For North Koreans suffering from severe poverty and repression, American human rights activist Suzanne Scholte has an unwavering message: “I am right here to be your voice. No one can destroy your will to survive.”
A key driver of the movement to raise awareness of human rights abuses in the North, she has underscored the brutality of the autocratic regime and the pressing need for the international community to help the downtrodden.
“The leadership of the Kim regime has killed more North Koreans than were ever killed in the (1950-53) Korean War. The true enemy of North Korean people is the regime, not South Korea or the U.S.,” Scholte told The Korea Herald on Tuesday.
The chairwoman of the U.S-based North Korea Freedom Coalition was here to lead the North Korea Freedom Week, an event to work out solutions to a range of issues such as refugees, prisoners of war, and those abducted by the communist state.
Noting that human rights conditions have worsened as the new leadership resorts to coercion to consolidate power, the 2008 winner of the Seoul Peace Prize stressed the increasing urgency of North Korean refugee issues.
“They are urgent. Despite the awareness that has come from this, they (the Chinese) still send those refugees back. They still send them back, knowing they are going to face execution,” she said.
|Suzanne Scholte. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)|
In recent months, there have been rallies both online and offline in South Korea to “save our friends” amid news reports that scores of North Korean defectors would be sent back to the North, which has threatened an “annihilation of three generations” of a family with any member caught defecting.
China has stuck to a decades-old repatriation pact with its impoverished ally, insisting on categorizing North Korean defectors as “illegal economic migrants,” not as refugees protected by international conventions.
Calling the repatriations “brutal, inhumane and barbaric,” Scholte said that a lack of will and action from Beijing has created an environment where the defectors suffer serious abuses even after their life-and-death escape from the North.
“China has created this environment where women have been trafficked. They have created this lawless environment. The North Korean women that crossed the border are victimized by traffickers all because China refuses to follow the international law and adheres to a bilateral agreement (with the North),” she said.
“They certainly don’t want people to know this because it is just a disgrace that a country that wants to be seen as a world leader is committing these horrible atrocities against its neighbor.”
She expressed hopes that China, based on its deepening ties with Seoul, could realize that its future is not with the wayward North.
“The future for China is with South Korea, not with North Korea. I think that China realizes that. I think a lot of people in China realize that their relationship with North Korea is just a drag, a drain on China,” she said.
“They don’t benefit in any way (from their relationship with the North). I also think that people in China realize a unified Korea will be an economic boost to China too.”
To pluck the North from the bottomless pit of poverty and oppression, she stressed that the outside world should reach the North Korean elites to have them change for a better future.
“The problem is the elites. We haven’t been able to move them at all because (if) you are in the elite in North Korea, everything in your life is vested in Kim Jong-un’s success,” she said.
Scholte proposed several ways to make the elites change their thinking. One is to cut off any shipment of luxury goods to the North and freeze the leadership’s assets so that the fledgling leader cannot use any of them to reward his elites.
Another is to start naming elites responsible for atrocities to pressure them repent. As outside information flows in, albeit secretly, through radio and television, the elites might know that they are being watched, she noted.
“We need to start naming the names of the people that are in the regime that are responsible for political prison camps or border guards beating the bellies of pregnant women, or the people that fired upon the corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, and those who diverted humanitarian aid so that 3 million people starved to death,” she said.
“We need to start telling them, ‘you are going to be held accountable for committing this crime against Korean people.’ North Koreans that fled to live in South Korea have a legal standing because they are citizens of South Korea (under the Constitution). South Korea should be prosecuting (them).”
Lambasting Seoul’s “low-key defector policy” as an “absolute failure,” she urged the South Korean government to raise its voice and be more aggressive in resolving refugee issues.
“Are they punishing the citizens because South Korea complains? They are trying to punish citizens because they try to maintain control of the regime. So it doesn’t matter whether we are screaming loudly or softly,” she said.
“South Korea needs to stop kowtowing to China. They need to stand up and say to China: stop killing our citizens, we are the future, we want to have a good relationship with China, and China is going to benefit when Korea is unified.”
By Song Sang-ho( firstname.lastname@example.org)