An Interview with Christian Activist Tim Peters, Founder of Helping Hands Korea
February 27, 2013
The following interview with Christian activist Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea and long-term advocate for North Korean Human Rights, was conducted last month for an article that appeared in the February 2013 issue of NK Vision. Thank you to NKnet intern Nova Mercier for transcribing the interview and doing much of the editing.
Naturally, because life in North Korea for the rank and file is so deplorable and constrained, I have many aspirations for improvement. One of the most urgent would be to see a resolution of human rights violations in North Korea, the conditions are especially desperate in the DPRK’s prison system.
My hope is that the South Korean government becomes much more courageous in standing up for the rights of North Koreans, particularly those in transit from North Korea to South Korea. I hope that the new administration in Seoul will strongly defend their rights, as these people are in great danger after leaving North Korea.
There are so many areas in which improvements need to be made! I also hope the US, Japan, EU, and South Korea could separate trade issues from refugee and human rights issues when dealing with China. This is a barrier to progress in protecting refugees and stateless children in China. All aspects of the relationships between major governments seem to be held hostage to trade considerations. This is highly unfortunate and I hope that these issues can be decoupled and dealt with in a firm and principled way.
Essentially, governments have to ask themselves: do we really believe in justice? Do we really believe in protection for the vulnerable? Do we really believe in humanitarian values? Or are we a purely mercantile society that wants trade at any cost?
I fully understand that every society has to make a decision about what is most important to its members. But if we truly call ourselves democracies and republics, and we really care about the rule of law and human rights and freedoms, our commitment to those values should not vacillate depending on the economy.
We should not be a fair-weather friend in our commitment to human rights and other personal freedoms.
What are your thoughts on how the new administrations in East Asia and the United States will approach North Korea?
I certainly hope that the new administration in South Korea will place priority on the North Korean issue. I think President-elect Park is coming into the position at a critical juncture. I would obviously hope that Ms. Park proves herself as a capable politician. I do feel that she has an added burden to carry, which is in a sense to reverse the legacy of her father who was dismissive of human rights back in the 1970s. I hope she manifests this responsibility by addressing it in a courageous way, not only in regards to North Korean refugees, but also in regards to prisoners in North Korea. This is in addition to dealing with a list of concerns about a population (in North Korea) that is essentially in slavery with no rights whatsoever. My hope is that this would be a key policy plank in her administration. If this were to materialize, it would be a truly historic move for Korea.
In regards to President Obama, I strongly believe that he needs to move beyond symbolism when dealing with North Korean Human Rights issues, as well as with third countries where North Koreans are in jeopardy. The passage of the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act is an example. There is in my understanding nothing binding about this new piece of legislation. It simply recommends that the Department of State come up with some strategy to deal with these children.
The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was also passed unanimously by Congress. Yet in the nine years since that time only about 150 North Koreans have been granted asylum in the US. In addition, the NGO community dealing with North Korean refugees got a very painful civics lesson in the difference between “Congressional authorization” and administration budgetary appropriation of funding for desperately important refugee assistance programs. This is a pitiful record. This act was more or less a symbol that allowed both the Congress and the Bush administration to “salute the flag,” so to speak, then put the flag away. This issue, in my view, cannot be dealt with in such an insubstantial, even cynical way.
I would urge the Obama administration to go beyond this symbolism and address the substantive issues in order to protect the North Korean people, in addition to providing full support to a UN COI (United Nations Commission of Inquiry) into the hum an rights situation within North Korea.
Prime Minister Abe in Japan shows every indication that he is concerned about the North Korean Human Rights situation, but I’m a little concerned that he narrowly focuses on the abductee issue. There are a very small number of Japanese abductees in North Korea. I would urge Prime Minister Abe to listen to his advisers in the NGOs and civil society and broaden his focus to all North Korean people, in addition to providing support for the COI and North Korean refugees in third countries.
While not Abe’s decision, the Japanese government recently agreed to stop accepting North Korean refugees in their embassies and consulates in China. This is unfortunate on their part, as it’s like backpedaling to the old way of doing things. I hope that Abe will show more courage and act on principle, not just Japan’s commercial interests with China.
In terms of incoming President Xi Jinping, there is an old saying in the West: hope springs eternal. In other words, we can always have hope despite prevailing circumstances that don’t necessarily appear hopeful. I’m cautiously optimistic that Xi understands that maintaining unconditional support for the North Korean government is squarely on the wrong side of history. I hope that he is more enlightened and will maintain a forward-looking policy that incorporates the values that many young, educated Chinese people now hold. These young Chinese are disgusted with the old relationship that China maintains with North Korea. I hope Xi listens and reevaluates the “lips and teeth” support, and that his administration begins to approach North Korea in a more careful and conditional way.
