At a Freedom House sponsored symposium held on a sweltering July day in Washington, DC, acclaimed human rights activist Natan Sharansky publicly challenged the Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea. “You confront evil,” the former Soviet dissident said in a ringing voice, “you do not negotiate with it.” Sharansky firmly rejected the notion that it is better to be friendly with a dictatorship that oppresses its people in the manner that North Korea does. “It is better to deal with a democracy that hates you,” he thundered, “than with a dictatorship that says it ‘loves’ you.”
Reflecting the views of the majority of the speakers and participants at the North Korea Freedom Day symposium, Sharansky lobbied for a diplomatic device similar to the Helsinki Accords to be put in place regarding North Korea. What he meant by this was that for years the US and Western allies chose to disengage strategic concerns from human rights issues in dealing with the Soviet Union. In other words, we would discuss strategic arms limitations but studiously avoid mentioning the gulag. Other organizations, mostly NGOs, demanded human rights reform but were disinterested in strategic issues. Only when the two themes were linked by a concert of nations at Helsinki, Sharansky reminded, was sufficient pressure generated on the Soviets that it eventually collapsed the regime. This ought to be the case in Northeast Asia, he suggested. And regime change, he continued, is what is necessary for the North Korean people to be free.
There were a few voices that cautioned about “immodest expectations,” including that of Congressman Jim Leech. An outspoken proponent for human rights in North Korea, Leech is reluctant to sound too aggressive about dumping Kim Jong Il perhaps because of his own position as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific. The juxtaposition of his caution next to Sharansky’s uncompromising position, reinforced the point that the latter was trying to make. “I do not agree,” Sharansky said, “that if the issue of human rights is raised [with North Korea] that it will jeopardize peace on the peninsula.” Yet that is exactly what those who opt for a too-cautious, appeasing approach hypothesize. But the principal involved powers: South Korea, the US, Japan, China, and Russia have temporized, equivocated, and tried diplomatic buyoffs with poor results. The North has continued its dangerous programs and the people continue to suffer.
In contrast, Sharansky favors a blunt approach. He was thrilled when he heard President George W. Bush include the Pyongyang regime in his famous Axis of Evil speech. And he reflected that “Our happiest day in the gulag was when we passed around the news that the American President Reagan had called the Soviets an ‘Evil Empire.’ Finally, we told each other, there was someone who recognized the reality of the situation.” Such information was the key to changing the minds of what he calls the majority population in any repressed society, the “double-thinkers” who outwardly give support to the totalitarian regime, primarily out of fear, but secretly oppose it. Give them the proper information, Sharansky says, and they will grow emboldened to oppose the regime.
Information, all agreed, is exactly what the suffering people of North Korea need. As starved as their bodies have become, they are even hungrier for the truth. Several participants voiced strong support for increased information flow to North Korea. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), himself a proponent for regime change, asked panelist Kang Cheol-Hwan for recommendations on how to get information into North Korea. Kang is a noted North Korean defector who spent a decade in the infamous Yodok concentration camp. He is author of Aquariums of Pyongyang, and met recently in a highly publicized dialogue with President Bush. Kang spoke of the need to increase radio broadcasts into North Korea similar to Voice of America programming that Sharansky had said was so helpful to the refusniks in the USSR. Kang cited also the need for radios since the regime allows only those with a frequency fixed onto the state approved stations to be distributed.
If something as small as an Ipod can do all the things that tiny device is capable of doing then a functioning AM/FM radio with antenna ought to be fashioned that could be manufactured cheaply and anonymously and smuggled into North Korea by the hundreds of thousands. If as Kang and Sharansky say, and other refugees affirm, information is the key to ultimate freedom then we in the free world ought to devote much more resources to ensure that we can fulfill the promise of JFK to “let the word go forth from this day forward…” I’ll guess that we could manufacture and distribute a million tiny radios cheaper than the cost of one smart bomb strike.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, deputy of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, spoke with deep emotion of the atrocities taking place in North Korea. “Whenever we hear stories of gas chambers,” he said, voice trembling in intensity, “then you can be certain that we are going to demand answers.” What is needed to focus attention to the human rights crimes of Kim Jong Il, Cooper said, is to institute an Office of Special Investigations, similar to that which exists inside the Justice Department focused on Nazi crimes. “The creation of an OSI that will investigate, verify, and document crimes against humanity – from high officials down to the level of the petty functionary – will cause great concern within the North Korean hierarchy. They will know that they will be held accountable for their crimes.”
Members of the symposium demanded more action from North Korea’s twin, South Korea. “The continued prevailing silence coming from South Korea about the abhorrent situation in the North is unacceptable,” Cooper said, “ It is based on willful ignorance.” National Assemblyman Kim Moon Soo, Grand National Party, one of the few vocal human rights champions in the South, apologized for what he described as an abhorrent attitude of disregard by the South Korean government for the North Korean people. “I pledge to work even harder for our fellow Koreans in the North,” he said emotionally. Let it be known that Assemblyman Kim has been a tireless proponent for the suffering people of North Korea. Without his strong, unwavering voice, the despicable, cowardly appeasement policy of the current South Korean government would be promulgated unchallenged. Kim Moon Soo and his like-minded colleagues demand responsibility and accountability from the ruling party. And the US government needs to support their efforts. But already we are seeing steps taken by the Roh Moo Hyun government in South Korea to buy off the blustering, bullying Kim Il Sung regime with enormous shipments of rice, fuel oil, electric power, and other supplies. In return Kim is supposed to give assurances of “suspension” of his nuclear program.
On a darker, more ominous note, South Korean companies are supposed to receive in return access to North Korean mineral resources, timber and other raw materials. Can there be any doubt that these commodities will be supplied by anything other than slave labor? The policy of endless appeasement must cease. Without this support the Kim regime will collapse. It will implode from its own rottenness. As Natan Sharansky and the members of the conference demand, “The People of North Korea must be Free!”