On Wednesday night, about 100 students and faculty gathered in the Annenberg Auditorium for a panel to discuss the human rights violations in North Korea and the role of American foreign policy in such conversations. The panel was hosted by the Donia Human Rights Center, in partnership with the Ford School of Public Policy, International Policy Center, Law School and the Nam Center for Korean Studies.
The panel took place amidst recent negotiations of denuclearization between the United States and North Korea while humanitarian crimes continue to occur under the Kim Jong-un regime.
Business sophomore Richa Shah explained why she came to the panel and expressed her desire to partake in the broader conversation.
“Dialogue can often be ineffective but if communities go about it in a strategic way with tangible plans, I think it will help,” Sacha said.
The panel opened with Jared Genser, a legal expert with pro-bono experience in the North Korean humanitarian crisis. He explained the progress the international community has made with resolutions adopted by both the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations to focus on the rights of North Korean citizens under Kim’s dictatorship.
“While we have done a lot of report writing, public speaking issuing, and combinations of the two, really nothing has been put in major effect regarding the situation in North Korea,” Genser said.
According to Genser, the humanitarian rights of the North Korean people are often pushed to the back burner by many policymakers who focus solely on denuclearization. Citing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine adopted by the UN World Summit in 2005 that obligates states to protect populations from crimes against humanity, Genser emphasized the necessity of bringing to light the human rights issue in North Korea. He noted the famine, lack of basic food policies in North Korea and the Gulag concentration camps as some of the many problems that North Korean citizens face on a daily basis.
“The international community has a responsibility to help and engage in these human rights violations in North Korea,” Genser said. “But the reality is that the world focuses almost exclusively on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And the security establishment in the United States, such as the defense department or intelligence agencies, really make the ability to engage in North Korean human rights much more limited than you would expect,”
The second speaker was Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean defector, who was imprisoned in a North Korean concentration camp after his grandfather was accused of treason.
He is currently the founder and president of the North Korea Strategy Center, an organization dedicated to educating North Korean defectors and bringing awareness to human rights abuses committed by the North Korean government. Kang’s time at the Gulag concentration camp is what led him to make the choice to defect.
“The concentration camps in North Korea are shockingly terrible; they are like the Nazi camps under Hitler and Stalin’s labor camps except that they have lasted longer,” Kang said in Korean*. “There has not been a concentration camp in history that lasted for more than 50 years; North Korea is the only one.”
Despite there initially being hope in the new ruler due to his Western education, Kim Jong-un has executed more citizens and government officials — including his own aunt, his father’s wife as well as high ranking military officials — than his father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, in the last decade.
Kang further elaborated on Kim Jong-un’s attempt at recovering his country by taking part in talks with the American government.
“He’s infiltrating his own government,” Kang said. “There is no longer trust in the regime. It’s weak. That is why he met with Trump, to lift the sanctions. If President Trump addresses the issue of human rights in exchange for denuclearization there is a high chance that North Korea will collapse in the next couple years. But given current talks, there is a high chance that Trump is falling for the lies of Kim Jong-un.” Kang expressed his disapproval of Trump’s characterization of his recent developing relationship with Kim.
“Someone who says he loves Kim Jong-un or someone who is willing to talk with him cannot call themselves a responsible leader,” Kang said. “It is like expressing your love for Hitler.”
In October of last year, Trump announced he had a positive relationship with Kim Jong-un, going so far as to say that he “fell in love,” and they had “exchanged beautiful letters.”
“These comments whitewash North Korea’s human rights record and have done enormous damage to global effort to compel Kim to stop committing crimes against humanity,” Genser said.
Kang concluded by denouncing the international community’s lack of focus on the North Korean people. According to Chol-Hwan, amidst policy talks, the lives of the people are often ignored.
“Both the American and South Korean government have no right to say that they can protect the North Korean government after denuclearization; that right belongs solely to the North Korean people; they are the ones suffering,” Chol-Hwan said.
Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, concluded the event by expressing her disappointment with the American government’s quick turnaround regarding North Korea. In the beginning, Trump had come out strongly against the North Korean human rights violations, but his recent interactions with Kim have shown otherwise.
“His early outspokenness was just a useful strategy to begin a relationship with North Korea,” Lantos Swett said. “Reagan understood that a regime that deals well with their human rights at home translates to a better international policy. The silence from the Trump administration on the human rights violations has been very disillusioning. If Trump highlights all that is happening in North Korea, Kim may feel pressured and there may be hope for those in his regime looking to oppose him. Reversing the focus on this is probably a more strategic way to get around to the nuclearization issue.”
*Quotes from Kang Chol-Hwan have been translated from Korean to English by the reporter for the ease of readers.