Campaigners Strategize on Toppling North Korean Regime

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Unless South Korea stops its policy of "legitimizing" and "subsidizing" its repressive northern neighbor, it may find itself alone when it has to cope with the inevitable implosion of Kim Jong-il's regime, human rights activists have warned.

Christian and conservative campaigners from the U.S., South Korea and several other countries this week held an international conference in Seoul, seeking ways to help North Korean refugees, draw attention to rights abuses by Pyongyang -- and help speed up its collapse.

Among other strategies, they discussed the possibility of getting photographs from inside North Korea's notorious prison camps, noting that they would illustrate conditions and abuses "infinitely worse" than anything coming out of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

North Koreans seeking to escape their bankrupt and despotic homeland usually flee across the border into China, hoping eventually to make it to a third, free country. China's communist authorities don't recognize them as refugees, however, and send them back home to a fate which a senior U.N. official recently said could include imprisonment or execution.

Although campaigners are particularly critical of China's role in this, they also fault South Korea's approach to the North.

A guest speaker at the conference, Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Horowitz, suggested many in the South simply didn't care.

"While people in the South are enjoying their freedom under democracy, 45,000 North Korean refugees in China are eating tree bark, facing the danger of being caught and sent back to the dictatorial regime," he said in his speech.

Reached by phone Thursday, Horowitz said from Seoul that his message to President Roh Moo-hyun's government was that it not do anything provocative, but also not do anything to subsidize or legitimize the regime.

Horowitz said Kim Jong-il's regime had been propped up by the funding received under Seoul's "sunshine" policy of engagement, and as a result of the 1994 deal with the Clinton Administration aimed at ending his nuclear program.

Pyongyang reneged on the agreement by pursuing covert nuclear programs, and aid linked to the 1994 Agreed Framework has been stopped.

Seoul's policies remain in place, however, and Horowitz warned that "trying to keep [Pyongyang] in business" was creating ill-will in the U.S. and could backfire on the South.

"If South Korea was working towards promoting democracy and human rights in North Korea, America would be willing to share the burden of what will be the terrible cost of the implosion of the regime," he said.

As things now stood, South Korea was risking having to bear the burden alone.

"They are betting higher and higher states on a losing proposition - the survival of the regime. And the greater the bet they make, the worse the outcome will be for them when the regime collapses," he said.

"We will oppose subsidy support for South Korea if when the collapse occurs they are out there trying to keep Kim Jong-il alive."

South Korean officials in recent years have studied the experience of Germany's reunification after the fall of communism in 1989-90, and are concerned that Pyongyang's collapse will be even more disruptive and costly. East Germany's infrastructure was considerably better than North Korea's.

Horowitz said campaigners had been stunned when Roh visited Washington last May and indicated that his policy was to maintain the Kim Jong-il regime.

Roh was effectively saying: "Let my brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers starve, because it's too expensive for me if they were free," he said. "That's not worthy of a great nation."

Horowitz argued that Seoul's policy also went against President Bush's strategic vision of the post-911 world -- that America's security interests lie in promoting democracy, "even in difficult terrains" like North Korea, Iraq and Iran.


This week's conference was organized by Save North Korea, a conservative Christian non-governmental group, and another NGO, the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees.

Save North Korea representative Kim Bum-soo said in a phone interview that many South Korean campaigners for North Korean human rights were "ashamed" of their own government's position.

"Basically, its policy is to keep the Kim Jong-il regime in place," Kim said, also attributing this to fears about "the astronomical amount of money" it would cost to keep North Koreans alive in the event of the regime falling.

He also suspected that North Korean sympathizers -- and possibly even agents -- were active in the South Korean establishment.

Kim noted that after East Germany's collapse, it was discovered that 30,000 of its spies were active in West Germany. There were likely many spies for the North operating in South Korea.

He charged that some of the advisors around Roh were "anti-U.S." and sympathetic toward the North, and this could have an effect on policy.

Roh, a liberal, was elected at the end of 2002 with the support of members of the post-Korean War generation, many of whom demonstrate more sympathy for the North than goodwill towards the U.S.

Parliamentary elections last month saw a swing to the left in the National Assembly, a shift that lessened the influence of pro-U.S. conservatives and was publicly welcomed by North Korea.

Kim said it was sometimes joked that, whenever Kim Jong-il was depressed about the situation at home, he would look southward for some "heart-lifting" news.

Photos from the gulag

Kim said this week's conference discussed possible strategies to further the campaign, including legislation such as the North Korea Freedom Act, currently before Congress.

Churches could also raise funds to help rescue North Korean refugees hiding in China.

Another plan involved trying to get radios into North Korea capable of receiving news from outside as well as the message of the Christian gospel. One practical way of getting them in would be to provide them to Korean-Chinese traders doing business in the North Korean-China border area, who could then sell them inside the country.

Activists also mulled the practicalities of smuggling out pictures taken inside the North's prison camps.

Pointing to the international uproar over the Iraq prison-abuse scandal, Kim said "visual images from the gulags" would be effective in raising awareness worldwide.

Horowitz agreed. "If we got photos of the prison camps, they would show abuses infinitely worse than the photos of the Abu Ghraib prison," he said.

"When the photos of permanent camp 15 come out ... of detention centers with refugees [forcibly repatriated] from China being beaten with barbed wire through their noses ... that alone could do in the regime and undermine all of the Roh Moo-hyun policies."

Horowitz said the movement in the U.S. to promote human rights in North Korea was strengthening. It was also benefiting from the growing involvement of Korean-Americans, whom he said had been "historically passive, politically."

The community would be an "irresistible force" in American politics, Horowitz predicted, comparing it to the American Jewish lobbying on behalf of Soviet Jewry and American Irish lobbying relating to Washington's policies towards Ireland.

Other participants in the conference included representatives of U.S. evangelical groups, lawmakers from Britain and Japan, and human rights campaigners from various countries.

See also:
Activists Demand Talks on North Korean Human Rights Abuses (Feb. 04, 2004)
Babies Killed In North Korean Prison Camps, Observers Say (Jun. 12, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow