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The Current State and Future Prospects of the North Korean Democratization and Human Rights Movement

October 26, 2010

The following is the prepared text of a presentation at the 2010 International Conference on Human Rights sponsored by NKnet, the Sejong Institute and NED. The conference was held in Washington, D.C., on October 21.

1. Necessary to Define North Korean Democratization

○ The purpose of North Korean democratization is to let the North Korean people enjoy freedom and equality in every sector of North Korean society. The first thing to achieve it is to build a new regime by ending or replacing the Kim Jong Il regime, the largest obstacle to North Korea’s advancement.

○ Regardless of how one defines the North Korean regime’s nature or individual differences due to state, politics and ideology, those who demand the end of the brutal Suryeong (“supreme”) totalitarian dictatorship should join the democratization movement.

○ My personal thought on real democratization means North Korea accepts both democracy and a market economy, but this must be decided by the people of North Korea and the new government of North Korea, as chosen by free and fair elections.

2. An Effective Strategy for North Korean Democratization

1) Anti-regime activity in North Korea and the democratization trend

○ The foremost leaders of North Korea’s democratization are the North Korean people themselves. South Korea will only support it. The North Korean problem shall be fundamentally solved only after the Kim Jong Il regime, which enslaves the North Korean people under Suryeong dictatorship and makes them suffer from starvation and suppression, is replaced. Therefore, the best solution is to have the North Korean people replace the regime. However, currently, the North Korean people do not enjoy basic rights like freedom of demonstration, study and conscience. Given that, demanding the North Korean people to democratize the country on their own is excessive. Such attitude is even irresponsible.

○ To help the North Koreans to lead North Korea’s change, practical support should be organized. Those who need outside support the most are the democratization faction inside the country. Supporting them has lots of risk, and there needs to be broad discussion. However, without a group to lead change in North Korea, democracy cannot be achieved.

○ In a country like North Korea, which restricts its population so much, activities of politically aware and trained democracy fighters are necessary. Only with their activities can the people’s spirit be enlightened, and they will be encouraged to act for democracy if the right chance comes. It is impossible to conduct anti-government resistance for a long time with a pro-democracy faction. Thus, though small in number, elite freedom fighters must enlighten people through sacrificing anti-regime activities.

○ The anti-regime activities in North Korea known to the outside world are limited. Hwang Jang Yop, former Korean Workers’ Party secretary who defected to South Korea, said that some students came to him, while he was president of Kim Il Sung University, and told him that they would fight against Kim Jong Il. Hwang advised them to wait for the critical moment. Also, a National Security Agency official told him about how young anti-government activists were being executed. The young people courageously faced death by telling each other, “Let’s meet again in the afterlife.” Professor Lee Young Hwa of Kansai University also revealed his experience of attending a meeting of anti-regime intellectuals while studying in North Korea.

○ In 2006, a poster saying ‘Military-first policy starves people, don’t feed just soldiers, but give the people rice’ was found near Danchon station in South Hamkyoung province. In the video footage that shows the poster, residents who were looking at the poster said, “There was a similar paper posted on the wall last year. It is well-written.” In addition, North Korean people have had some kind of resistance against the authorities. In September 2007, at the Nammun market in Hoeryong, North Hamkyong province, merchants, family members and local residents created a disturbance at the market management office to ask for returning market restoration costs and permission for their businesses.

○ Despite the worst suppression, anti-regime incidents continue, because popular dissatisfaction is increasing. In other words, a precious spirit of resistance for freedom exists among the North Korean people, despite the repressive environment.

○ Another favorable change is that North Korean people are not isolated from outside information anymore. North Korean residents can compare their country with the outside world because of contact with defectors, Sino-Korean trade and radio. In addition to this flow of information, people’s life is not getting better since the famine, so an anti-Kim Jong Il attitude is spreading among the population.

2) The Role of South Korean Government and Politicians in NK Democratization

○ It is problematic for the South Korean government or a political party to adopt democratization of North Korea as official policy. The reality is that the Kim Jong Il regime represents North Korea, and it is the counterpart at inter-Korean talks.

○ Therefore, if the current government is to play a role in North Korean democratization, it shall focus on institutionalizing North Korean human rights policy. The North Korean Human Rights Act, submitted to and pending at the National Assembly, lists the government’s North Korean human rights policies.

○ The legislation emphasizes providing human rights-related institutional devices like ▲establishing a North Korean human rights ambassadorship ▲assisting NKHR NGOs ▲setting up a NKHR Archives ▲establishing a NKHR foundation ▲and supporting defectors.

○ It would introduce incentives of giving aid to North Korea in exchange for human rights improvements. If there is no change in the current ruling system in North Korea, it is unlikely that the regime will pursue improvements in the area of human rights. However, if the regime is in a desperate situation, or faces danger of regime change, it might be possible to induce such a voluntary response. In case of West Germany, it paid 3.5 billion marks to have political prisoners released from East Germany from 1963 to 1989.

