Does the U.S. Face a Crisis in Asia?

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Does the U.S. Face a Crisis in Asia?

January 24, 2003 8 min read
The Honorable Sam Brownback

The United States is currently faced with serious challenges in opposite corners of the globe. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein continues to defy the international community; in North Korea, the brutal communist regime oppresses its own people while continuing to press forward with developing its nuclear capabilities.

In December, my travels took me to places and to people who are directly involved in these areas, and I would like to share my experiences and insights with you today.

I made a journey to Northeast China along the North Korean border after stops in London and New Delhi. Over the course of five days in mid-December, I spent three days in the Yanbian Prefecture, including a six-hour drive along the North Korean border, and two days in Beijing. The purpose of my trip was to discuss a wide range of issues with the Chinese with the primary focus on the circumstances facing North Korean refugees and border-crossers inside China, and human rights and economic conditions inside North Korea.

While in China, I met with State Department personnel, local mayors of cities along the North Korean border as well as officials of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Jilin Province, and national officials including the Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen, human rights and refugee organizations, scholars and educators, clergy and journalists. My staff went on to South Korea and held discussions with South Korean and international non-governmental organizations and government officials in Seoul.

In addition to our official meetings, we had informative unofficial and informal contacts, including interactions in Northeast China with local citizens such as shopkeepers and drivers, although many of these activities were significantly curtailed by the presence of our Chinese "hosts," which included a senior member of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the local Yanbian Prefecture officials.

As I think about my journey to the North Korea border area--especially in light of the continuing nuclear brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula--a few points are worth emphasizing:

  1. While none of the local mayors and officials in Northeast China--those with the most direct knowledge of the plight of the North Korean refugees--were willing to directly confirm the testimonies of persecution and torture in North Korea that I had heard in Washington last year, not one of them denied that these violations were happening.
  2. The terrible conditions faced by the North Korean refugees--and the number of refugees fleeing--are likely to get much worse this year. Earlier this week, the World Food Program predicted that supplies of food for almost 7 million North Koreans--almost a third of their population--will likely run out in a few months.

  3. I believe the Administration is doing the right thing by insisting that the North Koreans comply with their obligations under the Agreed Framework. The ball is in their court. Their threats are not just against the United States but our allies in the region as well as the rest of the international community.

  4. As the Administration has consistently stated, if they take affirmative and verifiable steps to show that they are willing to submit to inspections of their nuclear programs and other weapons of mass destruction programs, then, perhaps, we can begin to discuss resumption of aid--provided that it can be monitored.

The journey to this part of China near the North Korean border has only reinforced my belief that the international community must not neglect this enormous human tragedy: the starvation, deprivation, persecution, and direct murder of thousands and maybe even millions of the citizens of North Korea. They deserve our intense focus and a sustained public advocacy.

We should be working vigorously to support many of the non-governmental organizations working under difficult circumstances to provide humanitarian relief to North Korean refugees in Northeast China.

In particular, we should aggressively press the Chinese to grant access to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) so that it can live up to its mandate to care for refugees. Otherwise, it is difficult to make a formal assessment of the full scope of the North Korean refugee problem in Northeast China.

Refugees are the human dimensions of a failed state. Whether we like it or not, the plight of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees--and the prospect for many more fleeing across the border in the coming months and year--is a problem that will not go away and one that our allies in the region, especially the Chinese, must face. The nuclear threats by North Korea are specifically designed to divert us from this problem. They want us to focus on this issue exclusively, but we should not be so easily fooled--again, I might add. Only when the international community, along with our allies in Northeast Asia, rise up to meet the challenge of finally recognizing and providing assistance and encouragement to these refugees through a sustained and public advocacy of their plight will the North Korean problem and the threat it poses be solved.

This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice in 1953 that ended the Korean War. Those who are trying to soften our approach to the North Koreans are willing to wait a little longer, hoping that things will change. But I'm not sure that the North Korean people can hold out much longer to be liberated from the tyranny that continues to hold them in bondage.


At the beginning of my trip, I met with a diverse group of leaders from the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. These groups were in London preparing for a major conference to discuss a democratic future for their country.

I was able to meet with these leaders just days before their major conference and deliver a message of support from the American people. I also urged them to rally around the several basic principles which they agree on for a post-Saddam Iraq.

The Iraqi people are facing extraordinary times. But, if Iraqi opposition leaders work hard and come together--as I believe they will--they can take back their country, in the cause of liberty, regardless of Saddam's attempts to hold back progress.

One of the greatest gifts God ever gave to humanity was that of liberty. We love freedom and bloom under it. We cannot and should not try to force people to live by a certain religious code. To do so negates our free will.

A democracy thrives on diversity. Tyranny oppresses it. This is truly a historic time for the Iraqi people, and I am pleased to see that their conference proceeded so successfully.

One of the important goals that came out of that conference was to establish an Iraqi-led provisional government, based inside Iraq, to guide the country through a very tumultuous transition if military action takes place.

It is up to Saddam whether there will be a war or not, but I am pleased to see the Iraqi opposition coming together and providing the leadership their country so desperately deserves. This is the answer to the many who question what will come next after Saddam is removed--and U.S. policy should do all it can to support these brave


While in India, I met with numerous officials--including Prime Minister Vajpayee--to discuss the important burgeoning relationship between the U.S. and India.

Increasingly, the U.S. and India have been cooperating militarily and strategically, and both are committed to winning the war on terrorism. However, there is one part of the relationship that I would like to see improved, and which I discussed extensively with the Indian government as well as Indian and American business leaders in New Delhi. That issue is increased foreign trade and investment.

Of particular concern to me, as an American policymaker, is the fact that the rate of U.S. foreign investment in China is several times that of U.S. investment in India. Since 1980, China has welcomed over $336 billion in foreign investment; India has received only $18 billion. Last year alone, China attracted $47 billion in direct foreign investment--capturing 21 percent of the world's foreign investment going to developing countries. India's FDI figure was about $4 billion--less than 2 percent.

It makes little sense for long-term U.S. national security to see U.S. foreign investment go so unevenly divided in the region. Especially in light of the incident with our downed plane and the difficulties we experienced with the Chinese military, we cannot forget that while China is opening up--and should be encouraged to continue--they are still a nation that does not share many of the values and principles of a free and democratic society.

India is a much better ideological fit. But we will not see an increase in investment or trade with India until India decides it is willing to reform its highly bureaucratic red tape, recognize the sanctity of contracts, protect intellectual property, and bring down the high trade tariffs.

I delivered this message time and again to business and government leaders in India, and look forward to working on measures in the upcoming Congress to provide incentives for India to take on these reforms--including the possibility of a free trade agreement. This will help America tap into a large new market as well as providing greater national security for our country.


This trip was an excellent opportunity to hit upon a number of vital and timely topics. The over-arching theme running through all the places I visited on this trip was the importance of freedom: whether it is political freedom sought by the Iraqi opposition leaders in London, economic freedom desired by many in India, or basic human freedoms being denied in North Korea. In the aftermath of September 11, it has been made clear to us that our foreign policy can no longer afford to narrowly focus on short-term benefits. For our nation's long-term security, we must be active in promoting American values abroad through our foreign policy.

If we shrink from this responsibility, others will fill the void with hatred, manipulation, and violence--which will eventually build up to be used as tools of recruitment for terrorism against America. We are in historic times, and the challenge awaits us.

The Honorable Sam Brownback, a Republican, represents Kansas in the United States Senate. He spoke at a meeting of the Washington Roundtable for the Asia-Pacific Press (WRAPP) at The Heritage Foundation.


The Honorable Sam Brownback


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