories.
They have stories like that of Kim Sun Hee, 33, whose entire family was taken to a gulag because her soldier brother was involved in a protest. She jumped off the train, walked across the frozen Yalu river, endured sexual attacks and near-starvation in China, and finally made it to the South Korean Embassy in Beijing.
Others tell of starvation and public executions during the famine of the late 1990s that may have killed 2 million people. (The same day I heard these stories, I read about a former Japanese sushi chef for Kim Jong Il who has written a book about the dictator's voluptuous eating habits.)
From 50,000 to 300,000 North Korean refugees are hiding in China, which won't give them asylum. Often, humanitarian aid workers who have lived in North Korea quit in frustration. A German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, who spent 21 months in North Korea, found medicines his group had donated were routinely diverted from hospitals to be sold in special government markets.
So what is to be done?
For Shin Eon-Sang, assistant minister for unification policy, the answer is clear. "Despite criticism, the Korean government has consistently promoted engagement policy for five years and has brought about significant changes in North Korea."
He notes that these changes, including incipient economic reforms and exchanges of 16,000 people (only 1,200 of whom were North Korean), are seen as "minute" by critics. But the South Korean government, he says, looks on them as "very meaningful" for the long term.
Engagement key to change
Shin says bringing up human-rights issues "could lead to backtracking in our exchanges." He said it would offend North Koreans' pride if they were asked to swap POWs for aid money. He added that only engagement could bring gradual change.
Consider this, however: Even anti-government conservatives and human-rights workers advocate engagement. None I met seeks North Korea's rapid collapse, as do some on the Bush team. All feel an effort should be made to get North Korea to disarm peacefully. They are more willing to use sticks than the Roh government is, more willing to offer carrots than Bush.
"Bombard them with aid," says Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, which works with defectors, "but don't let it be hijacked." That means aid must be tracked and "should buy out prisoners and POWs.
Others advocate a grand bargain at the six-party nuclear talks that offers North Korea security guarantees in return for dismantling its nuclear program, but includes human-rights demands as part of the package.
A grand bargain with carrots and sticks is not appeasement, even if it means Kim survives a little longer.
After a week in Seoul, I understand why Bush was appalled at the idea of dealing with Kim. I also see why there is no choice.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.