Sunday, February 16, 2014

A TIMELINE OF THE COMMISSION OF INQUIRY ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA AND HRNK’S ROLE

“Commissions of inquiry are strong and flexible mechanisms that can yield ample benefits for governments, victim communities and the wider public, but they do not relieve States of their legal obligations to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide effective remedies to victims of past violations, including reparation for the harm suffered and to prevent its reoccurrence.”[1]

INTRODUCTION

On March 21, 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously  decided to establish a “Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (hereinafter “COI”). Resolution A/HRC/RES/22/53 established and mandated the COI for one year “to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in North Korea, “with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity.”[2] Marzuki Darusman, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, identified “nine key inter-linked issues or patterns of violations of human rights that the United Nations has focused on” concerning North Korea:

1.     Violation of the right to food;
2.     Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment;
3.     Arbitrary detention;
4.     Violations associated with prison camps;
5.     Discrimination;
6.     Violation of freedom of expression;
7.     Violation of the right to life;
8.     Violation of freedom of movement; and
9.     Enforced disappearances.[3]

The resolution also extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea for one year.[4]

On May 7, 2013, three commissioners were selected to serve on the COI: Mr. Michael Kirby, Ms. Sonja Biserko, and Mr. Marzuki Darusman (also the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea). Chief Commissioner Kirby stated, “The fact that the resolution establishing this commission was adopted in Geneva with unanimity is an indication that the international community now agrees that something must be done.”[5]
Under its mandate, the COI has had to provide an oral update to the Council at its twenty-fourth session and to the General Assembly at its sixty-eight session.” On March 17, 2014, the COI will submit a written report to the Council at its twenty-fifth session in Geneva.

Dr. Roberta Cohen, HRNK’s Co-Chair and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, explained:

The establishment of the commission reflects long overdue recognition that a human rights ‘emergency’ exists in North Korea. Commissions of inquiry at the United Nations have mainly been directed at situations like Syria, Darfur or Libya where conflicts, atrocities and destruction are clearly visible and in the headlines. Adding North Korea to the list suggests a new look at what a human rights crisis might be. In contrast to other situations, North Korea has always managed to hide its crimes.[6]

Predictably, however, the North Korean regime has been hostile to the mandate of the COI. In fact, “North Korean Ambassador So Se Pyong rejected the resolution as ‘an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces in their attempt to discredit the image of the DPRK,’ and said, “‘[a]s we stated time and again, those human rights abuses mentioned in the resolution do not exist in our country.’”[7]

