Last week, students at Stanford University sponsored their second annual North Korean Human Rights Week, a four-day program of speakers and other events designed to educate Stanford students about the plight of North Korean citizens. A few weeks before that, about 50 students gathered at Indiana University to listen to a panel of human-rights activists, policy experts, and North Korean defectors speak about the brutality of Kim’s regime. Earlier this spring, a nationwide campus movement called Liberation in North Korea, or LiNK, was launched to be a “street team for the North Korean people,” distributing information about human-rights violations there through a variety of channels. So far there are LiNK chapters at several dozen colleges.
Call it a trend: Across the country, students are beginning to take steps to increase awareness on their campuses about conditions–i.e., starvation, isolation from the outside world, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and mass death–in the Democratic People’s Republic.
This wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. Although our knowledge of what goes on in North Korea–by most accounts the world’s most secretive regime–remains incomplete, over the past several years increasing numbers of defectors and humanitarian organizations inside the country have enabled experts to start piecing together a picture of daily life there. The details are horrific: According to the recent congressional testimony of Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, the regime “daily murders at least 42 people in [its] political prison camps and 391 through starvation.” The North Korean government holds an estimated 200,000 political prisoners, and at least one million North Korean citizens have died of starvation since the mid-1990s.
And then there are the defectors’ accounts. Take the story of Hae-Nam Ji, who testified almost a year ago before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Imprisoned for two years just for singing a South Korean song, she was tortured, sexually abused, and tried to kill herself while in jail. After her release, unable to make a living by selling her blood–literally, to transfusion centers–she escaped to China, hoping to make it to South Korea. But in China, after a series of steps and missteps, she found herself in government hands and was returned to North Korea, where she was jailed again. She made it the South on a second escape attempt, but only after tremendous hardship was she finally able to taste freedom.
Such astonishing figures and first-hand accounts have gradually made their way around policy circles and received a fair amount of attention in Congress. But according to Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a bipartisan group devoted to generating interest in the issue and improving life for the North Korean people, the awareness level of the public at large is still quite low. While most Americans know of North Korea as a nuclear threat, she says, few know as much about the regime’s tyranny.
That goes for college students, too. Liang-Fenton says, “A lot of the students I had come into contact with just weren’t aware that there was a serious human-rights problem in North Korea. They knew about the nuclear issue because that’s what’s covered in the media… Their knowledge of human rights there was very limited, if it existed at all.”
Jack Rendler, vice chair of HRNK, agrees. “Human rights get quite a bit of attention in college classes, human rights in North Korea not at all. It’s encouraging how many courses have integrated the norms and principles of universal human rights. But in terms of North Korea, it’s like everywhere else–it’s not on the radar screen.”
But that may not be the case for long. On top of its many other activities–which include testifying before Congress and administration officials, producing reports on human-rights violations, and educating the public both here and abroad through op-eds, articles, and forums–the committee recently launched a college-action campaign, designed to bring the issue of North Korean human rights to college campuses. HRNK helped students at Stanford organize their weeklong series of events, and cosponsored the forum at IU. They’ve also teamed up with students at Georgetown, Harvard, and Cornell, among others, to plan and carry out similar programs.
At Indiana University, HRNK worked directly with undergraduate music major Daniel Levin, the driving force behind the event. Levin first caught a glimpse of life in North Korea from an article describing alleged gas chambers used on prison-camp inmates. “I saw the concentration camps in North Korea and the whole human rights issue there as a pretty direct parallel to the Holocaust,” he says. “Growing up Jewish…you always think, if I were there then, I would have done something to prevent it from happening. I saw this article and thought, ‘It’s happening again, something needs to be done.’”
Levin did an Internet search for groups working on North Korean human rights, and came across a post on NRO’s The Corner about HRNK. He got in touch with the committee to ask whether they would bring North Korean defectors to campus–he thought about how powerful it had been when Soviet defectors came to speak to students–and they told him they were about to do just that.
So Levin approached Darrin Nix, the president of a non-partisan honors society that hosts speaking events at IU, and asked his group to host an HRNK panel. Nix agreed, and the event took place on April 6.
Nix, an undergraduate economics major also studying in the business school, admits that he didn’t know much about human rights in North Korea until the panel, and says that at IU, “North Korea was non-issue until named [as part of the Axis of Evil] in President Bush’s State of the Union address.” Nix thinks the unusually long question-and-answer session at the HRNK event demonstrated the degree of interest among students, roughly half of whom knew very little about what life is like there.
Since then, Levin has continued his work to raise awareness on campus about human rights abuses in North Korea, and Nix has gotten involved as well. Nix says what he took away from the panel was the importance of motivating ordinary Americans pressure to our government to take what measures it can to loosen Kim’s repressive grip. He also learned that one of the most important ways for us to pressure Pyongyang is through our relationship with China.
Some estimate that as many as 300,000 North Koreans have escaped to China and remain stranded there, without resources to make the dangerous trip to Seoul and fearful that the Chinese will capture and repatriate them. As the case of Hae-Nam Ji illustrates, their fear is entirely justified. Although China is a party to an international convention mandating the protection of refugees who will face imprisonment or torture back home,
Beijing insists that the North Koreans within its borders are economic migrants, and gives priority to a treaty with Pyongyang mandating their return.
One recent case that made it into the Western press involved Seok Jae-hyun, a South Korean photographer who in January 2003 went along to document what he and others hoped would be the first in a wave of boatlifts taking refugees from North Korea to South Korea by way of China. But Chinese authorities found out about the plan, and when Seok and the roughly 50 refugees with him reached the Chinese port of Yantai, police were there to greet them. Seok was arrested and spent 14 months in a Chinese prison; the refugees remain in jail in China–who knows whether they’ll make it out.
According to Rendler, students in the IU crowd who didn’t know much about North Korea were blown away by the defectors’ stories. Some of those who asked questions “were stunned by people having to live on grass for ten or twelve years, competing with one another for a frog or rat–and by the beatings, and the torture.” Some couldn’t believe that a regime “could be so repressive that there would be no alternate political beliefs, no opposition, no freedom of thought.”
These are the kind of horrific stories that move people to action–students like Daniel Levin, Darrin Nix, and others. Back in October, Christian students at UC Berkeley formed a group called Students Praying for North Korea, and pooled $400 of their own money to hold an on-campus event at which they watched documentaries, related personal experiences, and prayed for North Korean citizens and refugees. LiNK, the intercollegiate group, has “caught on fire,” Liang-Fenton says, in the weeks since it was formed.
These students are in turn working to further involve their peers. LiNK’s website describes events and educational projects going on at schools all over the country. The Stanford group has made it a priority to encourage students to write letters to Congress in support of the North Korean Freedom Act of 2004, which calls, among other things, for increased radio broadcasting in North Korea (and the smuggling in of radios on which to listen), greater diplomatic pressure on China to stop catching and repatriating North Korean refugees, and the granting of U.S. asylum to North Korean refugees.
Last year, Hae-Nam Ji concluded her congressional testimony with a plea: “I would like to ask the human right activists…to expose the human right abuses inflicted by the feudal and corrupt North Korean government to the world so that the people in North Korea could escape from a life of humiliation and live freely as soon as possible.” As she understands, public outreach is the first step toward improving life for North Koreans. Thanks to groups like HRNK, that potentially lifesaving work is well underway.
–Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is an NR associate editor.