Slow But Notable Progress on North Korean Human Rights

May 22nd, 2012
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The final lecture in NKnet’s North Korean Human Rights speaker series was on Wednesday May 16th. The evening’s theme was the role of the international community and various ways expatriates and students living in Seoul can get involved with the North Korean human rights movement. NKnet invited Joanna Hosaniak from Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and their own Dan Bielefeld to comment on these topics.

First, Hosaniak shared how she began working for Citizens’ Alliance and her work lobbying for human rights at the United Nations. She shed light on the inner workings of an NGO’s lobbying procedures, noting specific difficulties and successes her organization experienced. One difficultly she mentioned had to do with garnering support for North Korean human rights in the international community. According to Hosaniak there isn’t much information on North Korean human rights in other languages. Furthermore, the network of NGOs concerned with the issue is largely limited to organizations based in America, Europe and South Korea. Hosaniak noted the unfortunate lack of such a network in Africa, South America or South East Asia. She believes that expanding the support base for North Korean human rights to include governments and NGOs from these regions is “necessary in order to bring the issue to the forefront.” Broadening the scope of organizations working on North Korean human rights would increase the number of parties who can lobby the North Korean government, which would translate to increased pressure on the regime.

Many years of arduous work have resulted in some small improvements for the North Korean people.  Hosaniak said that you can “clearly see the difference” between the treatment of North Koreans who were repatriated after 2004 compared to experiences of those who were repatriated during the 90s. One example she gave was taken from a conversation she had with a female defector who had been repatriated once in the 90s and a second time in 2006. Hosaniak specifically asked the woman to compare her treatment, to which the defector said that she was “ really surprised” that the guards “didn’t beat me” the second time. The defector was so surprised that she even asked a guard “why do you treat me so nicely?” Hosaniak also noted that some defectors have reported being asked to “sign that their human rights were not violated” before being released from detention centers.  Although these examples are small steps in the right direction, Hosaniak recognized that there are stark differences between regions and detention centers in North Korea. However, she also said that changes, however small, “really translate into people’s lives, [in that] many more lives can be saved, if people are not beaten…it means they have a higher chance for survival.”

After Hosaniak’sremarks, the audience had some time to ask questions before Bielefeld took the floor. The most interesting question for Hosaniak came from a gentleman who asked how she understands the structure of human rights abuses in North Korea and if one should view human rights violations as abuses perpetuated by the state, the unfortunate doing of outliers in detention facilities or the result of an absence of policies that might otherwise protect from these transgressions. In response, Hosaniak said, “definitely there is involvement of the state” and that there are “certain instructions…that allow guards in prisons to actually violate people’s rights.”  She continued to explain that it’s like “two bodies, one is official law and the other is separate instructions.” Hosaniak also noted that a third set of instructions comes directly from the leader.

Switching to the economy, she said that the system is breaking. “Pyongyang is an island and there are economic differences…more and more the poorer are getting poorer and the richer are getting richer. Those who have power and privileges have access to resources and these resources allow them to abuse people.” The central government doesn’t necessarily know about this either. Hosaniak also noted that because of the black market system gangs dependent on collecting protection fees pose a threat to internal stability. She said if the government was to disrupt their activities it could potentially start a rebellion, so it’s in the government’s interest to leave them be.

After Joanna Hosaniak finished, Dan Bielefeld spoke about his experiences getting involved in the North Korean human rights movement and how other passionate individuals might get involved. He began by addressing some “barriers of entry” that most foreigners living in Korea might encounter. The first, and most obvious, was the language barrier. He also discussed some cultural issues that he encountered working as a Westerner in Korean society. Ultimately, Bielefeld encouraged any interested party to “stick with it” and to “be a little bit more proactive.” He provided some basic insight into how Korean NGOs operate to help prepare someone who might consider taking his  same path.

 The second focus of his remarks was to describe various ways to be active in the North Korean human rights movement. First he shared a few things you “can do anywhere,” which included sending a letter to North Korea Freedom Coalition (www.nkfreedom.org) to be broadcast via shortwave radio into North Korea and writing a letter to a refugee staying in one of Liberty in North Korea’s shelters in China. Bielefeld also encouraged citizens of democratic countries to write to their elected officials expressing concern for the North Korean human rights crisis and to send a letter to  Chinese officials requesting an end to the repatriation of North Korean refugees, which is also managed by the North Korea Freedom Coalition.

For those in Korea, Bielefeld encouraged the foreign community to use their celebrity status to draw attention to the issue in the media. It is no surprise to anyone who has lived in South Korea that people tend to take more interest in something a foreigner is doing. He also mentioned that North Korea Peace organizes monthly events in which they send socks to North Korea in balloons. In terms of working with NKnet directly, Bielefeld said the biggest demand is for Korean to English translation of articles for their magazine “NK Vision.” He also invited participants to volunteer as a guide for an art exhibition NKnet will be hosting in Insadong in June. Due to the success of the speaker series, the limited time, and the long list of potential speakers, Bielefeld informed the audience of NKnet’s intention to continue the speaker series on a monthly basis. The next event will likely take place sometime in the beginning of June.

Joanna Hosaniak is the current head of the International Campaign and Cooperation Department at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. Previously, she has worked as a senior officer at the same organization, was a coordinator at the Helsinki Foundation for Human rights and assisted the South Korean Ambassador to Poland.

 

Dan Bielefeld is NKnet’s English Webmaster. He has also worked for several North Korean Human Rights organizations, including Justice for North Korea and LiNK. Bielefeld has several years of experience as a web developer and first became interested in Korea when he traveled here. He is also a graduate of Sogang University’s Korean Language Program.

Edited by Megan McHugh // [email protected]

 Photso by  [email protected]

 

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About the Author

Matthew McGrath

Matthew McGrath (@mattmcgr) is a Seoul based contributor for NK News.

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