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Campus Talk: Perspectives of University Students on North Korean Human Rights

June 13, 2012

The following discussion appeared in the February 2011 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet intern Jennifer Machie and editing by volunteer Robert Lauler.

Date: January 10, 2011, 4 p.m.
Location: NK Vision Conference Room
Interviewer: Kang Won Cheol
Participants: Pak — —, Yonsei University, Junior, Director of North Korean Youth for North Korea Human Rights (entered South Korea in 2006)
Jung Soo Hyun, Seoul Women’s University, Senior, Deputy Chief of the Democratic Party College Student Advisory Group
Pyun Jong Shik, Dankuk University, Sophomore, Member of Youth and Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea

According to a report on 2010 employment trends by Statistics Korea (the national statistics office), the unemployment rate among young people that has hovered around 8 percent over the past two years is continuing along with a severe shortage of jobs. Young people have been largely untouched by the increase of more than 300,000 people in the job market last year. As a result of the severe unemployment crisis, many so-called “all play, no study” students have long since disappeared from university campuses. Instead, the number of students who spend all their time in cram schools as soon as they enter university has been steadily increasing, and students even spend their vacations trying to improve their “specs” (i.e., level of education, grades and TOEIC scores). It is enough to feel that the university has fallen from its status of being an “ivory tower” for higher learning to simply a place where students prepare for the job market. Not surprisingly, it is not easy for university students to carry much interest in the issue of North Korean human rights. This may, in fact, be natural considering current social conditions in South Korea where the collectivist sentiment of the past is being overtaken by a new culture of individualism. Despite this social atmosphere, there have always been students who think and act differently from the rest of the crowd. Students like these are the driving force behind the maintenance of a healthy society in South Korea. The three university students who participated in the following discussion on the topic of North Korean human rights are clear representatives of these kinds of students.

Can you think of any particular reason why you became interested in the North Korean human rights issue?

Pak: Before I entered university, I had no idea that the things taking place in North Korea were human rights abuses, because in North Korea the words “freedom” and “human rights” do not exist. Due to my ignorance, even while living underground in China I thought that living like that was natural because I was born in North Korea. I later realized that the reason I had to come to South Korea was because of the issue of human rights in North Korea. After realizing this, I felt sorry for and took more interest in my friends and family still suffering from human rights abuse in North Korea. (Ms. Pak escaped from North Korea in 1998 and entered South Korea in 2006)

Jung Soo Hyun: In the last administration, there were many policies geared toward providing humanitarian aid to North Korea. The current administration, however, has implemented a North Korea policy based on the principle of reciprocity, and we have seen the suspension of aid to the North and other such changes. I think that this has led to a situation where the difficult conditions that North Korean people are going through are in the media more. This, I think, has led to an increasing awareness on my part about the human rights issue in the country. I began to think that given the fact we are all Koreans, if we do not take an interest in North Korean human rights then more confusion will arise later after reunification. With this new perspective, I began to take an interest in this issue.

Pyun Jong Shik: My dream is to become an intelligence agent specializing in North Korea for the National Intelligence Service (NIS) so I can help in a small way to bring about North Korean democracy and the reunification of the two Koreas. After entering college, I took part in the North Korean Human Rights Specialist Academy organized by the Youth and Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (YoungNK) in order to deepen my knowledge about the country. It was there that I became aware of the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea. I was able to learn about unimaginable and shocking cases of human rights abuse taking place even as we speak, and this led me to take an interest in the issue of North Korean human rights.

How much do you know about the human rights abuses that are being committed in North Korea?

Pyun Jong Shik: I became aware of North Korean human rights abuses through North Korea-related books and media, as well as through conversations with defectors. As I became more knowledgeable about North Korea, it dawned on me that the severe human rights abuses being committed there were more than what I could ever imagine. It has now been two years since I began to take interest in the North Korean human rights issue. Despite my awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea, I am saddened the more I learn about human rights abuses in the country.