What are your thoughts on the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea?
The international community is at a standstill. With the exception of refugee testimonies, and books showing actual drawings from artists who have seen the inside of the gulags, there is a real lack of any objective kind of information about what is going on inside of the North Korean prison system.
Of course we have heard from thousands of refugees that the situation is extraordinarily serious. Many of these refugees have been prisoners in various levels of the system. Nevertheless, we don’t have independent objective information from delegations or a commission who have witnessed the situation with their own eyes.
I have to say that the United Nations has been disappointing at many levels in regards to North Korean Human Rights. From an NGO’s perspective I am disappointed in the UNHCR with regards to their track record in China. Regardless, we have to keep trying and the COI is the next step forward. It’s like trying to open North Korea with a can opener. Even the threats of sanctions issued from the international community in order pressure North Korea are worthwhile. Let’s try everything in the toolbox!
However, this is not what my efforts are focused on. While this kind of action is meaningful and worthwhile, I’m very busy with the activities I’ve been involved in for the last 17 years; helping individual North Koreans in stress or crisis from within North Korea or in a third country. I’m a strong believer of changing North Korea one life at a time until more “macro-level instruments” become available. Nevertheless, I’m very happy to join ICNK (The International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea) to push for the COI, along with such organizations whose main job is advocacy.
Do you think there is a possibility that the COI will come to fruition?
If you look at it in a very analytical and objective way, there is some room to question whether or not the COI will even make it through the UN system. But I’m a believer in pushing with all of our might and doing everything possible, as well as asking for help from above.
Yesterday the UNHCR Commissioner for Refugees came out and publicly supported the COI. From an advocacy standpoint we welcome that support. But I’m afraid to say their track record has not been that impressive.
Do you believe that the situation in North Korea could be externally assessed if a COI is established?
The UN Special Rapporteur (on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK) has, as yet, not been granted permission to enter North Korea. And do we have any indication that US (Special) Envoy (for North Korean Human Rights Issues) King’s one trip inside North Korea was anything more than a “Potemkin Village” guided tour? That’s why I think that, if you look at it from an objective standpoint, it’s not terribly hopeful that such an external investigative delegation (i.e. a COI) would be allowed to carry out such a mandate unhindered in the North, even if they were to be allowed on DPRK soil. Even so, it’s worth a try!
However, the fact that the COI would be supported by the whole UN system including the General Assembly in a way brings the issue to a whole new level beyond the scope of the Special Rapporteur. Anything that would raise acute attention within the UN, the Security Council, and the General Assembly is good. It’s one more factor that would help the world concentrate in on the issue. Even the effort required to push the COI through will in itself inform and educate the world community about the situation in North Korea. At the very least, the COI will be an educational tool and will raise awareness, shock and outrage on a global scale, and galvanize people into action.
What are the capabilities of the US government in promoting North Korean Human Rights?
The US is certainly capable when it comes to effective cooperation, but I believe they should be playing a very strategic and supportive role for initiatives originating out of East Asia. I don’t think their role is dominant in this case, but they could play a strategic and supportive role if the South Korean strategy is robust. In terms of North Korean Human Rights, that’s a big “if.” If South Korean strategy is overly compromised due to trade and economic considerations with China, then in a way the US is forced into a more central role. It’s more preferable if they play a strategic and supportive role, in my opinion.
For example, the South Korean National Assembly has been unable to pass the North Korean Human Rights Act. This is unfortunate as it demonstrates there is lack of united political will to address a hugely serious human rights problem, a problem that no one disagrees on as to its severity. Until South Korean society and the political community can put aside their differences and say “this is a human rights disaster,” the rest of the world will continue to stand back and say, “How can we help in this situation if the Korean people don’t take the lead?”
What has been the nature of your work during recent years?
The subtitle of our organization is “Assisting North Koreans in Crisis.” We continue to do that by delivering food aid inside the country. That’s how we started out 17 years ago. However, this is not our main work.
We also continue to help kotjebi (꽃제비 – North Korean orphans) that have made their way across the river into China to escape state institutions where there is not enough care or food.
