WASHINGTON – President Bush's newly appointed envoy on human rights abuses in North Korea (search) suggested Thursday that U.S. food aid might be linked to liberating political prisoners.
Despite sharp differences with the insular Pyongyang (search) regime, the Bush administration has provided tons of American food to hungry people in North Korea on humanitarian grounds.
In announcing donation of more than 55,000 tons of food last June, a State Department spokesman, for instance, said "our decisions are made on humanitarian considerations solely."
But Jay Lefkowitz, the new envoy, suggested Thursday at a news conference that approach might be changing.
"I think consistent with what the president's overall approach is on human rights, and bringing North Korea directly into the community of nations, we have to take a look at all different areas of our relationship."
Asked if he meant on his second day on the job to be suggesting North Korea's human rights record be made a condition of receiving food aid, Lefkowitz replied: "I think we need to take a look at the entire relationship."
And he suggested other nations that assist North Korea consider a similar approach.
Lefkowitz said North Korea holds 200,000 people in detention, many reportedly subjected to torture. Also, he said thousands of people were kept from leaving the country while thousands of others were forced to take up residence in northern China.
"I want to be clear," Lefkowitz said. "What we are look at is a very, very tough issue, at a tough set of issues. And I think we need to be willing to look at all different aspects of our relationship with North Korea, and our allies' relationship with North Korea, because the one thing that we know is the situation for more than 20 million North Koreans is really intolerable."
Lefkowitz's remarks coincided with announcement in Beijing that negotiations soon would be reopened with North Korea on efforts by China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States to stop its nuclear weapons program.
Outlining his plans for promoting change in North Korea, Lefkowitz said "it will be a challenge."
But he said it is time to start a dialogue on human rights abuses in North Korea with other countries, especially in Asia, and he hoped, with North Korea itself.
He said he intends to open a channel to North Korea and "directly engage" its officials about "atrocities that, thankfully, we see almost nowhere else in the world."
A former domestic policy adviser to Bush at the White House, Lefkowitz said he had no immediate plans to try to set up talks in Pyongyang.
However, Lefkowitz said he would be traveling to Asia — he did not say when — and have talks with leaders of private groups that are trying to improve conditions in North Korea.
"We are hoping we can move this relationship forward in all kinds of areas," he said.
The donation of food announced in June was similar to one of more than 55,000 tons last year. In 2003, the administration donated more than 110,000 tons. All the while, the United States and North Korea have been jostling over the weapons issue.
"Our objective," said deputy department spokesman Adam Ereli in announcing this year's donation, "is to help relieve the suffering of the North Korean people, despite our concerns about the North Korean government's policies."