Pak: When I was ten years old (in 1998) I crossed the Tumen River with one of my parents. While living underground in China for seven years as illegal border crossers (defectors) we were arrested by the Chinese police and repatriated back to North Korea three times. I heard many stories about infanticide while confined in the camps of North Korea. At that time it did not occur to me, but after coming to South Korea I realized that those infanticides were a severe form of human rights abuse. Moreover, I think that the North Korean government’s inability to solve the fundamental issue of providing food to its citizens and the existence of political prisoner camps are forms of human rights abuse.

Jung Soo Hyun: Honestly, I do not know a lot about North Korean human rights abuses. I think I know as much as an ordinary university student would. After watching the movie “Crossing,” I was able to learn a little bit about the lives of North Koreans. After that, I became more interested in North Korean human rights while hearing about the currency reform implemented in the country and listening to North Korea-related news. I had a desire to learn more about North Korea and I participated in the academy hosted by the Youth and Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. Through that experience I was able to learn more about the lives of North Koreans.

“Human rights” and “equality” are slogans advanced by the progressives in South Korea. Why do you think progressives in South Korea are silent on the issue of North Korean human rights?

Jung Soo Hyun: I think this is because progressives view the human rights issue concerning regular citizens and the government as the same. As you all know, the Democratic Labor Party kept silent in regards to the third generation succession that took place in North Korea. I personally am very critical of their silence on the issue. I think that Democratic Labor Party Representative Lee Jong Hee should have criticized what needed to be criticized at that moment. Similarly, I think it is also right to take a critical stance on the issue of North Korean human rights, but I am disappointed because the progressives in our country have not done that. This brings us to the question whether the slogans of “human rights” and “equality” the progressives talk about are genuine. However, I also think that the current conservative government is not genuinely for human rights in North Korea. I think they are just using the issue for their own political advantage.

Pak: When examining South Korea’s political history, I got the impression that leftists have been deeply influenced by North Korea. Furthermore, they have insisted that North Korea is an ideal society. However, as the truth about North Korea has been brought to light, it has become clear that their actions and words were wrong. Regardless, it seems like they are unable to move away from their past opinions and viewpoints. From their perspective, raising the issue of North Korean human rights is the same as criticizing the North Korean government and would dismantle the justification for their past actions. This is because of the friendly relationship that they maintained with the North Korean government in the past. I think they, too, are aware of the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea.

Pyun Jong Shik: I see the issue of North Korean human rights as the Achilles’ heel of progressives in South Korea. The severe human rights situation in North Korea must be frustrating to progressives who spare no opportunity to talk about “human rights,” “freedom” and “peace.” Criticizing the real state of affairs in North Korea would unavoidably lead to an uproar from within their own political camp that such criticism benefits their opposition, i.e., the conservatives. I think that the issue of North Korean human rights has become an important standard for judging real progressives from fake ones.

Why do you think there is a lack of interest among university students on the issue of North Korean human rights?

Pyun Jong Shik: I think they believe their involvement in the issue will not help in fulfilling their own dreams for the future. University students these days are confronted by an array of issues including the unemployment crisis and economic instability and are consumed by these issues. They think they have no time to take interest in the issues of North Korea and reunification. Specifically, they don’t believe the issue has any real relation with their own lives because it is not a pressing issue they are directly confronted with.

Jung Soo Hyun: I think the problem is with education. As you know, the primary education students receive in South Korea contains almost nothing on North Korea. This makes it difficult for students to properly understand the country. Furthermore, the mass media focuses more on the North Korean government than on issues concerning human rights. Under these circumstances, the issue of North Korean human rights has failed to garner substantial attention from the general public. Apathy towards politics in South Korea can be explained in a similar way. University students are displaying an apathetic attitude not only toward the issue of North Korean human rights, but also toward domestic social and political issues.

Pak: Worries over an unstable future have led university students to think only about how to make a living after graduation. They also try to find volunteer opportunities that will help pad their resumes. Unfortunately, there are few people who recognize that participating in activities related to North Korea is a worthwhile use of time. The lack of financial gain from doing these activities further prevents university students from taking an interest in the issue. Furthermore, the generations born after democratization have been unable to hear much about North Korea. Of course, those older than us have heard more about North Korea than we have. Shockingly, however, there are many people in our generation who are completely ignorant about North Korea. From what I have seen, those who are interested in the issue are largely those who have fled the country or are their descendents.