KEY EVENTS

2000: Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot release The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (The Perseus Press) in French. The book is Kang Chol-hwan’s memoir of growing up in a North Korean prison camp for ten years, beginning at the age of nine years old.
2001: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) is formed to promote human rights in North Korea. It seeks to raise awareness and to publish well-documented research that focuses international attention on North Korean human rights, conditions, which have been so closed off from the rest of the world.
2003: HRNK publishes The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps by David Hawk. This is the first comprehensive study of the camps.
2004: The UN Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the UN Human Rights Council) appointed the Special Rapporteur on the situation on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The first SR was Professor Vittit Muntarbhorn, an international lawyer, who subsequently became a member of HRNK’s International Advisory Council.
2006: HRNK publishes Failure to Protect: A Call for UN Security Council to Act in North Korea by Vaclav Havel, Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Elie Wiesel and prepared with DLA Piper LLP. The report highlights the failure of the North Korean government to exercise its responsibility to protect its own people from crimes against humanity and urges the UN Security Council to take up the situation of North Korea.
2008: HRNK publishes Failure to Protect: The Ongoing Challenge of North Korea with DLA Piper. The report recommends that the UN General Assembly:
Include in the operative paragraphs of the resolution, a recommendation to the Secretary- General to appoint a group of experts to report to the General Assembly about whether North Korea has committed violations of international human rights law and, if so, whether these violations constitute a failure to protect it citizens from crimes against humanity.[8]
2009: The UN Universal Periodic Review issues a report on North Korea identifying serious human rights concerns occurring in that country. Although North Korea participates in the review, it is the first State to not accept any recommendation out of the 167 received.
2010:  SR Vitit Muntarbhorn recommends Security Council action because of the nature of human rights violations in North Korea.
2011: The International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) is formed to promote the establishment of a COI. HRNK joins this coalition along with over 40 other organizations.
MAR 2012: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden is released, detailing the life and escape of former North Korean political prison camp prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk. Shin is the only known person to have been born in and escaped from a North Korean political prison camp (after 23 years).
APR 2012:  In a statement prepared for a conference organized by HRNK in Washington, D.C., SR Marzuki Darusman for the first time called for a mechanism of inquiry to investigate human rights violations in North Korea. HRNK publishes Hidden Gulag Second Edition by David Hawk.
JUN 2012:  HRNK publishes Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System, by Robert Collins.
NOV 2012: In his statement to the Third Committee of the General Assembly in November 2012, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea called on Member States to undertake a comprehensive review of the many UN reports on the human rights situation in North Korea to assess the underlying patterns and trends, and consider setting up a more detailed mechanism of inquiry.[9]
JAN 2013: Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights brings Shin Dong-hyuk and Kim Hee-suk to meet UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who then calls for a full-fledged international inquiry into serious crimes taking place in North Korea.
FEB 2013: Special Rapporteur Darusman provides a report to the Human Rights Council detailing the range of UN documentation and reports on human rights in North Korea. He states that since 2004, the UN has issued 22 reports by the Secretary-General and the Special Rapporteur and the General Assembly and its subsidiary organs have adopted 16 resolutions. The Special Rapporteur also identifies nine patterns of human rights abuses by North Korea from these reports that could constitute crimes against humanity.[10]
MAR 2013: On March 21st, the Human Rights Council establishes the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with a 47-member consensus in its 22nd Session.
HRNK’S ROLE

·      In 2006 and 2008, HRNK published the first reports that called attention to crimes against humanity in North Korea and for UN Security Council action.
·      Since September 2011, HRNK has been a member of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), which involves over 40 organizations from around the world and was formed to promote the establishment of a COI to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea.
·      As a member organization of the ICNK, HRNK has actively provided information needed to establish a COI.
·      Since the establishment of the COI, HRNK has actively supported the commissioners and staff members of the COI.
o   On October 30, 2013, HRNK hosted a private meeting with COI commissioners Michael Kirby and Sonja Biserko.
o   Responding to the COI’s call for submissions, HRNK provided the COI with a 100-page report on information and documentation on the situation of egregious, widespread, and systematic human rights abuses in North Korea.
o   At the COI hearings in Washington, DC on October 30-31, 2013, all but one of the expert witnesses invited to testify were HRNK Board and Advisory Council members or authors of HRNK reports.
§  On Access to Food:
·      Marcus Noland, Senior Fellow and Director of Studies at the Institute for International Economics (IIE), HRNK Board Member and co-author of HRNK reports Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea (2005) and The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Response (2006)
·      Andrew Natsios, Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, HRNK Co-Chair
§  On Prison Camps, Satellite Imagery, and the Gender Dimension
·      David Hawk, Visiting Scholar and the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights, HRNK report author of: 1) The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps (2003); Hidden Gulag 2: The Lives and Voices of Those Who Are Sent to the Mountains (2012); and 3) North Korea’s Hidden Gulag: Interpreting Reports of Changes in the Prison Camps (2013)
·      Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., Senior Imagery Analyst and Publisher and Editor of KPA Journal, HRNK co-author of 1) North Korea’s Camp No. 22 (2012); 2) North Korea’s Camp No. 22 – Update (2012); and 3) North Korea’s Camp No. 25 (2013)
·      Roberta Cohen, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, HRNK Co-Chair
§  On Responsibility to Protect
·      Jared Genser, Managing Director of Perseus Strategies, LLC, HRNK International Advisory Council Member

COI ACTIVITIES

MAY 2013: Commissioners Michael Kirby, Sonja Biserko, and Marzuki Darusman are appointed on May 7th. North Korea rejects the COI.
JUN 2013: The COI sends a letter to North Korea on June 18th and receives no response.
JUL 2013: The COI sends two letters – on July 5th and 16th – requesting meetings with North Korea. North Korea does not meet with the COI or allow access inside its borders.
AUG 2013: COI holds hearings in Seoul, Republic of Korea from August 20th-24th. Over 40 witnesses, including Shin Dong-hyuk, testify in public hearings. COI holds hearings in Tokyo, Japan from August 29th-30th. Chief Commissioner Kirby states:
“What we have seen and heard over the past days in Seoul, the specificity, detail and shocking character of much of the testimony, appears to call for a response from the international community. In the contemporary world, it is not good enough to produce just another UN report. Today, leaders and governments are accountable and the commission of inquiry has been created with that objective in mind. But equally, it is not good enough to respond with denunciation.”[11]

SEP 2013: The COI provides an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its 24th Session on September 17th.

OCT 2013: The COI holds hearings in London, England on October 23rd. The COI provides an oral update to the General Assembly at its 68th Session on October 29th. On October 30th, the Commissioners Kirby and Biserko meet with HRNK in Washington, DC, and then hold hearings in DC from October 30th-31st. HRNK experts testify.

FEB 2014: The COI will release its findings to the public via the Internet on February 17th.

MAR 2014: The COI will submit its final written report to the Human Rights Council’s 25th Session in Geneva on March 17th.

HRNK’S POSITION

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s (HRNK) position is that North Korea has committed systematic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights with respect to the violation of the right to food, violations associated with its prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances. With the exception of the crime of apartheid, all of the criminal acts included within the duration and scope of crimes against humanity in modern international law have been committed in North Korea. The leadership of North Korea, including National Defense Chairman Kim Jong-un should be held accountable for these actions.[12]

HRNK’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE COI

  • HRNK strongly recommends that the Commission find that systematic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights have occurred in North Korea in regards to the nine identified patterns of abuse for investigation requested by the Commission.
  • HRNK strongly recommends that the Commission urge the North Korean government to account for the fate and whereabouts of all of North Korea's political prisoners, including those missing and those who have died in detention.
  • HRNK strongly recommends that the Commission ensures full accountability by stating in its report that crimes against humanity have likely occurred in North Korea and been committed by the Kim leadership, publically identifying alleged individual perpetrators.
  • HRNK strongly recommends that the Commission immediately refers the situation of North Korea to the Security Council and requests the Security Council’s referral to the International Criminal Court, pursuant to article 13(b) of the Rome Statute, as the North Korean justice system is unable and unwilling to address the human rights situation in North Korea.
  • HRNK recommends that the Commission devise a strategic plan that addresses accountability and recommends creative transitional justice mechanisms to help victims heal.
  • HRNK recommends that the Commission call on the Human Rights Council member states to translate and publish the Commission’s findings and hold seminars on those findings.
  • HRNK recommends that the Commission call on China to obey its obligations under the Refugee Convention and recognize North Korean defectors as refugees.
  • HRNK recommends that the Commission identify concrete, tangible ways for the international community to respond to continued violations of human rights by North Korea.
  • HRNK recommends that the Commission present measures for North Korea to take to improve its human rights situation, including closing its political prison camps.
  • HRNK recommends that the Commission request the High Commissioner for Human Rights to issue public, periodic statements on the human rights situation in North Korea.




