The ICAS Lectures

No. 2002-1011-CxG

Promoting Democracy in the Post-9/11 World: The Case of North Korea
Carl Gershman

ICAS Fall Symposium &
Humanity, Peace and Security
October 11, 2002 12:00 PM - 5:50 PM.
U.S. Senate Russell Office Building Room 418
Capitol Hill
Washington, D. C.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Carl Gershman

Promoting Democracy in the Post-9/11 World: The Case of North Korea

Presentation to the ICAS Fall Symposium on "Humanity, Peace, and Security"

by Carl Gershman
President, The National Endowment for Democracy

Washington, D.C.     October 11, 2002

The title of my talk is carefully worded. It is "Promoting Democracy in the Post 9/11 World: The Case of North Korea," not "Promoting Democracy in North Korea." It is not really possible to promotedemocracy in a country as closed and repressive as North Korea. There are things that can be done, which I will go into in a moment. But they cannot properly described as promoting democracy. Promoting human rights, yes; and promoting openness, an end to the utter isolation and abandonment of the North Korean people. That can be done and must be done. If one wants to see this as a first step in the promotion of a democratic future for the people of North Korea, that, too, is fine. But we need to be clear about what is possible, and what we're actually doing. Having a clear understanding of what is feasible, and tying that to short- and long-term goals, are the basis for developing a meaningful strategy. Developing such a strategy and then following it are what the NED has tried to do over the last five years. This is what I would like to describe today.

The NED approach to North Korea is part of a global strategy that our Board approved last January. The NED Strategy Document, which is intended to guide our work over a period of three to five years, defines four broad objectives that correspond to the conditions and challenges in the four categories of countries where we work. The first is opening dictatorial systems; the second is democratizing semi-authoritarian countries; the third is consolidating new democracies; and the fourth is healing war-torn societies. The NED implements these objectives by providing grant support and training to non-governmental groups in over 80 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Central Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. The strategy recognizes that every country is unique, that there is therefore great variety within each of these categories, and that there is also some overlap between categories.

There is also a fifth objective aiding democracy in the Muslim world that has taken on a special importance in the wake of September 11. We note that the Muslim world is exceedingly diverse, and that the 50-plus countries that comprise it fall into all of the first four categories. Nonetheless, we felt that the crisis in this part of the world, which has been brought to a head by September 11 and the subsequent war against terrorism, merits giving the Muslim world special attention.

North Korea obviously falls within the first objective: opening dictatorial systems. North Korea is the most closed country in the world. It can be found, therefore, at the far end of the spectrum of countries that make up the world's remaining dictatorships, with China occupying the other end of that spectrum. The Strategy Document emphasizes that programs in dictatorships invariably focus on the defense of human rights and the provision of access to independent information, activities that are necessary first steps in opening closed societies. At the same time, it points out that such programs will vary along a spectrum of possibility the more closed the country, the less that can be done there. Since North Korea is so tightly closed, we can do nothing inside the country, so our emphasis has been on aiding groups in South Korea that document the repressive conditions in the North and work to build an international coalition for the defense of human rights there. The hope is that human rights pressures from the outside will gradually open up political space within North Korea, thus creating some possibilities for independent expression and organization.

It was in the early 1990s that the NED Board specifically, Dr. Fred Ikle and former Congressman Stephen Solarz first asked the staff to look for a way to help in North Korea. We saw no possibility to do anything until, one day in 1997, a quarterly publication came into the office called "Life & Human Rights in North Korea." It was from a group in South Korea, the Citizens' Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korean (it is now called the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights), that was founded in 1996 and was partnered with a group in Japan called the Society to Help Returnees to North Korea. The moment we received this publication, we felt we had an opportunity to begin to develop an approach to North Korea. Here was a group engaged in practical activity that we might be able to support.

We contacted the Citizens' Alliance and started an exchange. We found out that it consisted of a group of human rights activists led by Benjamin Yoon, himself a long-time activist who headed the Amnesty International chapter in South Korea during the earlier days of autocracy there. The group survived on a small budget that came from member contributions, meaning that they were self-initiated and independent of the government. This was extremely important since the issue of human rights in the divided Korean peninsula had been so politicized during the Cold War that it was hard to find groups in South Korea concerned about human rights in the North that were made up of genuinely independent human rights activists.

While we were getting to know the Citizens' Alliance and exploring the possibility of a grant relationship (the NED, it must be emphasized, is a grant-making institution; that's the principal way we help NGOs), the co-editor of our Journal of Democracy, Larry Diamond, arranged a meeting with the group during a visit to South Korea. He not only gave us a positive report about the organization but, with the help of the Citizens' Alliance, conducted interviews with four former prisoners of North Korean labor camps that appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of the Journal under the title "Voices from the North Korean Gulag." One of these former prisoners, Soon Ok Lee, had written a book about her experiences called Eyes of the Tailless Animal: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, and a second, Chul Hwan Kang, subsequently wrote a book about his own experiences called The Aquariums of Pyongyang. The interviews we published presented a harrowing account of a secret system of labor camps holding some 200,000 people and in which an estimated 400,000 people had died over the preceding quarter of a century from torture, starvation, and execution. This was the essence of a totalitarian system that was hidden from the world and ignored even by the major human rights organizations, which claimed that they could not report on violations they couldn't verify first-hand.

Around that time we made the first grant to the Citizens' Alliance for a program that had the following objectives: to gather and distribute reliable and detailed evidence of human rights violations in North Korea; inform the international community of these abuses and facilitate the development of an international network of NGOs and specialists dealing with North Korean human rights and refugees; build support in South Korea for the defense of human rights in the North; and increase the pressure on the North Korean government to end its egregious and systematic abuse of human rights. The activities of the Citizens' Alliance subsequently also included efforts to assist North Korean escapees to adjust to South Korean society, a major challenge that I will discuss later in more detail.

Before long, we also identified a second South Korean group, the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, that was made up of veterans of the militant student campaign against military dictatorship in South Korea. By their own admission, they had previously failed to understand that North Korea was a totalitarian dictatorship fundamentally opposed to human rights. Their goal now was to increase public awareness in South Korea, especially among the student population, of the conditions in North Korea, and to build public support for democratization in the North.

Toward the end of 1999 the Citizens' Alliance, with NED support, organized the first international conference on human rights in North Korea. This was a bold and path-breaking initiative. Before this meeting there had been a virtual black-out internationally on the issue of human rights in North Korea. In part, this neglect can be explained by the fact that there were few escapees who could provide information about conditions in the North Korea, and the country was off-limits to international media and human rights organizations. I've also mentioned the reluctance of human rights groups to report on conditions they couldn't verify. But this reluctance, I believe, also had a political foundation. Human rights groups were averse to taking up an issue that might be used politically by right-wing elements in South Korea, or even the United States; and they, along with others, may also have feared that raising the issue might provoke a reckless military response by the North Korean government.

The first international conference, which convened in Seoul on December 1, 1999, was a turning point that marked the end of the silence on the terrible oppression of the people of North Korea. Human rights advocates from the United States, Japan, France, Canada, Germany, and Russia attended the conference. Following an impassioned keynote address by Minnesota human rights activist Jack Rendler, five North Korean escapees presented their personal testimony, and reports were given by others on the prison camps and the overall system of repression. The conference also highlighted the plight of the refugees in China, and a film was shown about seven refugees who had crossed into Russia through China and were in danger of being sent back to North Korea. They eventually were sent back, in violation of international law, and their return set off the first major controversy about the rights of North Korean refugees.

The second international conference convened a year later, just six months after the summit meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Since this was a moment when there was still great hope that the Sunshine Policy of President Kim Dae-jung might significantly reduce North-South tensions and lead to reforms in the North, there was little interest among officials in Seoul in raising human rights issues that might offend the North and disrupt the negotiations. Speakers at the conference countered this new rationale for silence, emphasizing that there is no contradiction between peace and human rights, and that there can be no reconciliation in the absence of genuine steps toward liberalization in the North. The conference delegates also discussed for the first time a comprehensive action plan for building an international human rights campaign.