Suppose that you are a university student living in North Korea. What would you ask of South Korean society and university students in order to improve North Korean human rights and your own quality of life?

Pak: I would ask that they let North Koreans watch South Korean dramas and listen to South Korean songs as much as they want. North Korea is very closed off, but through their border with China and China’s broadcasting of propaganda, North Koreans know a lot of South Korean songs. North Korea is cracking down on this strongly, but North Korean youth, just like South Korean youth, have a lot of interest in South Korean dramas and songs. Of course, I would also request that South Korea address the issue of making a living in North Korea, but if I were a North Korean university student then I think I would ask South Korea for those things.

Pyun Jong Shik: If I were a university student living in North Korea, I think I would ask for food and relief supplies that are currently needed desperately in North Korea. The GNP (gross national product) of South Korea is now approximately 44 times more than that of North Korea. Since South Korea is economically superior, I think that I would ask them to help improve North Korean living conditions, provided that there is transparency in the economic aid provided.

Jung Soo Hyun: I think I would ask for things like videos and dramas after the living conditions in North Korea improved. Everyone knows that they’re fun to watch. They tell stories from a different world than I would live in, and I think I would want to watch them because they would let me feel how it is to live there. However, if there were no improvements in living conditions, then I would probably request things like food or fertilizer.

Imagine you are a South Korean citizen who can travel in out and of North Korea and meet with anyone without any restrictions for one year. In these circumstances, what would you want to do the most?

Pak: I would really like to see my father who is living in North Korea. I would also want to show my favorite South Korean dramas to my North Korean friends and relatives. Through dramas, I would want to let them know that there is really a place like South Korea. I would also like to teach young North Koreans about democracy and the market system.

Jung Soo Hyun: The most obvious thing North Korea needs right now is food. I would like to farm high-yield crops like potatoes and corn with North Korean people. In terms of nutrition and education, I would really like to perform education and relief activities for kotjebi (child beggars). I lack knowledge about performing medical treatment, but in the case of malnutrition all they need is food. Also, with traditional folk remedies available, I would like to help improve their nutrition.

Pyun Jong Shik: I would like to work in making sure the food and relief supplies South Koreans send to North Korea is being provided to those it is intended for. I would like to improve, if only a little, the harsh reality of oppression and starvation suffered by North Koreans under Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship, as well as solve the most urgent problems of food, clothing and shelter in the country.

Please mention any ideas you may have for provoking interest in North Korea among your fellow university students.

Jung Soo Hyun: If and when reunification occurs, North Korea will be seen as a land of gold. For example, right now South Korea’s construction industry is saturated. However, if reunification occurs, then many construction companies will be able to work in North Korea. It will be an amazing opportunity for the construction industry. Presently, even though many know the positive changes that will occur after reunification, they are uninterested in both reunification and North Korea. I think it is time for the government to actively step forward. I think that at the government level a committee should be established to help prepare for reunification. If the government steps forward, university students will begin to think that participating in North Korean-related studies and activities will positively affect their future. This will involve tapping into the materialistic desires of money and social status that university students today have.

Pyun Jong Shik: I think one good idea would be to hold a series of travelling lectures nationwide with North Korea experts on how ignorance of North Korea will negatively affect our future. We could provoke interest in these lectures through the media and by distributing brochures to universities throughout the country. The lectures will help people realize that ignorance of North Korea will hinder the social integration of the two Koreas once reunification becomes a reality. In the long-term, there has to be an effort to persuade people that they have nothing to lose in learning about their neighbors to the north.

Pak: I think that defectors attending university should actively step forward and actively publicize the reality of human rights in North Korea. This would entail having them talk about what they saw and felt in the country to their South Korean friends in order to increase interest in North Korea. I think this would be a very effective strategy. In my experience, even South Korean friends that formerly had had no interest in North Korea soon found themselves caring more about the country after they held conversations with defectors. From a social perspective, I think there needs to be an effort by the government to help foster public interest in North Korean human rights. It is common knowledge that many people apply to do volunteer work in Africa because it helps pad their resume. I also wonder if it might be a good idea to provide incentives to university students participating in activities related to North Korean human rights to help increase the attractiveness of getting involved.

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