Another group consists of children of North Korean women who have been trafficked into China. These children are orphaned when their mothers are caught by officials in China and sent back to North Korea. Often the father bought the mother for around one million won and do not see that child as their own. There are many children like these who are subject to abandonment and mistreatment. I consider these children who have lost their mothers to repatriation the forefront of the refugee crisis.
It is important to differentiate between these children and the kotjebi, who have two North Korean parents.
We are also doing our best to help fellow Christians in North Korea by providing clothing and medicine. We are actively helping Christian refugees as well. Part of our work is humanitarian and part of it is introducing refugees to the Christian faith, including the distribution of Bibles.
What is the situation like for Christians in North Korea?
Genuine Christians remain underground. Their situation is very difficult as state persecution of Christians continues. I’m not talking about the show churches in Pyongyang. I’m talking about those who meet secretly in their houses. To give some perspective, the organization Open Doors International has deemed North Korea the worst government in the world for persecution of Christians for the ninth year in a row. Christians face execution or life imprisonment along with their entire family. If someone is a known Christian they are the absolute bottom in the North Korean social stratification system. The condition of true Christians in North Korea is very serious and grave. Nobody can say for sure how many exist. Based on historical underground church records, rough estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000 people.
What is the situation of refugees in third countries?
It has become increasingly difficult to leave North Korea since Kim Jong Il died. North Korea and China are cooperating at higher and higher administrative levels to lock down the border, similar to the way that prison officials lock down the boundaries of a prison when a prison break appears imminent. China is putting up long barbed wire fences that are kilometers long. In the last 12-15 months the numbers of those refugees making it to South Korea have dropped. This is reflective of how difficult it is becoming to get into China from the DPRK and to transit the Middle Kingdom to safe havens in third countries.
In regards to other third countries, the human rights community is grateful for the cooperation of the Mongolian and Thai governments in helping process refugees. The Vietnamese situation is continuing to be very difficult. About eight years ago there were 480 refugees (who left Vietnam for South Korea) at once, and (after that) the Vietnamese said they would no longer provide exit visas.
Cambodia is somewhat more helpful, but the situation in Laos is complicated. Unfortunately, I have to mention that based on reports within the aid community, the South Korean embassy in Laos requires a payment from each refugee (or accompanying activist) of about $300 in order for them to be processed further. A group of us expressed deep concern to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently about the situation in Laos. That is an added burden for those seeking refuge. This diplomatic policy needs to be reevaluated and changed because the North Korean refugees are in great danger in Laos. They could be put into prison or sent back to China if detained by Laotian security officials.
Is it true that many North Koreans now spend less time in China and travel directly to South Korea?
There is no simple answer to that question as people are on different pipelines. Some are well connected to family here in South Korea. But let’s not forget that 70-80% of refugees are women. There are thousands upon thousands of North Korean women left in China who have been sold to Chinese men. Many of these women have been there for years, yet they are still refugees. I think we have to be careful not to assume that the low numbers coming through Thailand mean that there are less refugees in China. I disagree with this based on my own personal observation.
There are also children in this group who are now teenagers. This means that some of their mothers must have also been in China that long. This leads me to believe that the situation in China is still serious. In addition, many have moved inland away from the border.
Again, I want to caution against an easy assessment. Let’s face it, this crisis has been continuing for 18 years and is now very complex. You can find North Koreans in Beijing, Southern China, and Northeastern China. Several years ago we helped some refugees in Thailand, and we identified ourselves to the police there that we wanted to help these people get to safety. The police put us in a room and said “Our intelligence service in Thailand tells us that there are up to 100,000 refugees along the South-western border with China.” I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I do believe that many North Koreans have moved deeper into China as they’ve been sold there. They may be working in nightclubs or they may have been trafficked deeper in into the South.
I have difficulty saying how many refugees there are in total, but it’s true that those who are well connected are moving quickly. In a way, these fast-track refugees are “refugee VIPs.” Their family members pay big money and they get special treatment. Those stranded in China who are not well connected are the people we are working with. They are in huge danger of being sent back.
What is China’s policy on refugees?
This has to be analyzed at a national level as well as a local level. China is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and their national policy continues to be in violation of international norms and obligations. It’s an open violation and a flagrance of international law that refugees are continued to be labeled as economic migrants.
On the local level the situation can vary, especially for those women who have been sold to Chinese men. If they are constantly repatriated the husbands get very upset. Over time these husbands have become very vocal to their local governments, saying “you are sending back the mother of my child.” Some local governments have become more flexible as long as the household remains stable. The authorities are not immediately attacking that household. But as this practice is not protected by Chinese law, the situation could change at any time if Beijing says, “send back all North Koreans.”