By the time of the third conference, which was held in Tokyo last February, the political situation had changed significantly once again. Two weeks before the conference convened, President George Bush included North Korea in an "axis of evil" supporting global terrorism, as a result of which the conference received unprecedented media attention. At a packed press conference, three escapees from North Korea charged that food aid to the famine-stricken country was being stockpiled for the military while rivers flowed with the bodies of those who had starved to death, and unspeakable brutalities were being committed on a daily basis within the country's labor camps. One of the escapees, a young woman, described how female refugees along the border with China were raped and beaten and sold into prostitution by human traffickers. The attention of the media was also drawn to a series of drawings displayed at the conference depicting public executions and other gruesome scenes of suffering and starvation. They were the work of Jang Gil Su, a teenage refugee whose family had been given safe haven in South Korea after taking refuge in U.N. offices in Beijing the summer before. In the weeks following the conference, some of the drawings were published in The New York Times Magazine and shown at a U.S. Congressional hearing on human rights in North Korea.

In short, the issue of North Korean human rights was gaining traction and the international coalition was growing. In Western Europe an expanding network was spear-headed by three energetic activists: Pierre Rigoulot of France, who had written the chapter on North Korea in The Black Book of Communism and more recently co-authored with Chul Kwan Kang The Aquariums of Pyongyang; Willy Fautre, the director of the Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers which manages an Internet information service that has alerted the world media to the existence of cannibalism in North Korea and the practice of infanticide in prison camps; and Norbert Vollersten, a German doctor who, having witnessed the system of North Korean repression from the inside, is now campaigning against it with the zeal of a missionary.

In addition, activists from the United States who attended the first two international conferences established the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, an NGO devoted solely to raising awareness about conditions in North Korea and mobilizing pressure on Pyongyang to cease its inhuman practices. The Board of the Committee, chaired by Dr.Ikle, brings together a high-powered group of Americans, among them Stephen Solarz, Helen Louise Hunter, former Ambassadors Mort Abramowitz and James Lilley, former National Security Adviser Richard Allen, Cong. Mark Kirk (R-IL.), Cong. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Cong. Joseph Pitts (R-PA), policy specialists Nick Eberstadt, John Kie-chiang Oh, Chuck Downs, and Marcus Noland, publisher Phil Merrill, and human rights advocates Jack Rendler, Suzanne Scholte, Robert Bernstein, John Shattuck, and Roberta Cohen. The Committee has organized events in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and is preparing studies of the North Korean prison camp system, refugees, and the problem of unequal access to food.

One sign of the expansion of the international coalition is that the fourth human rights conference will be held in Prague next March. The local partner of the Citizens' Alliance in organizing the Prague conference is the People in Need Foundation (PINF), the leading Czech organization engaged in international human rights advocacy and the provision of humanitarian relief in desperate situations, such as in Chechnya. A Citizens' Alliance delegation visited Prague in September to meet with Czech leaders, including President Vaclav Havel, and to plan the March conference. Among the people who attended the planning meeting were representatives of organizations from Slovakia, Poland, and Macedonia, which indicates that the Prague conference will stimulate significant interest in Central Europe and draw new groups into the international coalition.

The Citizens' Alliance attaches the highest importance to bringing individuals from the former communist countries into the coalition, believing that the experience of having lived under communism should give them both unusual insight into North Korea and special credibility when speaking about conditions there. Interestingly, though, the Czech leaders with whom the Citizens' Alliance delegation met during the September visit found North Korea distinctly incomprehensible. President Havel, for example, asked if there existed in North Korea any form of collective democratic or dissident forces, a question that surprised his South Korean interlocutors who took it for granted that no dissent whatsoever was possible in North Korea. In a similar vein, leaders of the Czech Senate said that the absence of any revolt or uprising in North Korea was beyond their understanding. The fact that these Czech leaders, who had experienced a harsh and repressive form of communism before 1989, could not imagine anything as cruel and inhuman as the system in North Korea speaks volumes about conditions there and why the world cannot tolerate them any longer. As Central Europeans and others learn more about North Korea, the outcry against this dictatorship and the pressures for change will only grow.