[1] The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. M̩ndez, stated this in a report to the UN Human Rights Council. UN News Centre, Commissions of inquiry alone cannot fight impunity against torture РUN expert, March 5, 2012, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=41455&#.UU3Us6X3A60.
[2] Human Rights Council, A/HRC/RES/22/53, Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Apr. 9, 2013, http://daccess-ods.un.org/TMP/2813816.66660309.html.
[3] ICNK welcomes the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry, March 22, 2013, http://www.fidh.org/ICNK-welcomes-the-establishment-of-13066.
[4] OHCHR, Council establishes Commission of Inquiry to investigate Human Rights Violations in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, OHCHR, March 21, 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13178&LangID=E.
[5] OHCHR, UN commission on DPRK human rights situation completing work in Seoul, Aug. 26, 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13656&LangID=E.
[6] Roberta Cohen, North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, The Brookings Institution, Mar. 21, 2013, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/03/21-north-korea-cohen.
[7] Stephanie Nebehay, U.N. starts inquiry into torture, labor camps in North Korea, March 21, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/21/us-korea-north-un-idUSBRE92K0SZ20130321.
[8] Vaclav Havel, Kjell Magne Bondevik, & Elie Wiesel, Failure to Protect: The Ongoing Challenge of North Korea, 27 (HRNK & DLA Piper LLP, 2008), http://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/F2P_North_Korea_9-19-08_English.pdf.
[9] HRC, A/HRC/22/57, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Marzuki Darusman, Feb. 1, 2013.
[10] Id.
[11] OHCHR, UN commission on DPRK human rights situation completing work in Seoul, Aug. 26, 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13656&LangID=E.
[12] See David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag Second Edition, 162-164 (HRNK, 2012), available at http://hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HRNK_HiddenGulag2_Web_5-18.pdf.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

“Constructive Enragement” versus “Constructive Engagement” in North Korea


By Greg Scarlatoiu

Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)


As Dr. James Chin-kyung Kim, a tireless advocate and practitioner of academic engagement with North Korea participated in the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. on February 6, spiritual and thought leaders from all over the world likely prayed for his success. Dr. Kim is the president and founder of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Funded by Evangelical Christians and based on faith and hope in emancipation through exposure to English speaking foreign professors, North Korea’s only private university professes to be grooming the next generation of leaders. The university’s foreign staff and faculty have no control over the admission process or post-graduation job placement.

A recent BBC Panorama documentary offered an unprecedented inside view of PUST. All 500 PUST students are men, said to be the sons of the elites. The only women on campus are the watchful and ubiquitous uniformed guards. All students appear to be in their early 20s. In North Korea, all men age 17 must join the military for at least 10 years. Have these young men been exempted from military duty for being North Korea’s best and brightest? Do they have to join the military after graduation? Do the years they spend at PUST count toward their military service?

Why would highly militarized North Korea relieve hundreds of bright, healthy, loyal sons of the elites from their obligation to serve in the military? The skills they acquire, especially English, computer engineering, international finance and management present the potential of dual use in North Korea’s cyber warfare operations or international illicit activities needed to sustain the regime. While all of North Korea’s universities are heavily regimented, PUST students certainly march, sing, talk, walk, and act like dutiful soldiers of the Kim regime.

Are PUST students those young men likely to lead the country in a positive direction, or those most likely to perpetuate the Kim regime? Dr. James Chin-kyung Kim claims: “Inside there, we truly have freedom.” According to a recent Voice of America interview with Sandralee and Robert Moynihan, former PUST professors, the couple was denied visa renewals, possibly because Mrs. Moynihan brought into the classroom a copy of the North Korean Constitution, asking students to determine whether it was adequately observed.

Proponents of engaging North Korea through academic exchanges, in the hope of creating agents of positive change, have put forth the precedent of the first Soviet students brought to the United States. Changing hearts and minds through training those hand-picked by totalitarian regimes is problematic, at least over the short to medium term. Twenty years after spending a year at Columbia University, then KGB General Oleg Kalugin masterminded the infamous 1978 “umbrella murder” of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London.

The long-term benefits may come in due course: Oleg Kalugin helped counter the Soviet coup attempt in 1991, before resettling in the United States in 1995. The dark chapters of U.S.-trained Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina and Manuel Noriega in Panama suggest that long-term benefits of exposure to freedom and democracy may never come. Jang Sung-taek, the former number 2 of North Korea, executed in December 2013, would likely attest that his nephew’s Swiss education may have enhanced his love of ski resorts, water parks, landscaping, and NBA hall of famers, but has not been conducive to allowing North Koreans the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

In the 1980s, the late Congressman Stephen Solarz called for “constructive enragement” of economic sanctions as a moral imperative to end apartheid in South Africa. His appeal rebuked “constructive engagement,” which implied refraining from criticism of Pretoria. Congressman Solarz would favor “enragement” over “engagement” to change North Korea today. After meeting with Kim Il-sung in 1980 and 1991, a disenchanted Stephen Solarz declared: “My own experience in North Korea suggests that its commitments have about the same value as Tsarist war bonds.”