North Korean women are denied residential status as they are classified as illegal economic migrants. This means that as long as they remain in the household their children are denied residential status also. The horrible reality is that if a Chinese husband wants his child to be registered as a Chinese citizen he has to provide a police report that his wife has been sent back to North Korea. This tramples upon every basic human right and continues year after year. It also feeds into bribery and corruption at the local level as people try desperately to keep their families together.
What is your assessment of the Kim Jong Un regime?
Two decisions in particular have shaped my opinion of Kim Jong Un’s value system. The first was the decision to spend an enormous amount of money on an amusement park in Pyongyang when so many millions are starving and malnourished. The second was the missile launch. It was not so much the security implications that were important, but rather the enormous expenditure. It was clear to me that he values image and the military arsenal as completely superior to the health and wellbeing of the citizens of North Korea. This was naturally disappointing for me as I had thought there was at least some hope of a humanitarian, protective policy for the average citizen of North Korea.
I think the more appropriate question would be, “What do you think about the administration of Kim Kyoung Hee and Jang Sung Taek?” I don’t believe that Kim Jong Un is really at the helm in North Korea. I think Jang Sung Taek is acting as a regent for the immature 29-year-old who has no serious governmental experience or experience with the responsibility of dealing with 20+ million people. I imagine they are the ones guiding the decisions. In any case, my assessment is poor. As those in charge continue to weaken the country through poor administration, the country becomes more dependent on China every passing day. In my opinion this is a very dangerous thing for the chances of reunification and for the average citizen of North Korea.
I feel the tragedy of this is that Kim Jong Un is out of his depth. I liken him to a five-year-old attempting to speak at a PhD conference. China is watching this situation carefully and urging North Korea to become increasingly dependent on them. It is very alarming that most of the monetary transactions in North Korea are in Chinese yuan. This means that North Korea is gradually becoming a satellite of the Chinese empire. As that relationship grows stronger the chances of reunification lessen, as well as the chance for freedom.
Do you think that the current situation is stable?
I think there is a kind of stability, but it’s not due to good governance. It’s because of this dependency. I don’t believe that Beijing will allow North Korea to become unstable, so it provides just enough aid to prevent the system from collapsing. This is not to the credit of North Korean leaders. This is China in the background orchestrating a tributary state model. I find this very disturbing because China appears to be extremely skillful at this.
Please suggest ways to improve the North Korean Human Rights situation.
I am very passionate about separating the North Korean Human Rights movement from the political prism through which NGOs are viewed. Whether the angle is conservative, progressive, radical, or left-wing, these types of divisions are totally irrelevant. The NGO community should not be evaluated by political overlay. This applies to South Korea in particular. This kind of labeling is not helpful and blocks cooperation.
The North Korean Human Rights movement should also not be held hostage by conservative organizations. As a matter of fact, some of the leaders of the current movement used to belong to the left-wing democratization movement (in South Korea). I believe we need both of these groups to work together. I very much hope we can remove the labels and move in this direction in 2013.
In a way, this human rights movement is an opportunity to leave the past behind and abandon the legacy of the military dictatorships. In many ways the conservative organizations have to carry the burden that they were supportive of these dictatorships. On the other hand, some of those in the left-wing were fascinated with Juche ideology back in the 1980s and 1990s and later grew disenchanted. Everyone on both sides has had lessons to learn.
Do you have any suggestions as to how these two parties can separate themselves from politics and cooperate with each other?
I feel we need to have a more open dialogue about the things we share in common. This is why I’ve held the Catacombs meeting every Tuesday for the last 15 years. I tell everyone to leave their NGO identity at the door and to simply discuss what we all have in common. I wanted to create a platform where people could come and share their feelings. The North Korean Human Rights movement is not very big. If it’s fragmented, too, it’s even more of a problem.
However, very few organizations attend even though I invite everyone. We discuss North Korea in general. Everyone is welcome, including media people, students, teachers, diplomats, you name it, people have come. I want it to be an open forum, a place where people connect.
What is your assessment on how much those in the liberal parties in South Korea know about North Korean Human Rights issues?
That’s a political question that I’d rather not get involved with. In general, I don’t see how any educated, intelligent individual could have blinders on in regards to this issue. People owe it to themselves to objectively educate themselves on the situation in North Korea. Fifteen years ago there was the excuse that we didn’t really know what was going on, but the time where we could claim ignorance has long since passed. The North Korean situation is now an objective reality.