As we look to the future, there are three great issues that need to be addressed. The first is to expose and document the system of political prisons and labor camps in North Korea, to demand an accounting from the North Korean government at every available opportunity, and to take whatever steps are possible, including sanctions, to abolish this cruel system. I was struck by a comment made recently by David Hawk, the former director of Amnesty International-USA who is doing the research report on the North Korean Gulag for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. "I was struck," he said, "by the fact that three of the fourteen defectors I interviewed in Seoul voluntarily posited that the interest and activity of international human rights NGOs had led to the closing of prisons and improvement of prison conditions in North Korea." While recalling that AI-adopted prisoners of conscience, upon their release, often gave more credit to Amnesty than it probably deserved, he nonetheless suggested that these former North Korean prisoners may be right. "International public opinion carefully prepared documentation and well-aimed publicity may have more influence on the former, so-called hermit kingdom than I had previously assumed." Herein lies a promising action agenda for the international coalition.

The second issue is to end the misnamed famine, which is really the unspeakably cruel way Pyongyang has eliminated any potential opposition. It has long been known that the North Korean regime classifies the population according to perceived loyalty, and that food supplies have been diverted away from those deemed as "hostile" or "wavering," who have thus been the victims of acute starvation. As many as three million people may have already died in this way, which is perhaps one of the reasons the regime feels secure enough to reach out to South Korea, Japan, and the West for various kinds of economic assistance. If this is true, North Korea has committed a crime against humanity every bit as horrible as the Rwandan genocide or the killing fields of Cambodia. Needless to say, no effort should be spared in trying to feed people who still face starvation, and relief organizations must insist that they be allowed to verify that food is reaching those whom it is intended to help. But it is also necessary to document the use of starvation as a political weapon and to hold the regime in Pyongyang accountable for this crime.

Finally, it is necessary to pressure China to live up to its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Additional Protocol requiring that "no contracting state shall expel or return a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears persecution." There isn't any question that the refugees who escape from North Korea fear persecution if they are forcibly returned, especially since leaving the country without permission is considered a crime in North Korea, punishable by a minimum of severe years in a prison camp or even death. Yet China has imposed fines upon anyone found harboring or helping refugees, and it has collaborated with North Korean security personnel in apprehending and forcibly repatriating escapees. The plight of the estimated 300,000 refugees in China has also allowed traffickers to force desperate women into prostitution as a means to survive. China must be pressured to give the UNHCR access to the North Korean refugees and to cease returning them to the North Korean authorities.

As North Korea reaches out to the West and to its neighbors in Asia for economic assistance and diplomatic recognition, most countries are ambivalent and divided about how to respond. The regime wants assistance that will strengthen it economically and politically isolated foreign- investment zones, big power plants, upgrades of its electrical power grid, etc. Yet North Korea is so closed, and the danger of providing assistance that could be diverted to military use is so great, that even those who favor a policy of engagement are uncertain how to proceed. North Korea's recent economic "reforms," including price hikes on such essential items as rice and energy, have produced sudden and massive inflation that can hardly be reassuring to potential investors.

South Koreans share this ambivalence, especially when it comes to defending the human rights of North Koreans or insisting that escapees be treated as refugees under international law. The government in Seoul is reluctant to speak out on human rights since this might offend Pyongyang and thus jeopardize the Sunshine Policy, which depends on maintaining correct, if not friendly, relations with the North. It is also loathe to press China too hard on the refugee issue since it fears that South Korean society could not absorb the large influx of escapees that would result from a positive shift in Chinese policy. South Koreans are especially fearful of a sudden collapse in the North that would not only increase dramatically the flow of migrants but would also burden South Korea with prohibitive reunification costs that some analysts place well above the country's total economic output.

Even leaving aside the whole question reunification costs, about which there are different estimates, South Koreans are only beginning to realize how difficult it will be to assimilate large numbers of North Koreans into a modern capitalist society. Until now, South Korea has only had to absorb 2,000 North Koreans, yet this "trial run" has raised a number of difficult and troubling questions. As Kelly Koh and Glenn Baek note in an important essay entitled "North Korean Defectors: A Window into a Reunified Korea," the adjustment difficulties have surprised North and South Koreans alike. The former believed that acceptance would be a smooth process and were unprepared to deal with the shock of rejection, dislocation, and alienation; while the latter have been unable to understand why adaptation has been so difficult for the North Koreans, given the similarities of language and culture that are shared by all Koreans.

