Not long after South Korean economist Oh Kil-nam was enticed into entering North Korea with his family in 1985, he realized he was in trouble. The opportunities they expected were illusory; instead, Oh and his family found themselves trapped. About a year later, Oh was ordered to abduct two Koreans studying in Germany, much as he had been lured to the North. Although she knew it would endanger their family, Oh’s wife, Shin Sook-ja, implored him to disobey the orders and try to escape. They must not lead other innocents to a fate as horrible as theirs, she argued.
When Oh was sent abroad, he did not follow orders but sought political asylum. North Korean authorities reacted by confining Shin and their two daughters, just 9 and 11, to the Yoduk concentration camp in 1987. Twenty-four years later, Oh lives in South Korea. Retired now, he clings to the faint hope that he can be reunited with his family.
It is too soon after Kim Jong Il’s death to tell how North Korea may change, and we in the South are very sensitive to any escalation of military tension between our countries. But some things remain clear: Shin and her daughters are among the hundreds of thousands of people in the North with stories too painful to imagine.
More than 100,000 South Korean civilians are estimated to have been abducted by North Korea during and after the Korean War, while about 150,000 North Koreans are thought to be confined in camps for political prisoners. Every day, defectors risk their lives to escape persecution and hunger.
But their cries of anguish seem lost amid fears of possible instability over another hereditary power transition in the North after Kim’s death.
Still, rather than concentrating on national self-interests, it is essential that the international community come together to guide North Korea in the right direction. While South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China all agree that North Korea must take the path for reform and denuclearization, differences exist regarding how to deal with the issue of human rights.
What South Korea wants is for North Korea to embark on the path of freedom, human rights and democracy. These changes include efforts to repatriate prisoners of war and abductees held in the North and the breakup of its political camps. We also hope for freedom of religion in the North and that separated families from the two Koreas will be allowed to meet. Ultimately, North Korea must become a member of the free world.
In recent years the United States and others have made efforts to confront North Korea’s human rights abuses. In 2004, Congress unanimously passed the North Korean Human Rights Act. As a Korean lawmaker at that time, I was ashamed. I felt that U.S. lawmakers had done something we Koreans ought to have done. So in 2005, I submitted for the first time the North Korean Human Rights Act to the National Assembly. Although six years have gone by, it has yet to be passed.
But the United States continues to stand up for Korean rights. On Dec. 13, the House unanimously approved another resolution, introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) a Korean War veteran and longtime friend of South Korea, calling on the North to send back Korean soldiers and civilians held captive since the 1950-53 war.
With possibility for change in North Korea greater than ever before, it is time to combine the efforts of those in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere, as well as those working in nongovernmental organizations to save the oppressed and impoverished in the North.
Some might think that calls for improving human rights could escalate tensions and ultimately threaten peace in the region. But history tells us that without human rights, genuine peace and prosperity cannot be achieved.
The winds of democratization that have blown through the Middle East and Africa this year prove that the world is losing tolerance for dictators who oppress human rights. North Korea, too, must change, so that its people can finally savor the freedom, democracy and economic prosperity that have been denied them for so many decades.
When I was imprisoned for 2 1/2 years in the 1980s for taking part in the democracy and labor movement during South Korea’s dark military dictatorship, the support of human rights groups at home and abroad was my biggest source of hope and consolation. When you are trapped in a world of utter darkness, nothing is more powerful than the thought of someone thinking of you and praying for you.
We must shine the light of hope on the darkness suppressing North Korea. If we do not, what will we tell those in the North when they ask after we are united, “What did you do for us when we were in despair?”