Free and Unified Korea: International Cooperation on Human Rights and Religious Freedom

Eric Olsen
December 7, 2020

A prominent North Korean defector, the longest-held American detained in a North Korean prison camp, and human rights experts from Japan, Romania and the United States urged governments and international agencies to include human rights as the highest priority in relations with the North Korean regime at a virtual forum, “Free and Unified Korea: International Cooperation on Human Rights,” on December 4, 2020.

The fourth and concluding session of the 2020 International Forum on One Korea emphasized urgent and practical action to advance human rights in North Korea toward the goal of a free and unified Korea.

Forum MC Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and a Romanian (now U.S. citizen) raised under the repressive Ceaușescu regime, said the HRNK was the only American civil society organization dedicated exclusively to the issue of human rights in North Korea, specifically North Korea’s vast system of unlawful imprisonment, the structure and dynamics of the North Korean regime, and its deliberate policy of human rights denial.

“For 30 years the critical issue of human rights has been highlighted, but often ‘outcompeted’ by other truly important political and security issues,” Scarlatoiu said. Noting a landmark 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report that found that “crimes against humanity are being committed in North Korea,” and three decades of international efforts with little  degree of success in influencing North Korea, “perhaps it is time to consider a new approach that places human rights at the very top of the agenda.” Scarlatoiu said.

Japanese support for human rights

Delivering a video message, Hon. Masaharu Nakagawa, a Member of the House of Representatives of the National Diet of Japan and co-founder of International Parliamentarians’ Coalition for the North Korean Refugees and Human Rights, recalled his introduction to the issue of human rights in North Korea through a widely reported 2002 incident involving the presence of North Korean defectors seeking sanctuary in the Japanese consulate in China.

“I was sent to find out what had occurred and why the Chinese police entered consulate unlawfully and took the exiled family,” Nakagawa said. The Japanese government strongly insisted that they be returned and a few months later the Chinese released the family and sent them back to the South, the result of media attention and scenes of the capture broadcast worldwide.

After meeting with legislators in South Korea, Nakagawa helped organize the International Parliamentarians Coalition for North Korean Refugees and Human Rights, which has investigated and confirmed that severe violations of human rights have been and are being continuously committed by the North Korean regime.

“A Unified Korea is not a dream, but an attainable goal which we seek for.”
–Hon. Masaharu Nakagawa

“We should not forget the freedom seekers who have sought refuge in China and worry about being repatriated back to North Korea by Chinese police,” Nakagawa concluded. “Freedom seekers should be defined as refugees and permitted to go to any countries they wish to go.”

An imprisoned American missionary

Rev. Kenneth Bae, president of the Nehemiah Initiative, was detained by the North Korean government in 2012, becoming the longest held American in North Korean detention. He said every year some 1,500 defectors are arriving in South Korea, escaping to China and travelling 3,000 miles through Southeast Asia before reaching South Korea.

“Since the Covid outbreak only about 300 have escaped to the South,” Bae said. “Many are caught by the Chinese who hold them in detention on the North Korean border. Ironically, the DPRK government doesn’t want them back because of the Covid virus, so they are stuck there.” Bae urged the international community to take up the cause of these stateless refugees, while highlighting the desperate conditions of the people of North Korea.

Describing his own imprisonment while visiting the North as a missionary, he said he was accused of “trying to overthrow government through prayer and worship. The North Korean constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it doesn’t apply to people. While in prison I realized the people are living without any human rights, no freedom to speak, no freedom to travel, to choose their job, or choose their own religion.

“I founded the Nehemiah Initiative to remember the people of North Korea, to work with North Korean refugees and provide relief [for refugees making their way to South Korea]. Now times are desperate, even worse than during the famine in the 1990s. I see that changes are coming, and after Covid 19 there can be a breakthrough and we have to be ready.”

Human rights and security issues

Heritage Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Olivia Enos pointed to the false logic that has developed between issues of national security and human rights. “The idea that if we raise human rights issues we won’t make progress on other important issues relating to security and denuclearization is a false dichotomy,” Enos said. “Rather, these two issues are mutually reinforcing.”

She said prison camp victims are often subject to torture, forced labor and other forms of abuse. Most political prisoners are never heard from again and die in prison, with estimated 400,000 having perished in these camps. She recounted the systemic subjection of the population through generational punishments, public executions, and political purges.

“The Kim regime has mastered the art of human rights abuse for profit,” Enos said, which included forced labor to fund the purchase of luxury goods for the elite and for the development of weapons systems. She also cited reports of the use of chemical and biological weapons testing on children, the elderly and disabled. “So using human rights abuses to develop its military capability shows the two are closely linked.”

“The idea that if we raise human rights issues we won’t make progress on other important issues relating to security and denuclearization is a false dichotomy. Rather, these two issues are mutually reinforcing.”
–Olivia Enos, Heritage Foundation

Enos proposed a number of steps to alleviate the systematic abuses of North Korean people. She urged governments to include human rights in all diplomatic negotiations; appeal to the regime to release women, children and elderly who pose no threat; request access for the International Red Cross to evaluate conditions; and apply maximum pressure sanctions that that go after Chinese banks that fund the DPRK nuclear program. She also said Washington and Seoul should respond in concert to North Korean actions, provide greater information access, and work on synergy between human rights and national security interests.

“If we want to make progress in nuclear issues,” Enos concluded, “we must address human rights as a system holding up its nuclear program.”

The power of information

Hyun-seung Lee, a North Korean defector, stressed the need for information to enable North Koreans to resist repression and ultimately secure basic freedoms.  “The Internet, foreign publications, and foreign information are strictly prohibited,” Lee said, with every information source published only with approval of the regime.

Lee sharply criticized the Moon administration for blocking the critical means of sending truth and information to North Korea by establishing an “anti-constitutional law” banning leaflets to North Korea.

“The current South Korean government and the ruling party are making a ridiculous logic that sending information to North Korea would provoke the Pyongyang regime and create tension between the two Koreas, Lee said. “Our desire for democratization and change from North Koreans without any education is like asking kindergarten children to solve differential and integral math problems.”

Lee explained that citizens and even those in authority who commit human rights abuses “do not know the correct definition of human rights. Neither the victims nor the perpetrators are aware that these human rights abuses could be a crime,” he said. Even governing authorities “barely have access to the details about the atrocities at the concentration camps or the suffering of the residents unless it’s the relevant department or local officials.”

To truly improve human rights in North Korea, Lee said, both the victims and the perpetrators who torture and execute citizens without any sense of guilt need to recognize that such actions are “crimes against humanity.”

When the truth is known, Lee concluded, “the North Korean public will be able to think about fighting for their human rights, and the perpetrators would look back their actions which are against humanity.  The power of citizens armed with information would change history and their future.”

The forum was the final in a series of expert virtual forums in 2020 sponsored by the Global Peace Foundation (GPF), Action for Korea United (AKU), and One Korea Foundation (OKF).

GPF International President James Flynn, AKU Co-chair Inteck Seo, and OKF President Dr. Jai-poong Ryu thanked panelists and more than 100 participants from around the world, saying Korean-led peaceful unification was as an urgent, not a distant goal.

The 2020 International Forum on One Korea advocates peaceful, principled Korean unification based on the ‘Korean Dream’ approach, drawing on the ideals, shared values and history of the Korean people to build a free and unified Korea that advances regional peace and security, human rights, family reunification and shared prosperity for all Koreans.

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