It is not only those on the progressive end of the spectrum who may have blinders on, it’s also those who are wrapped up in their business, education, or reputation. Society in general needs a wakeup call to the catastrophe that is occurring. In my view, how South Korea treats this whole issue will determine whether South Korea can attain advanced country status. It’s not just a simple question of economics. Will South Korea approach the issue like West Germany did with East Germany? Will it deal with the situation in a mature fashion, or not? This will be a test, and not just a test solely related to how well the country is doing on the stock market.
How would you evaluate your work in the past, and how do you view those who are working to reach North Korea on the inside?
We were running the Ton-a-Month Club in the early days of our organization, around 1997-98. We were essentially experimenting with sending in aid. Naturally, whenever you’re helping those in the country itself your partner is the North Korean government, whether you like it or believe in it or not. I found that unsatisfactory and therefore began to research how to help North Koreans who had left the country. This effectively eliminated the North Korean government as the middle man.
90% of my work is helping those who have left, except for a few very careful channels through which food, clothing, and medicine is sent into the country. But the lion’s share of my effort goes to those who have escaped. That way, I can partner with those who share my values and there is transparency. In dealing with the North Korean government there is no transparency.
What should the South Korean government do?
I previously mentioned separating trade issue from human rights issues. This would include protecting not just refugees but South Korean citizens also. One example is Kim Young Hwan, who obviously suffered torture and severe abuse in China. I would strongly urge the South Korean government to protest to the Chinese in a case like that. Let’s just say that Israel had had one of its citizens treated in that way. They would explode. Every conceivable channel would be utilized to get their citizen back. A strong principled stance is needed from South Korea in regards to its citizens and North Korean refugees, who are de facto citizens of South Korea.
Can you talk about your own personal goals?
2015 will mark 40 years since I first came to South Korea. I haven’t been doing this continuously but my first time as a volunteer in Korea was 1975. By my 40th year I would very much like to see some meaningful breakthrough in regards to the individual citizens of North Korea being freed and feeling relief from oppression. I don’t know whether that will be from the outside and they are refugees, or the situation changes from within North Korea itself. It is my dream that they can feel for the first time the sunshine out of the darkness.
I also have a dream that the North Korean people have a chance to hear the good news of the Bible. It is very deep in my heart that they can choose to hear the good news of the gospel of the New Testament. That is central to me, even though most of our discussion has not been about that. I care about the whole person – their health, their food, and their psychology. But I also care about their spirituality, too.
Have you heard any tragic stories directly from defectors?
The movie Crossing is based on a true story. I met the central character’s son at the home of a missionary in China before the tragedy that occurred in Mongolia. I was told that he would be going to South Korea, so at the time I thought he could be a friend of my grandson. I sat for about 30 minutes with him. There was a Korean comic book version of the Bible on the bookshelf and we started reading it together. I remember hearing a few months later that he had died in Mongolia. Even though I had nothing to do with the arrangements of his travel I felt so heartbroken. This 10-year-old boy with his baseball cap should be thinking about soccer or football or something like that. It was inexpressibly tragic for me. By that stage I had already been doing this work for five or six years but this event deepened by commitment. No 10-year-old should have to be crossing a border into Mongolia and getting lost. It’s unthinkable. There are many stories, but that was the most profound.
Besides your Christian mission values what motivates you to work in this area?
Before I came to Korea I had done volunteer Christian work in other countries. But I had never come into contact with any people who were as oppressed as the North Korean people. They have no human rights, and in many cases they lack even the right to food. It stirred in me a strong feeling of anger at the injustice of it all. Yes, Biblical values and wanting to share the gospel were ever-present, but the feeling of people being so bullied for so long really stirred up something unexpected in me. I thought “That’s just not right; we have to do something to help those being bullied so badly.”
You could call it humanitarianism or human rights, but it can be best described as the feeling you get when you see someone being bullied. You can’t just stand there and do nothing; you want to help them. The whole population is being pushed around except for a few people at the top, and it infuriates me that anybody should be treated so badly. The North Korean government is like one big mafia organization. The people are helpless and in fear. We live a mere 50 kilometers south of this nightmare that has persisted for over 60 years. What will history record that we did about it?
Tags: aid, China/PRC, human rights, Jang Sung Taek, Japan, Juche Ideology, kotjebi (orphans), policy, political prison camps, refugees / defectors, repatriation, UN Commission of Inquiry (UN COI), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Filed under: *Interviews, *Working for Unification, No. 44 - Feb 2013