NK Freedom Week 2006, Part II

The events have not yet concluded, and an all-night prayer vigil at the Chinese Embassy is underway. For various reasons, all of us missed the first half of the week. In my case, that was due to a family visit to South Korea (observations to follow later). Still, the events that are capable of being described at a forum like this one can be described now.

Here is the week’s enduring image, one that creates a hopeful contrast to when this little girl stood crying as Chinese guards tried to haul them away from an embassy and across the North Korean border. The reality, as we were repeatedly reminded, is less hopeful in the wake of China’s callous and blatantly unlawful deportation of Kim Chun Hee, but America shows some signs that it is finding some political will on North Korea.

The Bigger Picture

Political movements have specific political goals. The means by which they are achieved are secondary to the progress toward those goals’ achievement, and in this case, that’s a good thing, because the progress on ends outran the progress on means.

Those participating in North Korean Freedom Week sought a diverse set of ends — the return of abducted loved ones, sanctuary for refugees, the ending of human rights abuses in the North, and for some, the complete transformation of North Korea’s political system. None of those goals is perceptably closer to being accomplished, but none of these was really the immediate objective of this week’s events. Instead, the common goal of this coalition of diverse interests was the adoption of policies that would pressure — rather than appease — North Korea, either toward the acceptance of specific concessions, or toward its extinction should it continue to refuse them. Not a few of us openly favor the second goal over the first, believing it more likely to achieve the specific ends.

Tangible Political Progress

Thursday’s hearings, Friday’s meetings with President Bush, and Friday’s public statements at the Capitol rally suggest progress toward that limited goal. Statements from U.S. officials show clear movement toward the adoption of harder-line positions toward the North. There is perceptably less concern about giving diplomatic offense to North Korea. There is perceptably less denial that the goal of the U.S. Government is to subvert the North Korean regime, as evidenced by some strong statements by the Executive Branch and its head about increasing subversive broadcasts into the North.

Congress has had it with the State Department’s failure to implement the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. Republican Representative James Leach of Iowa had this to say about his co-partisans in the Administration:

The Act, which was a key legislative initiative of this Committee, was intended to promote human rights, humanitarian transparency, and refugee protection for the people of North Korea. As emphasized in our last two oversight hearings and a February letter to Secretary Rice, many in Congress have been dissatisfied with the pace and extent of the implementation of that law. As of today, the United States still has not accepted a single North Korean refugee for domestic resettlement, notwithstanding the requirements of Title 3 of the Act. Similarly, the Administration has not requested a specific appropriation for any of the activities authorized by the Act. We hope that Special Envoy Lefkowitz will have more encouraging news to share on these fronts, and we look forward to hearing his plans for the months ahead.

Ditto Rep. Chris Smith, and plenty of other members from both parties. Lefkowitz, placed in the difficult position of defending the actions of those over whom he has little apparent influence, was contrite both at the hearing and at today’s rally. He is promising progress on appropriations and refugees “very, very soon.” The preponderance of evidence is that State has at least temporarily lost the battle to delay NKHRA implementation, probably as a result of North Korea’s own behavior and a misplaced hope that some pressure on North Korea might still lead to Agreed Framework II. Still, I remain skeptical until we see tangible and substantial results.

The North Korean defector community, whose efforts at political organization and unity continue to lag, has sprouted several fiercely independent media outlets. Those outlets are increasingly effective at trafficking information in and out of North Korea. They are beginning the kind of open discourse around which a new North Korean political culture will coalesce.

Amb. Lefkowitz was obliged to emphasize the importance of increased radio broadcasting into the North both at Thursday’s hearing and today’s rally, under withering congressional pressure. Rep. Chris Smith, clearly frustrated, demanded to know the status of a long-overdue classified report on getting sources of information into the hands of the North Korean people (see Section 104(c)). Lefkowitz initially confused the report with a different required report. As it turned out, he didn’t appear to know its status. The fact that President Bush also met with Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio was indicative of the increasingly subversive direction of U.S. policy.

International pressure on North Korea will continue to increase, and that will raise the costs of South Korea and China enabling the North. This fall, another resolution will be offered at the U.N. General Assembly condemning the North’s human rights record. On Thursday, Amb. Lefkowitz called on South Korea to support the next resolution, saying, “We hope our friends and allies in the region will join us in condemning” the North’s human rights record. Today, he stated that China’s rulers had acted in “flagrant disregard” for their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, both of which China has signed.

Amb. John Bolton, who is clearly sympathetic to the idea of pressuring the North to improve conditions for its people, was unable to attend because Iran continues to demand his attention. Bolton sent the following statement instead:

Dear Friends,

Initially, let me thank you for the warm invitation to attend your rally here today. I regret not being able to attend to stand together in solidarity for a cause we all believe so much in. Unfortunately, another founding member of the “Axis of Evil” requires my attention here in New York with the just released report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran. Rest assured, though, my commitment to human rights not just in North Korea, but across the globe remains unwavering.

Through the courageous work of organizations like the Defense Forum Foundation, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the tragedy that is unfolding in North Korea. North Korea may be one of the most isolated countries, but that does not mean the world should care any less about the people of North Korea whol live under the tyrannical hand of one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. We must all work together to keep the spotlight on regimes like North Korea which places their own people in concentration camps for crimes no geater than an aspiration to live freely.

The Defense Forum Foundation has given voice to many of the defectors who managed to escape North Korea. In encourage you to listen to their chilling stories of torture and abuse perpetrated by the current regime. As difficult and painful as it may be to hear those stories, we must do all we can to amplify the voices who know first hand the horrors of being a political prisoner in one of North Korea’s death camps.