Today, North Korea is a post-communist, post-industrial, totalitarian kleptocracy that continues to control access to food, opportunity, and education based on loyalty to the regime. As its people suffer from food shortages, the North Korean regime presses on with the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. For more than a decade, the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), an organization once co-chaired by Stephen Solarz, has researched and reported on developments inside North Korea’s political prison camps, where 120,000 prisoners are held, often together with members of three generations of the detainee’s family.

On February 17, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, aiming to determine if crimes against humanity have been committed in that country, will make its findings and recommendations public, a month ahead of the formal report submission to the UN Human Rights Council. The likelihood of “constructive enragement” over North Korea’s egregious human rights violations will be higher than ever before.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Living and Studying in America


By Sung-chul Kim, Former HRNK Intern

Translated and edited by Rosa Park and Amanda Mortwedt Oh


I was born in socialist North Korea. I lived my life struggling to be free from hunger and had little to dream about. After that, I spent more than five years in China in fear because of my precarious status. Despite several arrests and forced repatriations to North Korea, I survived and eventually arrived in South Korea. Not until then could I have a dream and start studying. Now, I have finally experienced America, a country I had dreamed of visiting. In the United States, I finished a four-month long English class, and then completed an internship at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

I used to look at those who got to go to school with envy when I was in North Korea and China. I wanted to go to school, playing freely and carrying a school backpack. In China, North Korean refugees don’t have access to a public education, because the Chinese government claims they are “illegal economic migrants.” That made me feel depressed over my being practically stateless. Only after I started studying in South Korea did I begin to forget my sorrow, little by little. When it came to English, I could not even distinguish uppercase and lowercase letters in the beginning. I did not know anything about subjects such as math or history. I was thirsty for learning, and worked really hard, though.

While studying at Han-dong University in Pohang, South Korea, I dreamed about going to America. I wanted to experience America for myself since I had only seen it on TV. While growing up in North Korea, I was told America was an evil empire that invaded my fatherland. When I finally found a program that offered the opportunity to study English in America, I applied and was accepted. The first time I overlooked America from the window of my airplane, I thought that it was a really huge country. When I arrived at the airport, I met those who came to greet me. They helped me open a bank account and get a mobile phone. We had a meal together and then I was given a room. Life was just about to get interesting!

Public transportation in America is not as good as in South Korea. I had to walk for at least twenty minutes to the nearest metro stop. This is a long walk by South Korean standards, but a rather short distance in America. Walking to the station, I practiced my English speaking skills with my flat mate to avoid wasting time.

After my four-month language course was over, I started looking for an internship opportunity. As soon as I found out about HRNK, I asked for a meeting with the executive director. After we sat down and had a discussion about my life, academic interests, and experience in the United States, he asked me to submit my CV, cover letter, and writing sample. A few days later, I was invited to join HRNK’s intern corps. An acquaintance of mine also introduced me to the Lantos Human Rights Commission. The Lantos Commission also offered me an internship, so I began to work for the Lantos Commission on Mondays and Tuesdays and HRNK the rest of the week.

I learned a lot at HRNK, especially about the political prison camps and leadership system of North Korea. Although I was a detainee in a mobile labor brigade myself, I realized that I did not really understand how North Korea’s vast system of unlawful imprisonment worked. I also read the book, “I Saw the Truth of History,” by Hwang Jang-yeop, while researching materials about North Korea. That book enabled me to clearly understand the way the North Korean regime works.

North Korea is a totalitarian regime. Just one spoken or written word from Kim Jung-un becomes law. I, myself, also do not know much about North Korea even though I am from North Korea. This is because it was almost impossible to get access to information about the laws of the country, or how the North Korea was run. The government never even officially acknowledged the existence of the political prison camps. Everything about North Korea was shrouded in secrecy. As soon as we are born, we learn that Kim Il-sung was our great leader, and that absolute “truth” is never to be challenged. I believed this just like many other people. Now it all seems so extreme, an insult to common sense.

