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Texas group puts focus on N. Korea

Bush hometown's Christian alliance eyes human rights

SEOUL -- Christian supporters from President Bush's Texas hometown, believed to have been instrumental in pressuring the White House to raise concerns over war-ravaged Sudan, are launching another international human rights campaign -- this time against North Korea's hard-line regime.

Members of the Midland Ministerial Alliance, a network of more than 200 churches in the city, are in Seoul this week seeking support for their latest push for improved human rights in the communist North.

''North Korean human rights will be the primary focus that we encourage the community here to actively engage in, to use their influence, and to not rest until the lives of North Koreans have changed for much better," alliance spokeswoman Deborah Fikes told South Korean lawmakers Friday.

Reports of torture and public executions are a few of the atrocities that have emerged from the isolated North, raising international concerns. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are believed to be held in prison camps for political reasons, the State Department said in its latest human rights report on the North.

However, Pyongyang's alleged human rights abuses have often been overshadowed by the international crisis over its nuclear weapons program. Six-nation talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions have been stalled for a year, with North Korea refusing to return, citing what it calls hostile US policies toward its regime.

The alliance is seeking to cast a spotlight on rights abuses and has made a prominent defector who recently met with Bush the centerpiece of their campaign.

Fikes has invited Kang Chol Hwan, author of ''The Aquariums of Pyongyang," to a Christian music festival in August in Midland, where he will stay for three weeks to testify about a decade of abuses he suffered in a prison camp where he was sent as a child with his family. ''I believe it's God's will for me to let people know about the miserable conditions of North Korea's prison camps," Kang told South Korean lawmakers Friday, saying he hoped his visit could help save fellow North Koreans.

Fikes said Bush's June 13 meeting with Kang shows ''human rights will be central to any negotiations with North Korea."

''I would be very surprised if that changes," she said last week. ''It's very, very clear that human rights are very important to President Bush personally."

The defector's visit to Washington has drawn ire from the North, whose official news agency Thursday called Kang ''human trash" and said Bush speaking to him was an ''act of throwing a wet blanket on the efforts to resume" the nuclear talks.

Fikes describes the alliance as a ''loosely organized" group without a budget or a website. But the organization based in the ''hometown of President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush" -- as it advertises on its letterhead -- has become a major player in human rights movements at home and abroad, specialists say.

Born in Connecticut, President Bush spent his childhood in Midland before heading off to Yale and Harvard Business School.

Allen Hertzke, professor of political science and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Midland group was able to convey concerns about cease-fire violations ''directly to the Sudanese government" because of its connection to Bush.

Hertzke, who has written a book on the alliance's role in Sudan, said it was influential in the US Senate's passage last year of the North Korean Human Rights Act, which provides $24 million a year in humanitarian aid for North Koreans, mostly for refugees.

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