Carl Gershman’s Remarks To the Seventh International Conference on Human Rights in North Korea

Bergen, Norway

I want to begin by congratulating the Citizens’ Alliance and the Rafto Human Rights House for putting together an exciting agenda and for organizing what has every prospect of being the most productive of all the international conferences that have been held until now to advance human rights in North Korea. The collaboration that the National Endowment for Democracy has had with Rev. Yoon and his colleagues at the Citizens’ Alliance, and with Jan Ramsted and Therese Jebsen at the Rafto House, has been a source of tremendous gratification for the NED and for me personally. I note that Jan was recently awarded the Fire and Soul Prize, Norway’s foremost human rights tribute, which is given to a person who gives his or her heart and soul for the cause of human betterment. That captures in a nutshell the spirit of the Rafto House.

It is important that we gather in Norway, which has a special stature in the world as a country that speaks in a disinterested way for peace and human rights. With the involvement of so many different sectors of Norwegian society in this meeting, especially the cultural and artistic community, it is as if the free people of Norway were collectively extending a helping hand to the enslaved people of North Korea.

We are also honored by the presence of diplomats from many countries, including Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea, and South Korea’s Human Rights Ambassador Kyung-seo Park.

When we first met together in Seoul six-and-a-half years ago, our goal was to end the silence in the world about the terrible plight of the North Korean people. Those of you who were present at that meeting will remember, as Rev. Yoon just noted, that we saw a short film of a press conference held in Russia by seven refugees who had escaped from North Korea. As Rev. Yoon recounted, they were shortly thereafter forcibly returned to North Korea despite and international outcry generated by the refugees’ press conference and our meeting. Still, as one of those refugees, Eun-cheol Kim told him last month, they were not executed upon their return only because they had let the world know of their plight. Though two died in captivity, four of them, including Eun-cheol Kim, were released from prison in 2003, and Mr. Kim was able to make it to South Korea.

What we know from this story is that human rights pressure works, and that far from being an improper intrusion into North Korea’s internal affairs, as some misguided people claim, it is an urgently needed response to the suffering of people who are desperate and who would otherwise be completely abandoned.

The wall of silence that has hidden the suffering of the North Korean people has begun to crack. Indeed, I’m pleased to report that just last Friday six refugees from North Korea were admitted to the United States after living in hiding in China. This is the first group from North Korea to be given official refugee status by the United States since the passage in 2004 of the North Korea Human Rights Act.

Nonetheless, despite this progress, a new wall has arisen, a wall of security concerns that gives exclusive priority to negotiating North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, and that excludes human rights advocacy as provocative and even reckless.

To those who take this view, many though not all of whom live across the DMZ in South Korea, within range of North Korea’s guns and missiles, we have said that human rights advocacy is not a threat to peace but the only sure path to it. Still, we cannot disregard and certainly should not minimize security concerns. Rather, we need to start a process whereby human rights issues can be integrated into negotiations for collective security and economic cooperation. I hope that the presence here of South Korea’s human rights ambassador is a sign that Seoul is willing to begin a dialogue with the human rights community about how a new Helsinki-type process can be fashioned for the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia generally.

Since our first meeting in December 1999, our movement has been successful in raising awareness in South Korea and the world of the suffering of the North Korean people. We have done this be transmitting to the international community information about conditions inside North Korea. Such work is and will remain a central feature of our activities. But as we look to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, a looming priority is the transmission of information in the other direction from South Korea and the world to the people of North Korea. Until now, the North Korean people have been subjected to a virtually complete information blockade, which the political analyst Andrei Lankov has said is essential to the North Korean regime’s legitimacy and survival. The purpose of this blockade is to render incomprehensible any challenge to the fundamental falsehood the regime in Pyongyang has imposed on the North Korean people: namely, that they live in a paradise of material plenty, while just across the border the people of South Korea suffer in a living hell of abject poverty cruel capitalist exploitation.

It is quite common for a communist regime to invert the truth for reasons of self-preservation, a feature of totalitarianism that George Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and others have explained so well. But never has the inversion of the truth been more complete, the lie more obvious, or the contrast sharper than in the case of North and South Korea, where a single people with a common culture is divided by two different political systems whose relative merits are plain for all to see. South Korea may not be paradise, but in comparison to North Korea it is a land of astounding prosperity and unimaginable opportunity and freedom. And what is North Korea in comparison to South Korea, if not a land of hellish immiseration, starvation, and oppression? The night-time satellite photos of the Korean peninsula, with South Korea lit up like a Christmas tree and North Korea completely dark, vividly capture the contrast between the two Koreas.

What happens to the legitimacy of the North Korean regime when its people realize that a terrible lie has been imposed upon them? This is a regime, we should not forget, that prints on its bank notes the declaration that We don’t envy anybody in the world. Think of what might happen when people in North Korea come to understand the full extent of this cruel fiction.

There is no way the information blockade can withstand the impact of current circumstances. It will break down as the economic crisis in the North forces the regime to seek aid from the international community. It will also crumble as growing human rights pressures force the regime to open up and cease violating every norm of civilized state behavior. It will even break down as advocates of engagement try to end the regime’s total isolation. And it will certainly break down as more people flee the North, and then try to communicate to the people they’ve left behind what they’ve learned about the world outside.

It is these escapees whom we especially need to help. We need to integrate them into our movement and help them convey to the people of North Korea the realities of modern life and a new vision society. This is one of the most important things we can do in the period ahead, for it is the truth that shall ultimately liberate the people of South Korea. May this conference bring us one step closer to that goal.