Carl Gershman’s Remarks to 5th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights & Refugees Warsaw


It’s a real delight to be back in Poland and to see so many friends from the old days. I am reminded of a conference in Poland that we supported and took part in almost 15 years ago, at the beginning of November 1989 in the city of Wroclaw. It was sponsored by the Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity Foundation, whose leader Zbigniew Janas is with us today; and its purpose was to support a democratic revolution in neighboring Czechoslovakia. The revolution in Czechoslovakia followed that conference by only two weeks, and some think it was partly stimulated by the meeting and an accompanying cultural festival, which was attended by a large number of Czech youth. I don’t think we can expect a similar revolution in North Korea to happen soon after this conference. It will take longer, I’m sure. But I have no doubt that we shall see the day when the communist system in North Korea will fall, and it will happen in part because of the solidarity of Poland and of the people in this room.

Last July, when Benjamin Yoon was in Washington to receive the National Endowment for Democracy’s annual Democracy Award, together with three survivors of the North Korean gulag, he informed me that he hoped to have the 5th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights & Refugees in Poland, the birthplace of Solidarity and the country that spear-headed the struggle leading to the downfall of communism and the end of the Cold War. It was only a week after that discussion, with the exchange of a few emails, that Marek Nowicki, on behalf of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, formally accepted the invitation to host the 5th conference. He didn’t really know what we was getting himself into – what kind of burden he’d be taking on, the costs involved, who might attend, and so forth. North Korea wasn’t even an issue the Helsinki Foundation had been involved in. He said yes because it was the right thing to do, which is how he had lived his whole life.

I do not know when Marek learned that he had a fatal disease, but at the time of our initial communication he had less than three months to live. He died, in fact, just a week before Rev. Yoon and two of his colleagues from the Citizens’ Alliance were scheduled to visit Warsaw to meet with the Helsinki Foundation in preparation for the 5th conference. One might think that the trauma of Marek’s death might have caused the Helsinki Foundation to postpone the visit and even the conference itself. But I was informed by Marek’s colleague, Maciej, that everything was going forward as planned. “We have no choice but to carry on,” he wrote. “This is the only and the best way to remember Marek. We carry on in solidarity.” And so we are here, on schedule, carrying on in solidarity with Marek Nowicki, whom we remember with solemn gratitude for his life of service to the cause of human freedom.

It is hard to believe that it is only a little over four years since our first conference, when our task was to end the silence about the enslavement of the North Korean people. We have come a long way since then. There have been countless testimonies by escapees. A growing number of human rights reports, television documentaries, and lengthy magazine articles on conditions in North Korea have appeared. (One of them, let me note parenthetically, a long article in The New Yorker, made the interesting observation that the difference between being in and out of prison in North Korea “is more one of degree than of kind. The entire place functions as a concentration camp, designed not only to keep its inmates captive, but equally, to keep the rest of the world out.”) There has been, in addition, a steady drumbeat of press stories about the refugees, the publication of satellite photographs of the prison camps, and even for the first time a resolution on North Korea at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Slowly but surely, the view is beginning to emerge that the totalitarian system in North Korea and the suffering it inflicts upon the people of that country — the massive death from famine, the terrible plight of the escapees, and the whole bloody system of prison camps, public executions, infanticide, and unmitigated terror constitute nothing less than a crime against humanity.

And yet, there is still the same foot-dragging, politics-as-usual, denial, and apprehension about pressing too hard to change the status quo. South Korea, which left the room during the vote at the Human Rights Commission last April, continues to bury its head in the sand, and the Commission itself has done nothing to follow up on the resolution. Moreover, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship has had the desired effect of riveting international attention on the issue of security, which is the focus of the six-party talks just concluded in Beijing.

We have urged that these talks include the issue of human rights in much the same way that the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 linked Western recognition of the post-World War II borders to a “basket” of human rights principles. As our host, the Helsinki Foundation, itself can attest, the impact of that agreement was historic in ways that few people could have anticipated. We have no illusions that North Korea would seriously commit itself to honoring such principles. But increasing human rights pressures on North Korea, combined with a firm policy of military containment, would begin the process of opening this closed system and ending the total isolation of the North Korean people.

There is simply no way to address the security crisis on the Korean peninsula without ending the human catastrophe in North Korea. The link between North Korea’s reckless external behavior and the ruthless character of its regime is not accidental but organic. It is the core of the problem. For that reason, it is not enough to practice diplomacy, defense, and deterrence, the so-called three d’s. It is also necessary to speak of a fourth “d” –democracy — and to press for it with unrelenting determination.

We meet in Poland, which was a communist dictatorship only 15 years ago. Today it is a democracy, a member of NATO, and soon to be a member of the European Union. It should not be beyond our capacity to imagine North Korea one day becoming free of totalitarianism and reunited with the South, a new Korea at peace with itself and its neighbors.

Some countries, China and South Korea in particular, fear a collapse in the North. They can see only flood of refugees, a costly period of reconstruction, a new and uncertain geopolitical environment. These fears are exaggerated. They are also unseemly, considering the moral and human issues involved.

It is time to end the fixation in Seoul on the cost of German reunification and to recall its political, economic, and human benefits. And what better place is there to do that from than Poland, the heart of Central Europe, which today enjoys freedom, independence, and security as it never has before, as does the region itself?

Solidarnosc is a Polish word and the name of a Polish movement that changed the course of history. In the process, this movement introduced a new concept into the world, the idea of solidarity. This idea is still alive and has a universal significance. It tells us that dictatorship is a brittle and unstable system, especially in the modern world, and that it cannot forever withstand the force of people united in the struggle for freedom.

The people of North Korea cannot now engage in such a struggle. The oppression there is too severe, the space for any independent activity too restricted. So the idea of solidarity in this case means that we must come to their aid, as the Helsinki Foundation has done in keeping with the memory of Marek Nowicki. Eventually the North Korean people will find their own voice and shape their own future. Until then, may our solidarity give them hope to carry on and the reassurance that they are not alone.