Of the five remaining Captive Nations—China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea—North Korea is the most repressed, its people the most suffering, its regime the worst violator of human rights. As the UN Commission of Inquiry concluded two years ago in February 2014, the Kim regimes have committed crimes against humanity: “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” However, I will predict at this lunch in recognition of the Captive Nations that North Korea will be the first of the five to be free because of the dramatic changes that have occurred there in recent years.
Kim Jong Un’s North Korea is not the North Korea of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. There have been at least four major changes that give me hope.
First, the flow of information into North Korea has created a much more knowledgeable population. It is estimated that up to 60 per cent and perhaps as many as 80 per cent of North Koreans have access to sources of information beyond the regime’s propaganda. They are learning that the source of their misery comes from their dictator, not South Korea or even the United States. The elites especially have access to outside information and know the reality of their circumstances. Additionally, North Koreans are watching South Korean soap operas and western films and listening to foreign radio broadcasts. The population is much more informed than ever before.
Second, when the Public Distribution System (PDS) collapsed in the 1990s, the North Koreans created their own market system in order to survive. The PDS made the entire population dependent on the regime to survive: everything from the food you ate to where you lived and what material goods you obtained was based on the PDS system and your classification of loyalty to the regime (Songbun). But when this system collapsed, causing millions to starve, North Koreans began trading and selling on their own, setting up private markets throughout the country. As a result, capitalism is thriving in North Korea and explains why we do not see the same level of starvation as in the past. The regime tried repeatedly to shut down and then control these markets. The last effort, several years ago, was the failed currency devaluation which led to something unprecedented: the regime apologized and decided to allow these markets to continue.
A third major change is the number of eyewitnesses: over 30,000 people have now escaped from North Korea. No longer can anyone dismiss the horrific stories, which some did not believe, about the political prison camps, the plight of the refugees, and egregious human rights atrocities.
And that has led to a fourth major change: we have finally won the battle on the importance of human rights issues. They are the most important issues that must be addressed in dealing with North Korea. For too long we have focused almost exclusively on the nuclear issue at the expense of human rights, when North Korea never intended to give up its nuclear program.
Today we see many more high-level defections from North Korea by elites who believe that the regime will collapse soon. This is what happened in the late 1990s when Hwang Jang Yop and other high-ranking members of the regime defected. They also believed the regime would collapse, which it likely would have if the South Korean government had not enacted the Sunshine policy, which led to billions of dollars of aid to North Korea, which saved the Kim Jong Il regime.
Unless we once again bail out the regime, it is destined to collapse. Two major actions that must be carried out to achieve this are to cut off the money flow to the regime that makes it possible for Kim to reward the elites, and to invest in the work of the North Koreans who have escaped. That is why the recently passed North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act is so critical: the sanctions against this regime, which commits crimes against humanity, must be vigorously enforced. We must also ensure that the regime no longer profits from the exploitation of its own citizens—in particular the slave laborers it has working in China, Russia, and around the world, whose pay goes to the regime.
We must also invest in our most underutilized asset: the North Korean defector NGOs that have taken up the work that South Korea and the United States used to do effectively: balloon launches, radio broadcasting, getting information into North Korea and reaching out to the elites and the military so that they know there is an alternative to the Kim regime and that they can be part of peaceful unification.
Too much money is being spent talking about the North Korea human rights tragedy, but not enough money is being invested to end it. Most of these defector groups are working on very limited funding and need partners. For example, we have a partnership with Free North Korea Radio in Seoul. The cost of the short wave transmission is totally funded by people in the United States, while the cost of the production is totally funded by North Korean defectors and South Korean citizens. The programs are totally prepared by North Koreans who have escaped. This partnership has made it possible for the radio station to remain on the air exclusively with private funding since April 2010, when the Bush-era grant ended.
There is nothing more powerful than North Koreans living in freedom in South Korea reaching out to North Koreans still enslaved under the Kim dictatorship.
A proof of the effectiveness of the FNKR broadcasts is that it is the station most targeted for jamming and that its director, Kim Seong Min, has had assassins sent from the DPRK to kill him. A recent and dramatic illustration of its effectiveness was what happened last September. Last summer, tensions were escalating between North and South Korea after a landmine exploded near the DMZ and severely injured two South Korean soldiers. As tensions escalated, the South Korean government decided to turn the loudspeakers at the DMZ back on. These loudspeakers had been silent since 2004, when, during the “Sunshine” policy of former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, the South agreed to stop this type of broadcast propaganda. For three days, the South Korean government simply played Korean pop music and regular news programs. But on the fourth day, they took programming that had been produced by Free North Korea Radio and started broadcasting messages produced by North Korean defectors. This broadcasting included a statement the defectors made during North Korea Freedom Week condemning the regime of Kim Jong Un. Within three days, North Korea asked to return to the negotiating table. At those negotiations last September, the DPRK did not ask for a peace treaty, which they are always asking for. The DPRK did not ask for the end of US-Republic of Korea military exercises, which they are always asking for. The DPRK only asked for one thing at those negotiations: “Turn off the loudspeakers!”
In addition to broadcasting news and information, FNKR also has special programs targeted at the elite and the military. There are many defector groups like NKIS, NK Strategy Center, and NK People’s Liberation Front, among others, doing amazing work.
In addition to vigorously enforcing sanctions against Kim Jong Un, we need to support the defector NGOs in order to bring about the peaceful unification of Korea and the end of the suffering of the North Korean people.