ICAS Fall Symposium
Humanity, Peace and Security
October 11, 2005 12:30 PM -- 5:30 PM United States Senate Russell Office Building Caucus Room SR 325 Capitol Hill, Washington D C 20510
Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
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Biographic Sketch & Links: Deborah Fikes
I spent some time considering what I could contribute that would be of interest and helpful for today' audience, in regards to the North Korea human rights issue and complement the symposium's theme of "Humanity, Peace and Security", and I concluded that sharing my observations concerning the growing movement of grassroots advocacy efforts, particularly those of conservative Christians and Evangelicals, would be timely and, I hope, helpful for those here today and for future reference on your website.
In the 2004 Presidential election, the political activism of conservative Christians, who became known as the "values voters" played a key role in the presidential and congressional election outcomes. I know firsthand , from the interview requests I receive, that there is considerable interest in how this constituency will factor in with future political landscapes and influence U.S. domestic and foreign policy. I welcome this opportunity to share my observations concerning how the Christian grassroots movement is currently engaged and, I foresee, will become even more informed and active. My personal observation is that this grassroots movement will continue to grow stronger and influence U.S. foreign policy to make international human rights issues a priority and pivotal parameter on the relations between the U.S. and all countries.
Firstly, awareness about human rights abuses in North Korea, has increased and will continue to increase among U.S. churches. Also, creative and innovative methods that bring about engagement and action are being utilized very effectively in these American churches, which enables such awareness to multiply. A good example of this kind of innovative approach was featured in an article done by the New York Times about an event in my community of Midland , Texas called "Rock the Desert". Over 50,000 attended this outdoor Christian concert/festival incorporating the North Korea Genocide Exhibit on site which documented the human rights abuses in North Korea. This was similar, on a smaller scale, of taking the Holocaust Museum on tour and bringing it to a base of U.S. citizens who otherwise would not have seen it, but more importantly, it communicated a "current event" and not something that happened decades ago. This type of interactive exhibit we had at our "Rock the Desert" event is much more impacting than the usual way of communicating human rights information which typically has been in a newsletter or reference to a website. Advocacy groups have realized that they have discovered a very effective method that can easily be modeled in other communities and I believe that this approach will greatly increase awareness and engagement of the Christian community in the U.S. and not just Evangelical Christians but also Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as well.
Which brings me to my second observation that, I feel, is important to consider when predicting how much influence this grassroots movement will have on the direction of the U.S. foreign policy prioritizing human rights advancements. From my work in various coalitions around the U.S., I have observed that grassroots advocacy efforts provide opportunities to find common ground among the different groups of Protestants, Catholics and Evangelicals which has always posed a problem for such groups. Theological differences tend to divide Christians but focusing on being a voice for people who are in North Korea, or other countries, who are victims of gross inhumane treatment that defy mankind's respect for all humanity tend to be powerfully unifying and this is very appealing to many in my generation and particularly to the younger generation of Christians behind me. Not only does the human rights advocacy effort build unity among the various Christian communities, but it also provides a unique opportunity to reach out beyond barriers and build bridges between religious and ethnic groups, like we have recently witnessed with the North Korea Human Rights Act and the building of unlikely partnerships between the Christian and Jewish communities and opposite political camps like the right and left did with the Sudan Peace Act. In a world that is so divided and, I might add, in the political arenas that exist here in WDC and on Capitol Hill, finding common ground and something significant that one can agree on and work together on is quite unique and desirable. In a city that revolves around "power", the possibility of having 100's of thousands of churches in the U.S., Orthodox and Reformed Jews, right, left, pro-lifers, and feminists working on legislation and other means to help millions of lives be improved is energizing and quite fulfilling. It is also a magnet that draws others to join and sustains passion and commitment. The National Coalition for Human Rights and Religious Freedom is such a coalition and as was pointed out to me recently, if only two of its members, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention are united in a cause, they alone represent over 90,000 churches with 50 million members. These kinds of numbers get the attention of elected officials who make foreign policy decisions by the legislation they pass and fund.
The other observation I would like to make is more personal and it concerns what I consider to be, in general, the failure of Christians to be a much more powerful force for good than we have been through the centuries and are today. I can easily understand some of the criticism the secular world has for Christians. I feel that we bring some of this contempt on ourselves because Christians in America are not living as faithfully as Christ commands us in the area of "loving our neighbor as ourselves". If we were, there would not be 20,000 deaths among third world countries each day or millions left as orphans from AIDS in Africa if those of us who identify ourselves as "followers of Christ" really lived our faith radically to change the world and were following Christ's teachings and commands as the number one priority of our lives and ministries. I am part of a growing renewal movement that hopes to see a recommitment of the church in America with more humility and emphasis on helping the global poor and also helping meet social needs in our own communities and we encourage other Christians around the world to do the same. For example, in the communication our alliance has with underground churches in China, we encourage our sister churches there not to only seek religious freedoms but also to seek how they can be good citizens by contributing to society and providing assistance. China is at a crossroads and evangelical Christians there could be one of the greatest assets to promoting political and social stabilty. The evangelical movement in China is thriving and can help China survive turbulent times in the next decade.
