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Symposium Sheds Light on North Korean Dilemma
Global experts, students gather to discuss North Korean human rights, legislation and refugees
Robert Joe (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-11-30 14:15 (KST)   
Symposium panelists debate the North Korean Human Rights Act 2004 during Saturday's afternoon session held at the Yonsei University Graduate School for International Studies, in Seoul.
©2004 R. Joe
When Adrian Hong, a Yale University senior and founder of LiNK (Liberation of North Korea), approached an American politician with 35-years experience in international affairs about gathering support for his organization, he was told, "Well, if it's against red China I'll help you."

"This is the kind of situation we're facing," said Hong with a perplexed grin. "People just have no idea."

Park Il Hwan, a North Korean refugee, has fought a different battle. He escaped in 1999, spending time maneuvering through China and Mongolia before finally arriving in South Korea in 2001.

Now a law student at Korea University, Park works with Korean Youth United (KYU) to tell people the stories of the friends and family he left behind, and what they face back at home.

Park Il Hwan of Korean Youth United recounted his experiences growing up in North Korea.
©2004 R. Joe
Both LiNK and KYU joined forces last Saturday to hold an open symposium on North Korean human rights -- all in the hope of educating the public.

The day-long event, held at the Yonsei University Graduate School for International Studies, was sponsored by students from North and South Korea, Mexico, China and the United States. It featured speakers from numerous NGO's and humanitarian organizations both local and international. Some 200 Koreans and foreigners attended the event run along with 20 volunteers.

The panel of experts included Lee Seung Yong, from the aid group Good Friends, Lee Yeong Hwan, from the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Park Jeong Eun, from the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, Tarik Radwan, an immigration lawyer and adjunct faculty member of Handong International Law School, along with the LiNK and KYU members. Most of the seminars involved panel discussions and Q&A sessions with the audience.

Some of the sobering statistics that emerged from the symposium included an estimated 2 to 3 million people that have starved to death due to famine. An additional 1.5 million people are thought to have been killed as political prisoners. North Korea executes not just those they find guilty, but also generations of family members related to the condemned.

The panel went on to discuss the North Korean Human Rights Act 2004, signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 18, 2004. The act condemns North Korea for various human rights violations, calls for more transparency if aid is to continue, and provides funding for NGOs and other organizations with similar goals.

Critics say the law is an imperialist maneuver designed to promote regime change under the guise of human rights reform. Many say that at best the law is saber-rattling; at worst, preparation for war.

"We must not be militant in our criticism of North Korea," warned Park Jeong Eun, adding that the U.S. has no viable solutions on offer.

But others look at the legislation differently.

"This is not a U.S. issue," insisted Radwan when asked whether the U.S. had ulterior motives. "I really wish people would get away from that." He pointed out that the EU had expressed similar views in their annual UN reports on human rights.

Hong understands why some regard the legislation as a predecessor for regime change, but he and LiNK want to focus on what can be accomplished with the law.

"The law is made, there's nothing we can do about it. But we can make sure it's applied a certain way, as humanely as possible," he said. Highlighting the knee-jerk reactions some parties have to American influence, Park Il Hwan said, "There are problems with the act but you can't just ignore it because it comes from the U.S."

These reactions and polarization makes useful discourse about the subject difficult. Most separate themselves into two camps: those who support the Sunshine policy and reunification above all else versus those who want to push for human rights now.

Diana Sur, one of the event organizers who is also starting a Seoul chapter of LiNK, mentioned the frustration of trying to bring the two sides together. "One group would find out another was attending and refuse to appear," she said.

LiNK and KYU members joined forces to organize their first North Korean human rights symposium.
©2004 R. Joe
Some of the panelists stressed that the two sides are not necessarily mutually exclusive and that engagement and the pursuit of reunification can happen while stressing human rights. Radwan says that reunification is impractical without establishing human rights equality first. "Will you be prepared for the flood of refugees coming South?" he asked.

Another subject of the discussion was North Korean refugees in China. Contrary to international laws concerning refugees, China has been systematically tracking down North Korean refugees, sending them back to be jailed, tortured and possibly killed.

The screening of the documentary "Seoul Train" brought personal insight into the subject of the underground railroad that helps North Koreans get to third countries. The directors, two Americans, have a close relationship with LiNK, offering a pre-release screening copy fresh from the editing bay.

Some of the more shocking images were caught by a refugee who returned to rural North Korea armed with a video camera at the risk of death. A tiny boy's black eye seems to swell nonstop into the camera. Another child bears his arms, so purple with bruises it looks like ink was spilled all over them.

Later, several of the refugees are interviewed before they attempt to cross the border and others who prepare for a public rush into the embassy. A girl stands, head bowed, holding a sign that reads "Freedom or Death."

Though reminiscent of the history book rhetoric of Patrick Henry's famous lines "Give me liberty or give me death," the image of her holding her sign -- and quietly accepting almost certain death by her action -- juxtaposed with later images of her being brutally tackled and pushed around by Chinese guards before she can even unfurl her sign, bring the reality of her conviction to light.

After the screening, Moon Guk Hwan, one of the people who assisted the refugees in China, took to the podium to address arguments that peaceful reunification must come before discussions of human rights.

"If 20 million die before we achieve peace, is that really peace?" Moon asked. Holding back tears, he expressed his heartbreak that Americans and not Koreans would pass the North Korean Human Rights Act, and showed his frustration at the futility of the heated political discussions of the seminar.

"My people are starving and we're talking about nonsense," he pleaded.

Related Articles
SK Lawmakers Decry NK Human Rights Act
Korean Lawmakers, Peace Groups Wary of U.S. Bill
Why do U.S. Conservatives and Progressives Share a Hatred of North Korea?
'North Korea Human Rights Act an Excuse to Invade'

Do you think the "North Korea Human Rights Act" will harm stability in the region?  (2004-10-02 ~ 2004-12-24)
Yes, the U.S. is attempting to overthrow a sovereign nation's government.
No, alleviating the suffering of millions is the primary objective.
Robert Joe is an aspiring filmmaker, freelance writer, voice actor and perpetual student.
©2004 OhmyNews

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