While reading through materials published by HRNK, I realized the truth about North Korea that I could never have known before. Also, there were many opportunities to talk with various people whenever I attended human rights events. I talked about the methodology of unification with many people. We discussed whether sudden or gradual unification would be best for Korea. Also, we talked about whether the case of Germany can be a good model for Korea to follow. I think the German case is not suitable for Korea for two reasons. First, East and West Germany had many more exchanges between them compared to North and South Korea. For example, it was possible to watch West German TV programs in East Germany. Second, different from the current situation of North Korea, demonstrations were allowed in East Germany. Also, there are some opinions that point out that South Korea fails to embrace its 27,000 North Korean defectors while West Germany warmly welcomed more than 400,000 East Germans. The chance to discuss these ideas was a great experience for me because I was able to learn about many issues while having a discussion with others. I am especially thankful to my fellow interns and co-workers, who helped me a lot.

I learned a lot from the Lantos Human Rights Commission as well because I was able to learn about other nations’ human rights situations by attending several hearings on Capitol Hill. I learned about violations of human rights in various countries, including Haiti, Burma, Columbia, and Syria. Also, I spent a lot of time sharing North Korean culture with Americans. It was a great opportunity for me because I could talk to foreign friends about the reality of North Korea. Overall, the atmosphere of America feels much more relaxing than that of Korea. People are kind and very hospitable. I will miss America a lot. The precious time I had here, where I was so busy, has passed almost all too soon. Just when it feels like I have almost adapted to American life, it is, unfortunately, time to leave.

Reflections on My Life in America

By Hana Kim, Former HRNK Intern

Translated and edited by Rosa Park and Amanda Mortwedt


I was born and finished high school in North Korea. I then spent eight years in China and five years in South Korea. I have been in the United States for eight months, but time seems to have gone by too fast. It is almost time to return to South Korea. What have I gained from my experience in America? The thought that I may not have gained anything significant worries me. I feel ashamed at the thought that I fall short of the expectations of those who supported me. However, I certainly feel like I have experienced and learned many things.

Language Study and Travel


Before coming to America, I made various plans filled with enthusiasm. My plans ranged from mastering English, traveling across the country, making American friends, and meeting people in various fields, to participating in all sorts of events, forums, and so on. It seems that I have completed most of these plans so far. I was so excited, thinking that speaking English would be natural to me once I came to America. Looking back, I find myself laughing.

Nevertheless, I still believe I have progressed. Although I am not completely satisfied, my English has become much better compared to when I could not even speak a word in front of foreigners. Most of all, it is certain that my fear of English has disappeared. When I meet Americans I try to express myself in English, despite my poor grammar. Americans praise me, saying I am good at English. I feel proud when people compliment me on my English, but I still feel ashamed of my broken English. I know I can learn English faster if I take the initiative to engage in dialogue without fear. However, I’m at the level of just listening when there is a dialogue among colleagues. Still, I am thankful that I can understand English to a higher degree, which was not possible at first.

When I was in South Korea, I wrote down a list of “My Dreams,” which included traveling to America and studying a language abroad. The four-month long language class that I took as soon as I came to the United States was especially effective. As it was an intensive course, I could actually see that my English was getting better at a rapid speed. I became confident to the point where I felt that I could go anywhere by myself without a guide.

I have been to every corner of Washington, D.C. at least once and have visited several museums. The best thing about living in D.C. has been the ability to grasp the history of America. Although traveling can be quite expensive, I did not miss an opportunity to travel and visited Luray Caverns in Virginia, New York City, and the Niagara Falls. Traveling was like a tonic for my life. Having been alone for more than ten years after I left North Korea, I was accustomed to living alone, fearlessly and confidently. However, I could not avoid feeling depressed from time to time. Whenever I was feeling gloomy, traveling helped me find strength.