On a final note, grassroots human rights activism provides an opportunity for people like myself to focus on what we believe to be essential for the church to survive and thrive. It is difficult to explain this fully because it is so intertwined with one's spirituality which is private and not easy to articulate but suffice it to say that the opportunities that I and millions of other followers of Christ are discovering is that promoting human rights and being a voice for suffering people like those in North Korea is extremely fulfilling.
Becoming involved in human rights advocacy opportunities has made me want to humbly try to live each day as if it were my last, believing that with God's grace and empowerment, one can make a signficant difference today and bring hope to millions and future generations.
This is how and why I see grassroots activism among Christians in America growing in its influence and positively influencing the U.S. foreign policy. But how does this effect the current state of affairs with the difficult situation with North Korea?
The North Korea Human Rights Act was historically a very significant piece of legislation in it's intent and scope but there is some discussion now about how much of a real impact it will make. Also, some advocates are privately and publicly expressing disappointment that human rights has not been emphasized more in the most recent round of six-party talks. Being identified with President Bush because of his ties with the Midland community, I am frequently asked what my opinion is on this.
First, I would like to state that I do not feel that anything has changed with regards to the Bush Administrations's concern about human rights. I believe that the invitation that President Bush extended to Kang Chul Hwan, author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, made a strong statement that leaders in the U.S. have a keen awareness and belief that the account of human rights abuse cited in Kang Chul Hwan's biographical book cannot be ignored in any dealings with North Korea. I personally am encouraged to see the willingness of the U.S. administration go the extra mile in being cooperative and taking a temporary low-key approach in regards to the human rights agenda in order to respect the original six party framework. The efforts by the U.S. to publicly soften its tone towards North Korea and the interaction between the U.S. and NK representatives were needed to show the international community that the U.S. chooses diplomacy as the only option with NK. From the personal meetings I had with NK defectors when I visited Seoul this past summer, my feelings that military action against NK was not an option was reinforced as NK defectors explained to me that any aggressive actions on the part of the U.S would only ignite NK nationalistic furor. All this being factored in, the U.S. still cannot turn a blind eye to what we know is a dangerous regime, not only to the U.S., but also to the international community. We must continue to look for ways to address the crisis with NK and we believe that the human rights issue is the key to motivating NK to change. As we have witnessed in this last round of six party talks, conciliatory actions by the U.S. and avoiding any complications by bringing up the human rights issue does not bring about resolution to the crisis, rather, U.S. actions which show our resolve to make human rights abuses known, like Kang Chul Hwan's visit to the White House, send a strong signal and the grassroots movement is strategically hoping to send signals of their own.
From my observation, the growing consensus among the grassroots members is that countries within the six-party framework need to be required to choose good relations between themselves and NK or the U.S.
There are some creative ways to do this, primarily with trade leverage, congressional action and this is where the grassroots human rights movement will play a strategic role and is already calculating how best to do so, especially with the North Korea refugees issue which I see evolving as the pivotal piece in the puzzle of what to do about the NK crisis. This poses a significant concern for China along its borders, and the issue of China and North Korean refugees is a rallying point for any trade, labor, or human rights group in the U.S. who would like to encourage protectionism and restrict free trade. I would hope that the U.S. and international community could work with China to address and meet the financial responsibilities of the increasing number of NK refugees that our sources are reporting are coming across the China border in increasing numbers.
In closing, I would like to repeat a conversation that I had with a North Korean defector and his friend when I was recently in Seoul. We were agonizing over the news we were hearing that another famine was probable for North Korea and eyewitness reports we had of international food aid being diverted from its intended location and my Korean friends gave this analogy that I think about almost daily. From their personal experiences they explained that "the average North Korean is like a dog penned up in a fence with no food or water. If someone would open the pen's gate, they could get out and go look for food and water and they would find it. What North Koreans need is not food, what they need is freedomů then they can take care of themselves, but they can't survive without freedom". This conversation is not just part of my memory but it is etched in my conscience. I and millions of others in what is called the grassroots human rights movement have no other choice but to listen and do all we can by listening to what our conscience dictates in order to improve human rights for North Koreans.
Christians are known to believe in the power of prayer and it is a great privilege to pray for North Koreans and then seek ways that God would have us take actions to be a part of the answer to our prayers for the prosperity and peace of the Korean Penisula. Participating in grassroots human rights advocacy efforts are one small way we are able to attempt to be part of the answer and I believe that we will see more and more involvment in such movements in the years ahead.