History should remember Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, as one of the heroes of the Obama Administration’s otherwise deferential and ineffective North Korea policy. Before his confirmation, Malinowski worked for liberal lion Daniel Patrick Moynihan and was Washington Director of Human Rights Watch. Recently, he sat down for an interview with the Unification Media Group, which is staffed in part by North Korean exiles, publishes the Daily NK, and broadcasts into North Korea. This interview was broadcast to North Korea on June 17th. When the interviewer gave Malinowski the chance to speak directly to North Koreans, this is what he said:
First, it makes us very sad that you have to be in hiding just to be able to hear from somebody like me, and I hope one day that we can meet in a situation where nobody has to be afraid. I would love to ask you questions about your life, and I would love to give you a chance to ask me questions about my country. If you have critical questions, if you have tough questions about the United States that you would like to have the answers to, I would love to have the opportunity to talk to you about those things, too.
Second, I can tell you that I have met a lot of North Koreans in the last few years–men and women from your country who have managed to come out and begin a new life in South Korea or in the United States. Many of them have experienced difficult things in their life. Many of them have been denied a good education, but they are some of the most impressive, and courageous people I have ever met. Because they have had to struggle, in some ways, they are more resilient, they are more creative, they are more talented than the many people who have lived all their life in South Korea or the United States. If you have to find a way to make money in North Korea, you probably know more about market economics than most people in America do, because you have had to learn for yourself how to survive by buying and selling things.
Because they have experienced terrible political repression, because they have been denied their freedom, they know the value of freedom more strongly than many people in America and South Korea do. So, although they have some disadvantages, because of how they grew up, they also have some advantages. And I strongly believe that when North Korea is more free, when the Korean Peninsula is more unified, the people of North Korea will be among the most successful peoples in the world, because of what they had to learn in their struggle to get to that point. [Daily NK]
I wonder how North Koreans will react to hearing these empathetic words from a high official of the government they’ve been taught to hate most. It’s worth noting the evidence that broadcasting to North Korea is more effective at moderating negative views of the U.S. and South Korea than it is at depressing support for the North Korean government (which would make perfect sense if North Koreans rely on what they see with their own eyes to form opinions about what’s all around them).
I doubt I could have written a better message than the one Malinowski delivered here.
Not by any stretch of the imagination would I call the Obama Administration’s North Korea legacy a favorable one overall, but Malinowski reminds us of one very valuable aspect of it. It has advanced a consensus that appeasing North Korea by ignoring its crimes against humanity isn’t worth the moral cost we’ve paid for that. It seems unlikely that this view would have won the day without a hard shove from Congress, but the administration’s message today is that its recent designations of North Korean officials for human rights abuses were actually years in the making. I’ll accept that representation as true, if only because it unites our political mainstream on the right side of history.
Or, if you’re the sort who’d prefer a more “realist,” interests-based argument, consider: governments come and go, but the governed have long memories, and those memories affect our interests, too. Appeasement certainly wasn’t disarming or reforming North Korea, but demands from within for change might. In the war between Kim Jong-un and the North Korean people, we’ve finally taken our first steps toward telling the people that we side with them.