Please know that while I am not with [you] in person today, I am certainly with you in spiriti. Iran, like North Korea, has defied the will of the international community and violated their international obligations by pursuing an illiciti nuclear weapons program. It is no small coincidence that these two rogue states also happen to be two of the world’s most notorious abusers of human rights. And while I work today to help bring about an end to the threat to international peace and security posed by Iran, know that it is part of my broader mission to promote freedom and democracy everywhere, including North Korea.

I look forward to standing with you soon, hopefully at a rally celebrating the freedom of the people of North Korea after they have broken free from the chains of oppression and the reign of terror they currently live under.


John R. Bolton

This, of course, is pining for regime change without quite calling for it. I’m among those who hope Amb. Bolton will be tasked with calling for it soon.

Three other speeches were also outstanding. Former liberal Democratic congressman Stephen Solarz delivered a powerful speech, almost completely without notes (this astonished me; I asked him for a copy of his text for publication, and she showed me one page of scrawled notes). Solarz described having been the first U.S. congressman to visit North Korea since the 1953 armistice, and talked of how Kim Il Sung had looked him in the eye and lied to him that his country hadn’t the slightest intention of engaging in any nuclear enrichment. Solarz took issue with the description of North Korea as a member of the Axis of Evil, saying that it would be more appropriate to describe North Korea as the very embodiment of evil. Ouch. I wish I could show you the whole thing.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper compared contemporary apathy about North Korea to that during the Holocaust, and included these powerful words.

Heed well the lessons of history: you, who like Hitler murders innocents in gas chambers; whose scientists treat human beings as disposable guinea pigs; you, who like Stalin, created a vast gulag; who manipulated food supplies to starve real and imaginary enemies.

Remember — Hitler is gone but our people live on!

Remember — the Soviet Union is no more!

Rabbi Cooper is an excellent speaker; the only sour note was his use of “Kim Il Sung” when he clearly meant “Kim Jong Il.” Henry Hyde also sent an excellent, very long statement. I’ll try to get it and publish it in its entirety.

It’s appropriate to state here that Suzanne Scholte of the North Korean Freedom Coalition is almost single-handedly responsible for coordinating those successes. Suzanne is clearly at her best as an essentially uncompensated lobbyist for the North Korean people.

The Smaller Picture

It becomes intuitive to believe that political goals in America tend to be achieved through public relations campaigns, grassroots organization, and big demonstrations. And while we’ve made progress toward achieving our goals, we’re clearly still lacking when it comes to the “usual” means of achieving them. Turnout at the rally was disappointing: between 150 and 200 people, depending on who was speaking. This raises an issue of media coverage, as the Chosun Ilbo reports:

Meanwhile, events of a “North Korean Freedom Week” came to an end on “North Korea Freedom Day” Thursday in front of the Capitol in Washington attended by some 1,000 activists and Korean-Americans.

I’m sorry to be the one to have to say that this report isn’t even remotely credible, as much as I wish it were otherwise. I was there. I counted the people. Enough said. This editorial, on the other hand, raises some valid points, presuming that the facts it reports are more accurate.

The one bright spot: this figure does not include a very impressive media presence, which included all the major U.S., South Korean, and Japanese TV networks. A few of the South Korean and Japanese journalists were even wearing the T-shirts the North Korean Freedom Coalition handed out for the event.

The crowd seemed marginally larger than last year’s, though well short of the 2004 turnout. It was also a younger crowd than last year’s, which seemed dominated by old South Korean emigres. This year, the Japanese contingent — including politicians, family members, and interested others, was the component whose presence seemed to have increased the most. It’s too bad the crowds weren’t bigger; the statements were generally good, and didn’t run too long.

Contrast this to coverage of Darfur today. Sunday is likely to bring thousands of people to the mall for protest atrocities in Darfur. George Clooney and Elie Wiesel will speak. Fox News covered the story in detail and read a Web site URL on its evening news broadcast. Five members of Congress were arrested at the Sudanese Embassy. That’s impressive, and while Darfur is certainly a very worthy cause, the situation in North Korea is no less worthy of the public’s outrage.

I don’t mean to seem pessimistic here; we’re planning to incorporate what we’ve learned for more events in the near future. We’re handicapped, in large part, by the presence of dry and morbid facts and the absence of emotive pictures. It may well be that when you tell people that the North Korean regime is evil, abusive, and murderous, the general reaction is something on the order of, “Well, duh.” There’s not much about that point that’s controversial, and without controversy, you tend to attract less passion. My observation about this issue, however, is that people who know about the reports of concentration camps, gas chambers, infanticides, and engineered famines become very passionate. The more videotapes are smuggled out of North Korea, the more true this will be.

So clearly, there is a reservoir of unharnessed political energy here. Harnessing it requires us to find cogent ways to tell people what’s really happening in North Korea. There are several ways in which we can do this more effectively:

1. We need to learn to use media more effectively. That includes both relations with news media and making more effective use of advertising. Part of this is simply a matter of having more time. We’re learning, but didn’t learn soon enough to disseminate our message more widely. But there’s still much more we have to learn. Several of us are reaching out to other, more experienced, better funded groups that can help draw the big crowds and the donations that will help draw bigger crowds. One area where we could do much better: becoming more imaginative about inexpensive, nonviolent publicity stunts that capture the public’s imagination and media attention.

2. We have to work together. There are a number of dynamic groups working on North Korean human rights, but they’re not doing a good job of working together. The promising start of 2004 shows what happened when the NK Freedom Coalition, LiNK, and some of the Japanese and South Korean groups worked together. That confluence showed itself on one other occasion that I observed, which was the Freedom House conference in Washington in July 2005. Together, these groups form a significant force that can gather good media coverage and attract the notice of policy makers. Separately, these groups can do one or the other, but not both.

(Photo Creds: Jason Reed, Reuters.)