I’m writing today to convey my appreciation and admiration for Ji Seong-ho, president and founder of Now Action & Unity for NK Human Rights, a leading North Korean human rights organization with the objective of “improving the human rights conditions of North Korea and achieving a unified Korean Peninsula.”
Ji and NAUH’s very significant accomplishments are a resplendent light in what seems to be an ever-darkening world. The growing network comprised of many South and North Korean young adults “are already experiencing a small unification” as they come together to achieve essential and urgent aims.
Ji and other outstanding North Korean defector activists who established this movement are among the most selfless and impressive leaders that I’ve known. Inaugurated in April 2010, their team has been approaching the human rights emergency in North Korea and within China on multiple fronts and with remarkable progress achieved.
Since 2010, NAUH has organized approximately 300 awareness-raising street campaigns in the South, with volunteers “holding pickets in the sweltering heat, the fierce cold, and the torrential rains, united by passion and love for the nation and a desire to restore human dignity and value” -- in the eloquent words of their founder.
Indeed, it is this mindfulness of human dignity that sets NAUH’s work apart in my estimation. “Everyone is entitled to their God-given rights in life, and we must follow this principle,” Ji told the Harvard International Review for a 2012 interview.
One seemingly miraculous way this unfeigned consideration for every individual’s dignity has been made manifest is through the extraordinary successfulness of their rescue operations in China.
To date, about 215 North Korean refugees -- including once-trafficked women, their children and also disabled individuals -- have been securely resettled through their leadership. Crucially, not one of the refugees under their custody has been repatriated. This is exceptional -- as an estimated 1 in 10 North Korean refugees in China who attempt escape is forcibly sent back to face torture and other cruel abuses, imprisonment in concentration camps or even death.
As Ji has indicated, their team works discreetly and carefully through partnering with good Chinese nationals -- who are best able to avoid drawing attention to themselves while guiding refugees to safety.
A statement on NAUH’s website reads, “NAUH was formed to give love to those who are oppressed and to achieve unification on the Korean Peninsula.” It clearly shows.
Moreover, what Ji advocates for in terms of overall solutions to the North Korea crisis is salient. In a 2014 interview, he stated, “I’m hoping we can seek the best ways to assist North Korea. For instance, I think there should be humanitarian intervention.
What I mean by this is North Koreans are not able to live based on what the regime supplies. They have to make their living through markets and through small amounts of profit. So instead of giving official assistance to the North Korean government, I think it would be more important to try and assist the North Korean people. One way to do this is by supporting the tens of thousands of North Korean defectors living in South Korea and other countries.
If they are helped, then they can help and support their family members still living in North Korea. I think this is the most practical way to try and reach out directly to the North Korean people. I think we need to start seeking real and practical ways of assisting North Korean citizens directly instead of going through the government.”
Expanding support for defectors will earn the confidence of their families and friends still in the North, who would then spread the word concerning southern benevolence, magnanimity and goodwill even farther. Such action is not only our collective fundamental duty in view of the hardships and injustices North Koreans confront every day, but paramount to secure favorable conditions for a peaceful reunification while preventing a murderous war.
In the 2012 Harvard International Review interview, Ji explained, “In North Korea, up to 3 million people have died from starvation, and many more have gone to jail or have been publicly executed. So there is almost no one who has not lost a family member. Through these actions the regime broke the trust of the people”
The more North Korean defectors and their associations within the North are supported and thrive, the more Kim Jong-un becomes exposed as the common enemy of the Korean people and conditions ripen for unification. Actively reaching out to northerners in compassion is the most prudent and ethical way to deal with and finally end the inhumane tyrant’s crimes.
A few days ago, Ji sent these critical updates from contacts within the North, “The Jangmadang (black market) continues to be at the heart of the North Korean people’s livelihood. Despite a number of attempted crackdowns, the Jangmadang has survived and the North Korean people have managed to maintain it.”
Today, the informal economy in North Korea is considered to be more influential and powerful than the state-controlled economy.
NAUH’s president added that even violators of human rights such as the North Korean police or Ministry of State Security are apprehensive — vis-a-vis growing worldwide awareness of committed atrocities along with the burgeoning assertiveness and defiance of the general people. These agents of oppression feel themselves to be at a critical threshold, and are sensing the need to adjust to an inescapable paradigm shift.
“The North Korean regime fears the human rights issue that is being discussed within the international community. Furthermore, it appears as of late perpetrators such as those in the Ministry of State Security or the North Korean police face difficulties in making a living. Exploiting the people by coercion is becoming more challenging for them,” Ji wrote.
“Already among the middle class in North Korea, many hold convictions that the North must also become a democracy like the South. Hence, the present moment is drawing attention upon what the disturbed and struggling North Korean police and Ministry of State Security will do.”
South Korea and the international community are also at an exigent and vital crossroads regarding North Korea. Yet while North Korean society is changing dramatically and rapidly, some stubbornly continue to insist on following heartless and insensitive paradigms with respect to the North that can only actuate grave harm.
South Korea as well as the international community must take into account the current situation on the ground (i.e., the reality of mass discontent within North Korea today), seize the moment and not squander these momentous openings to promote the reconciliation and healing of the Korean people. We must support and reach out to the general people of North Korea -- who are compatriots and friends, not enemies -- and particularly back great defector activists and leaders such as Ji Seong-ho and NAUH. By doing so we can assuredly “restore the ‘Spring of Freedom in the land of North Korea,’” as Ji has so affectingly articulated.
There is decidedly more to relay than can be sufficiently communicated within a single article respecting Ji and NAUH’s magnificent work, so I will conclude by recommending getting in contact with them and supporting their efforts. They can be reached at www.nauh.or.kr or www.facebook.com/nauhlove.
By Robert Park
Robert Park is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, minister, musician and former prisoner of conscience. -- Ed.