U.S. recognizes defector-turned-prof
Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Lee Ae-ran, professor of nutrition and culinary arts at Kyungin Women’s College in South Korea, said food aid to North Korea “should resume regardless of the circumstances,” noting that North Korean children are much smaller than their South Korean counterparts owing to malnutrition.
“However, we need to develop measures to prevent food aid from being funneled to the military without being distributed to needy North Korean people,” she said.
Lee, who defected from the North in 1997 and received a doctoral degree in South Korea in nutrition last year, came here to receive the award for International Women of Courage at the State Department tomorrow.
The U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, had recommended her as a candidate for the award, which is given every year to 10 women around the world for their leadership role in promoting human rights for women and contributions to a variety of other fields.
Lee has raised funds for children of North Korean defectors in South Korea to help them study and organized a civic group to train female defectors for new jobs.
The United States recently hinted it might restart food aid to North Korea, which was suspended early last year amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, but it has not yet taken any concrete steps. Pyongyang had refused to issue visas to Korean-speaking monitors, whose mission was to assure that the food aid was not funneled to the military and the government elite.
Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, said last month that humanitarian assistance would not be linked to any political considerations.
“If we are able to reach agreement on being able to monitor humanitarian assistance, and if the need is there, and if the resources are on our side and the competing demands are met, we would be willing to look at providing assistance again,” King said.
The United States, which has provided more than 2 million tons of food aid to the North over the past decade or so, delivered 169,000 tons of food to North Korea from May 2008 to March 2009.
Relief organizations have said that North Korea will need at least 1 million tons of food from abroad to feed its 24 million people this year. Reports indicate that thousands starved to death this winter due to UN sanctions and soaring inflation.
The conservative South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak has also stopped shipping food to the North, demanding as a quid pro quo that the North make progress in the six-nation nuclear talks. Lee’s liberal predecessors had each year shipped about 400,000 tons of food and as much fertilizer to North Korea without conditions.
North Korea recently said it was ready to return to the six-nation forum, which it has boycotted since early last year, although it insists that commitments to lift UN sanctions and sign a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War are preconditions.
Lee Ae-ran, the first North Korean defector to earn a doctorate degree in South Korea, said that the U.S. award will “help the international community pay more attention to the human rights situation in North Korea.”
“I think this award is not for me but for the North Korean people,” she said, adding it will tell North Koreans to “not lose courage and hope.”
North Korea is said to be among the worst human rights violators in the world, with hundreds of thousands detained in political prison camps.