3) The Role of Civil Society in North Korean Democratization

○ The role of civil society is to strengthen the flow of information into North Korea. The crucial reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was that people could obtain outside information. In North Korea, every form of media is under restriction. However, the restrictions recently are being loosened. According to a survey among defectors in 2005, it is found that 4% of the respondents said they had listened to outside shortwave radio and 11% to medium-wave. The numbers are expected to increase.

○ The role of private radios must expand. The government’s role is limited, since it has to deal with North Korea officially. In South Korea, there are four private broadcasters to North Korea, not including religious ones, and their transmitting times and programs need to expand and improve.

○ It is very important to increase the number of radios being sent into North Korea. Given North Korea’s electricity situation, providing batteries should also be considered. Such activities are difficult to be done by governments, so NGOs with experience and know-how must lead the activities.

○ Leaflet sending operations can have a big impact, too. According to informants in North Korea, party officials were lectured about this. The lecture’s title was, “On strengthening clandestine activities and destroying the enemy’s anti-republic behavior.”

○ Sending videos to North Korea is also crucial, since they can make use of the Korean Wave (Hallyu) phenomenon. According to defectors, South Korean soap operas are very popular among North Korean residents. CDs and DVDs made in China are circulated at cheap prices, and government’s restrictions have loosened. This situation can be exploited by making videos about democratization and the demise of dictatorships in other countries.

4) Cooperation between South Korea’s Government and Civilian Sector in Supporting North Korean Democratization

○ Combining several conditions in and outside of North Korea, two factors are to be considered in supporting the pro-democracy faction. First, to avoid crippling or destroying capacity to affect change over the long run, one must be careful to not conduct activities with only momentary, short-run gain. Even though the regime became weakened after the famine, anti-regime activities are still under special surveillance. Therefore, until conditions become ripe, preserving and strengthening existing pro-democracy capability needs to be emphasized. To accumulate inside capability, outside elements must provide democracy education materials, outside information and finances for activities for the pro-democracy faction.

○ Secondly, it needs to be considered that North Korea is a militarized society. The whole North Korean society sustains the military, and most people belong to militia organizations. The number of regular armed forces personnel exceeds one million. Given the nature of the society, it is impossible to bring a change in power solely by the people’s uprising without cooperation or involvement of the army. Therefore, ideologically aware army personnel must be prepared to participate in democratization activities or to side with people when they rise up against the regime. Networks inside North Korea must be mobilized to help the armed forces to fight against the Kim Jong Il regime. There is a limit to the kinds of activities that can be conducted by civilians only, so cooperation between the government and the civilian sector is required.

○ While directly helping the pro-democracy faction in North Korea, it needs to help indirectly by raising new elites with proper ideology. The new power group cannot become the driving force of North Korea’s democratization quickly, but in the mid- to long-long term, they can play a certain role as part of the alternative group. North Korea not only needs regime change but has to undergo reconstruction. Also, while it is difficult for the South Korean government to support anti-regime activities in North Korea, it can assist raising the new generation, and a cooperation structure with the civilian sector can be devised. Since it is a project to prepare for North Korea’s opening and future elites, it will be beneficial to South Korea in the longer term.

○ Also, another role that can be expected from the South Korean government is to support North Korea’s industrial trainees. For example, the government can subsidize South Korean companies in China, which hire and teach technology among North Korean trainees. A South Korean company taught North Korean industrial trainees at its factory in China for several months and built factory inside North Korea. To make this activity available, the South Korean government must be willing to provide progressive incentives. The North Korean government also may regard this as attractive, because salaries to the trainees can contribute to its foreign currency earning activities.

5) Role of International Society to Support North Korea’s Democratization

○ Each government has the same dilemma of facing North Korean government as counterpart of negotiation. Therefore, responsible countries’ governments shall support the non-governmental organizations that work for North Korea’s human rights and democracy. This is a two-track strategy to divide the role between governments and private sector.

○ For example, the North Korean Human Rights Act, passed by the US Congress but not has been executed yet, must be executed to support NGOs on North Korean human rights and democratization, thus promoting democracy in North Korea indirectly. Also, systematic and long-term support strategy to raise civil society activists in North Korea must be formulated.

○ Also, through international human rights regimes like UN Human Rights Council, ICC and International Parliamentary Union, pressure on human rights shall continue. UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has criticized North Korea’s human rights violation, and in last July, North Korean human right organizations established Crimes Against Humanity Investigation Committee, to start a movement to indict Kim Jong Il at ICC for North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Therefore, human rights pressure using international organizations and protection system must be strengthened.

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