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Thursday, October 12, 2006

N.Korean defectors seek end to regime

North Korean defectors with painful memories of starvation and torture say they hope the North's claimed nuclear test will prompt international sanctions that could help advance their long-held dream of the communist regime's collapse.

Many defectors said the test was a sign of desperation from an increasingly isolated regime trying to gain international recognition and retain its authoritarian grip over an impoverished population.

"The nuclear test was their last card and it signals the beginning of the regime's end," said Kang Chol Hwan, who met President Bush last year and discussed his memoirs, about growing up in a North Korean prison camp. "With the test, (the North) will come to face with enormous counterattacks from the outside world, and I am very skeptical it has any measures to survive those."

North Korea's announcement Monday that it exploded its first atomic bomb immediately prompted the U.N. Security Council to discuss tighter sanctions on the communist country. The council placed limited sanctions on Pyongyang after its test-fired a barrage of missiles in July.

Defectors hope international sanctions will choke off an economic lifeline for the poor nation, eventually provoking an uprising against leader Kim Jong Il by the North's elite class, which is becoming increasingly disgruntled with his diplomatic and economic failures.

"Many officials around Kim Jong Il are dissatisfied with Kim, who has starved his people for the past decade, and they are losing patience," said Sun Jung Hoon, a defector who claims to have had close ties with party and military officials before he fled to South Korea in 2002.

"If Kim Jong Il fails to win international concessions after the nuclear test, in the long-run, we expect there will be a coup," Sun said.

International aid agencies have warned against cutting food donations to North Korea in response to the nuclear test, fearing the country has been on the verge of another humanitarian disaster since massive floods in July caused severe crop damage.

The last major food crisis followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North's main aid provider, coupled with natural disasters and outdated farming methods. By some estimated, up to 2 million North Koreans died of hunger in the 1990s.

Since then, North Korea has relied heavily on foreign aid to cope with food shortages.

The North has blamed its economic hardships on U.S. sanctions in place since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. Some defectors say more sanctions will give Kim's regime another propaganda tool.

"I believe North Korea's nuclear test was more aimed at its people," Sun said. "With tighter international sanctions after the test, the North can strengthen its internal propaganda that the economic hardship was all because of outsiders' sanctions."

Washington is demanding stiff sanctions against Pyongyang for its reported test, a position strongly backed by Tokyo. Japan has already imposed sanctions barring lucrative North Korean import and refusing most North Koreans entry into the country.

South Korea and China, major aid providers to the North, are facing growing pressure to support tougher measures against Kim's regime.

Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking government official to defect from the North, criticized the South's "sunshine policy" of engagement for "helping someone like Kim Jong Il."

"We should let people know the true face of Kim Jong Il, who has been developing nuclear programs even at the cost of starving hundreds of people," Hwang said in an interview this week with Freedom North Korea Broadcast, which transmits radio programs aimed at North Koreans.

South Korea cut off regular rice and fertilizer donations after the July missile tests and delayed a shipment of flood relief in response to the purported nuclear test. But the South has been reluctant commit to stronger measures, hoping to lure Pyongyang back to international nuclear negotiations.

Those negotiations "should be talks that isolate Kim Jong Il, not a bargaining table where he can get concessions," said Hwang, an 83-year-old former North Korean parliament chief who fled in 1977.

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