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Matthew McGrath (@mattmcgr) is a Seoul based contributor for NK News.
In a continuation of their North Korean Human Rights Speaker Series, the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet) invited Kim Young-hwan to talk about his experiences as a student activist and the future of the North Korean human rights movement. The event was held on September 12th in conjunction with Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. The Dean of Yonsei’s GSIS, Sohn Yul, kicked off the event by reminding everyone of Kim’s unique history; having transformed himself from a prominent leader in South Korea’s Juche influenced student movement to an activist promoting democracy and human rights in North Korea.
At the beginning of the talk, Kim confessed that this was his first experience lecturing with an interpreter and would therefore keep his comments brief, leaving ample time for Q&A. Kim started by explaining how he became involved in the underground South Korean democracy movement of the 1980s. He said that although some of his motivation was derived from his “anger at the dictatorship,” his primary source of motivation was “solidarity with the weakest most depressed part[s] of South Korea.” He shared several stories in order to illustrate the severe level of oppression South Korean citizens endured under subsequent military dictatorships. One of which, was about a teacher at his middle school was tortured and then fired for criticizing the Yushin Constitution.
Kim briefly talked about this experience meeting Kim Il-sung since it had already been heavily written about in the media. He did reiterate that his “most shocking experience was Kim Il-sung’s lack of understanding of his own ideology.” However, it is interesting to observe how his own disillusionment with Juche, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and defector testimonies that informed the world about the heinous human rights violations in North Korean political prison camps induced a 180 degree shift in Kim’s ideological disposition. After realizing that human rights violations in South Korea were “one-third to one-fifth” of his Northern counterparts, Kim concluded, “if I neglect them [the North Korean People] I cannot call myself a revolutionary.” It was after he came to this realization that Kim decided to begin advocating for human rights and democracy in North Korea.
One of the first question’s Kim received during the Q&A session regarded his “picture of unification” since it appeared to be the ultimate goal of his work. Kim’s response was that the “most important [issue] would be how to guarantee the autonomy and dignity of the North Korean people.” Citing the well-known East-West German model, Kim noted that despite West Germany’s sincere efforts to support East Germany after unification, East Germans still felt they were treated like second-class citizens. He cautiously warned that in Korea’s case, the economic gap between North and South is much larger and the “power of treating counterparts is worse.” Kim believes that a political crisis is a more fundamental problem than any short-term economic difficulties. He summed up his response by saying that, “forming a sense of community between North and South Korea must be done slowly and gradually” and that if there were a change in the North’s regime to a more moderate dictatorship or even a democracy. It would be possible to pursue the process of federal reunification.”
The final question of the evening came from a GSIS student who asked Kim why he thinks North Korean human rights violations do not attract much media attention. Kim said that the reason North Korean human rights are neglected in South Korea is the “responsibility of teachers, professors and parents who do not have a proper attitude towards North Korea.” He explained that in South Korea it is estimated that “70% of social science teachers have a friendly attitude towards North Korea.” To remedy this situation, Kim encouraged teaching students about North Korea’s human rights violations, pointing to numerous testimonies from defectors. He also identified the need for a shift in public perception among South Koreans that these are “old stories.”
In closing Kim shared the story of a young typist who worked for Adolf Hitler but was released because she was thought to be “too young” and “brainwashed.” However, after the typist visited a concentration camp, she was compelled to apologize for her ignorance because even though she wasn’t aware of what was happening, her lack of knowledge ultimately resulted in the death of one of her peers. Kim followed this anecdote by saying; “North Korea … is like Auschwitz and if we do not act our descendants and the North Korean people after liberation, will ask [us], what did you do when we were suffering from human rights violations?” He added that it is the “duty” of those attending this talk to share their knowledge of North Korean human rights with everyone they know in order to prevent them from becoming perpetrators of North Korean human rights violations.