“Why are you here?”: The Quintessential Question about North Korean Human Rights

The Interns this summer for the Ministry of Unification, especially the foreigners, were always met with some intrigue as to how we learned about the issue of North Korean Human Rights, Unification of the Korean Peninsula, and why we decided to get involved. Since many of us had learned about the issue through our Korean friends or student organizations back in the states, I had not realized what a unique position we were in as American ambassadors on the topic due to the specificity of the issue. However, to other interns and me, it hadn’t seemed like such a niche topic at all. Rather, it was something that was connected to American history and was a general area of interest for those committed to protecting human rights and liberties. I had only formally learned about North Korea in the context of it being a national security threat to America, but it also seemed to be, equal to Africa and other regions that are the center of charity and social entrepreneurship against poverty and starvation, an area that deserved attention for the low living standards of its citizens.

However, when the new interns arrived, and I was shocked by how many of them were not Korean, I realized what a narrow issue it was indeed. When I found myself asking the new interns, “So… Why are you here?” I realized that, if Americans caring about this issue seemed so shocking, than maybe the American teachings on North Korean needed to be reevaluated.

After that, I started talking to a lot of my friends back at school to find out what they had learned over the years about South and North Korea. I ended up finding a surprising wealth of knowledge from my classmates that are not involved with North Korean Human Rights, realizing that a larger network of American college students could be recruited to take action about North Korean Human Rights.

Here is what some of them said regarding several issues about North Korea and Korean unification, without questioning their opinions or changing their language (more than is necessary to be readily understandable). They of course do not necessarily align with my views or the Ministry’s views. Rather I am using this as a way to gauge opinions of American college students, and their amount of education on the topic. I was both surprised and pleased by the variety of their viewpoints:

What do you think about the North Korean government? What is the state of North Korean Human Rights?

Raymond (Chinese-American Princeton Alumnus): “It’s a communist country. You can’t have totalitarian government without human rights abuses. By nature it emphasizes the state over the individual.”

Christina (Junior from Hong Kong, Princeton): “I feel [that] a government that is effective should provide its people with the means to create their own wealth, health systems, and welfare or provide it themselves, and that the North Korean government has such absolute control and ineffectiveness that this often does not happen…. Although North Korea has diplomatic relations with other countries, they are for naught as they have not used these connections to stimulate their economy.”

Henry (Korean-American Graduate Student, Cornell): “The average citizen of North Korea has little to no freedoms. Freedom of expression is ‘okay’ as long as it doesn’t go against the ‘great leader.’ The absolute monarchy of North Korea makes it difficult for the average citizen to do anything but conform. Food is strictly rationed and everyone’s ‘encouraged’ to join the military. Forced famine is one example. Stockpiles of food from all over the world go straight into warehouses, or, if it’s distributed, it’s only done for appearances—it’s often collected back the next day, or something similar.”

What do you think our role is in North Korean Human Rights? Is it our place to intervene?

Jacob (Korean-American Junior, Princeton): “All nations should try to eliminate human rights abuse in the world—that’s why the U.N. exists.”

Henry: “You mean, intervene in a more substantial way than sending inspectors, sending food, and threaten the use of economic sanctions? Anything more, and North Korea’s saber-rattling could turn into actual retaliation.”

Do you think Unification should happen? How and why?

Christina: “I think North Koreans are suffering from the violation of their human rights, and I think reunification should happen through the leadership and persistent support of the South.”

Sam (Chinese-American Junior, George-Washington University): “Unification should happen eventually because Korea in half is a major flashpoint…”

Henry: “It should. North Korea and South Korea have been apart for far too long [but they have] a common past, same ethnicity, and virtually the same language.  But also, for geopolitical reasons—our country’s divided.”

Raymond: “In an ideal world I think it should happen, but not at the cost of nuclear war. It would be nice if the North attacked unprovoked, so then the South could unify righteously. I don’t see how it can be done bloodlessly. It might be more trouble than it’s worth—the North is [so poor], it’s like the U.S. annexing Mexico.”

Bethani (African-American Korean student, Princeton Alumn): “I think unification would be nice, but even if the Koreas stayed separated, if North Korea was more humane (for example feeding the civilians and not just the military) things would be a lot better. It all just seems like a huge mess. [To reach unification,] it’ll take a lot of talks and some compromise. I’m pretty sure that the allies of North and South Korea will probably play a part in negotiations.”

What are more reasons it would be helpful, hurtful, or difficult to achieve?

Takumi (Sophomore from Japan, Princeton): “That would be difficult. I feel that the problem of unification is deeper rooted than people think because the very identity of both nations is based on being OPPOSITE of the other one. So, even if there were a political unification, politico-culturally they would still be apart. This is empirically supported by the Chollado region and people who come from it, who apparently are subjected to regionalism compared to the industrially dominant Kyongsangdo region.”

Henry: “As a whole, North and South Korea could benefit from the combined manpower, expertise, and national resources. US military occupation in South Korea would no longer be required. We thank our US allies, but we understand that their continued presence is a drain on their resources, and elements of our own population dislike US presence.

Christina: “There’s still a huge cultural rift because the Korean Peninsula has been one and united since the 10th century and the people have the same culture and roots. There are separated families. For economic reasons look up Goldman Sach’s report on “Next Eleven”—it says United Korea will be an economic powerhouse and superpower, capable of surpassing Canada and having a GDP per capital near the U.S.’s Capita and higher than all European countries.”

Do you think Unification will ever happen?

Henry: “I don’t think it’ll happen within our generation’s lifetime, unless something significant happens. 14 years maybe?”

Sam: “I doubt it will happen in the next 25 years, and even if it does, we can look at the example of Germany and see how a reunited country faces big problems.”

I thought it was amazing that the variety of opinions reflects the variety of opinions I heard from many Koreans while in Seoul over the summer. Many talked about unification’s impact on the economy (some stated it would be good, some bad) and many others emphasized the importance of unification for cultural reasons (some good again, some bad). Also the strength of many of their opinions was impressive, since many did not have first hand experience dealing with Korean issues, and the Korean’s opinions did not vary immensely from non-Koreans. What does this mean about non-Koreans’ involvement in human rights in the region? I continue to look at this issue in the next article by taking a look at what American’s teachers say about the process of teaching issues pertaining to North Korea.

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