South Korean Culture and My Host Family


Currently, I am doing a ‘home-stay’ by living with an ordinary American family. The host family is a young couple about my age with many young kids. They are busy because of their children but always take care of me whenever I have some trouble or need something. One of the reasons that I chose to live in a ‘home-stay’ was to experience American culture, while actually living with an American family. There is not a huge difference in family culture between South Korea and America. One thing that is strikingly distinctive, though, is that it is still not common to see husbands help with family affairs in the ordinary Korean family. However, it was always left to the husband to do the dishes in the American family I lived with. American husbands help with almost all the chores around the kitchen.

Additionally, when my host family held a party with their co-workers and neighbors, I was able to experience preparations for the party, and I learned how it works, and how to enjoy it. One clear thing I observed was that parties are totally different between Korea and America, especially when it comes to the drinking culture. It feels very classy to enjoy a party with just a couple of glasses of wine or champagne. Surely, I also like the party culture of Korea but, frankly, I prefer that of America.

Internship


I started my internship at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) after finishing four months of English language study. The moment I had dreamed of since interviewing for the internship was finally accomplished. While I was naturally interested in human rights in North Korea since I was born and raised there, I had another reason that made me determined to work for HRNK. When I was in South Korea, I worked for various human rights organizations. At that time, I distributed flyers disclosing the reality of the human rights conditions in North Korea to passers-by in the hot summer sun. Watching people passing by indifferently, I doubted whether my efforts could actually cause any change in North Korea.

Back then, I could not imagine that there would be any organization working for the human rights of North Koreans. Only after I came to America did I see the work of HRNK. I believe that if we combine our voice with America, a super power, it would be very effective for those who are struggling with a desperate reality. This is why I finally decided to work at HRNK. I began to work with the expectation that I would be able to know more about human rights and to learn sensible ways to solve the problems in North Korea.

HRNK is doing many things. First, HRNK conducts research about the reality of the human rights condition in North Korea. Second, it publishes reports based on this research to increase awareness in the international community. HRNK also rectifies misunderstandings people might have about human rights in North Korea through various events and forums. HRNK’s research materials can be used as a medium to change circumstances. Publications such as “Lives For Sale,” “Hidden Gulag,” “Taken,” and “Songbun,” should be read by those who are interested in North Korean human rights.

In my humble opinion, as a human, it goes against what is right to leave the situation of North Korea as it is. Now, following the wishes of those who work for the betterment of North Korea, a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea has been in operation for almost a year. I hope it will have a significant impact on North Korea.

As an intern at HRNK I have had the opportunity to attend a variety of events related to North Korea. Because of this, I have realized that there is an increasing number of people working for and interested in North Korea human rights. Also, through HRNK’s publications, I have learned much more about the reality of North Korea. Although I was born and raised in North Korea, the world I experienced there was narrow. As a result, I feel so thankful that I am able to do what I want to do while eating hot meals and sleeping comfortably. Also, I inevitably feel the responsibility to do whatever I can for North Koreans.

To contribute to improving people’s consciousness about the reality of human rights in North Korea, I uploaded an essay to the HRNK blog about my experience back in North Korea. In addition, I wrote a report entitled, “Alternatives for the Improvement of Human Rights in North Korea.” While I admit that the alternatives I suggested are not suitable for the current reality, they are actions to take at some point in the future. I hope that my report will have some relevance for thorough preparation in the context of the broader picture.

There are many interns who decided to work for HRNK because of their great interests in human rights in North Korea. My supervisor and co-workers always helped me with kindness, even though they might have been uncomfortable due to my poor English. Thanks to their help, I managed to successfully accomplish my given tasks. Also, I was able to continue studying English after work. I deeply appreciate their kindness. I feel sorry, though, because it feels like I am ‘spinning my wheels’ with my English. I should study English harder and steadily after I go back to South Korea as well.

What I felt all the more keenly while living in America is that many more people than I thought are interested in North Korea. More surprisingly, there are a number of people who are actively working for human rights in North Korea. I have no doubt that these efforts of tremendous people who care about human rights can induce positive change in North Korea.