Even leading specialists on international affairs have underestimated the challenge of assimilation and integration in Korea. The political scientist Samuel Huntington, for example, said not long ago that the very same factor that would produce a "clash" between different civilizations namely, the centrality of culture in the post-Cold War world -- would make the unification of the two Koreas a relatively simple process, since they share a common culture. But he, like so many others, has badly misjudged how much damage communism can do, especially in its most virulent form, which is what has existed in North Korea for more than half a century. The integration of East Germans into a united Germany has been a painful and costly process that is still far from complete. Since North Korean society is far more isolated, destitute, desolate, and oppressed than East Germany ever was and since regional differences have always played a powerful role in Korea -- one can only expect that the difficulty of achieving Korean unification will be correspondingly greater.

The experience of the 2,000 defectors described by Koh and Baek give us a glimpse of the kind of challenge that awaits Korean society. They report difficulties ranging from managing money to finding gainful employment or marriage partners, all of which feeds a feeling that "they have nothing to offer either their adopted homeland or potential marriage partners." One young person they write about, a 20-year old university student, said that he would prefer to live in the United States or some other country just so that "he could escape the baggage of being North Korean and the high pressure to belong and excel." A study of 70 young defectors found that nearly half "wanted to start a new life where no one knew of their origins." Ironically, they feel that it is only in a non-Korean society that they will not be judged against other Koreans that they can therefore escape the stigma of being second-class citizens.

One of the conclusions reached by Koh and Baek is that in addition to food, housing, tuition, and health care, defectors need non-material assistance such as job counseling, matchmaking, and religious guidance; and that such assistance is best provided by civic and church groups, not by the government. One effective program, run by the Citizens' Alliance, is a three-week school that provides basic education as well electives such as dance, seminars, and athletic activities that encourage the former North Korean children "to study what they want to." As effective as this and other programs may be, though, it is sobering to consider that the Citizens' Alliance school for just 20 children was staffed by 15 teachers and 17 student volunteers. This suggests that unification, or even just the assimilation of a much larger number of North Korean refugees than has been attempted to date, would require an extraordinary effort by all sectors of South Korean society. Moreover, as Koh and Baek point out, the effort will only succeed if it is undertaken as a genuine partnership between South and North Koreans that is shaped and inspired by an on-going dialogue between the two peoples.

South Koreans are only beginning to awaken to the challenge that lies ahead. Koh and Baek quote a former Vice-Minister of Unification who said that South Koreans "don't even have the right to talk about reunification if we are unable to accommodate the small number of North Korean defectors who exist today." A similar view was expressed by Hong Seong-phil, the international campaign director of the Citizens' Alliance, following the group's visit last month to the Czech Republic. We must do our utmost, he wrote in Chosun Ilbo, to help North Korean refugees become "qualified democratic citizens. If we fail in helping a mere 2,000 North Koreans to make a successful social adjustment, integration of 20 million people can never be imaginable."

It would be a tragedy of immeasurable proportions if South Koreans were to let the enormity of the reunification challenge cause them to turn their backs on North Korea and rationalize the continued enslavement of the North Korean people. Over the past half century, South Koreans have shown what they are capable of accomplishing by building a prosperous and democratic society upon the ashes of war and in the shadow of a menacing totalitarianism. Some of the defectors have pointed out that the North Koreans, too, are a proud and tough people whose resilience should not be underestimated. When one thinks what the refugees have had to go through to escape from North Korea and Chinese surveillance and ultimately to make their way to the South and elsewhere, one can only marvel at the human strength and potential they represent. Surely South and North Koreans, working together, can find a way to shape a new vision of a united and democratic Korea that can be an inspiration for the world. There is much that Americans and others can do to help them. But the liberation and unification of Korea is a task that Koreans must accomplish themselves. I am confident that they will rise to this historic challenge.

This page last updated 11/25/2002 jdb

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