The situation in North Korea may seem hopeless. This closed-off nation sits more than 6,000 miles away from the United States and is hidden by a cloud of misinformation. Sometimes it’s hard to filter the news out of the nation—what’s real, what’s propaganda, and what’s entirely false? Despite this difficulty, one thing is certain: North Koreans are suffering. Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, has dedicated the last twenty years of her life to bringing awareness to their suffering and fighting for their rights.
During a recent conversation with Scholte, I asked what we, regular people, can do to support the people of North Korea. She outlines several actions.
What can Americans do?
First of all for Americans, I highly, highly recommend that people get involved in the North Korea human rights movement. They can certainly join our North Korean Freedom Coalition. But it depends on what you feel called to do. Like for example, we do have, in our coalition, people that are involved in the rescues, people who try to help trafficked women escape. We have some members that are involved with helping orphans. We have some members of our coalition that established a high school especially for North Korean students.
Some people are called to reach out to people in North Korea, so we have a radio station broadcasting every day into North Korea that is staffed by defectors. Getting active in the North Korean rights movement is really easy and there’s a huge need. In the end of April 2017, we have North Korean Freedom Week. We’re hosting it in Washington D.C. and it’s a whole week of events to promote the freedom, human rights and dignity of the North Korean people.
I’ll just tell you one really remarkable story about one critical project: Free North Korea Radio. The whole program is produced by North Korean defectors while the whole cost of the short wave transmission is paid for by Americans and Korean Americans and churches. We have partners that donate once a month. We try to spread the burden. We have one church that gives $200 every month and we have a school teacher that donates $10 a month. We have a successful Virginia businesswoman who contributes $100 a month. But we’re trying to raise that money from Americans every month to pay for the short wave transmission. It’s a wonderful partnership between North Korean defectors and Americans. That’s one way for Americans to get involved.
What can the United States and other governments do to help the citizens of this regime?
It’s really critical that our government enforce the sanctions aggressively, especially against Chinese banks. We have targeted some of the Chinese companies. But we haven’t gone after the Chinese banks, where the money’s flowing through.
In 2005 or thereabouts, Banco Delta Asia’s assets were frozen. That terrified the regime, because it cut the flow of $25 million dollars. $25 million dollars goes a long way in North Korea. But it really shook up the regime. And that’s what drove them back to the negotiating table. Ambassador Chris Hill negotiated the return of those assets. No bank would touch that money because it was the ill-gotten gains of North Korea. So what did Chris Hill do? The North Koreans demanded to have that money returned in order to go back to negotiating on the nuclear program. Chris Hill laundered that money through our Federal Reserve, and the money went back to North Korea. That particular incident showed how much their reliance on the banking system is to keep the regime in power. It’s how they pay their military. It’s how they reward the elites with a Mercedes Benz and the refrigerators and the Kim Jong-un gold watch. So what we need to do is to be aggressive in the sanctions. And we need to target not just companies, but the Chinese banks that are holding the money for that regime. That would be the end of the end of the regime.
It’s really important that people understand these sanctions do not harm the North Korean people at all. They don’t block possible humanitarian help for the North Korean people. The only people that are harmed by the sanctions are the people in the regime. This is a regime that’s involved in proliferating weapons of mass destruction. They’re involved in counterfeiting. They’re involved in illicit drugs. There was an incident that happened with a diplomat being caught with methamphetamine. I mean they’re marketing all these illegal drugs.
Another huge issue that more and more countries are realizing is that the North Koreans are using their citizens as slaves. The send their people to work abroad but nearly all their pay goes directly to finance the regime. Qatar just recently stopped that practice. They had North Korean construction workers. Qatar sent them all home. Mexico had doctors and nurses that were working in the medical profession, but this practice was stopped. But there are some countries that do not even know there are North Korean slave laborers in their nation, because the workers may have come to work through Chinese companies. If we can stop the slave labor, it would cut off at least $110 million minimum annually to the regime.
There are a lot of North Korean restaurant workers in China and in Russia, the North Koreans are working in the Siberian lumber mills. These workers have no rights. They live in terrible conditions. They have no safety regulations. They are worked 18, 20 hours a day. Almost all their pay goes to the regime. The small portion that’s left goes to help pay for their upkeep. It’s a horrible situation. There’s a North Korean defector living in the Pacific Northwest who was a nurse in Libya. And she was able to defect and come to the United States. But she never saw a penny of her paycheck. All her money went to the regime.
Another thing that needs to be done is to support the work of the defectors who are reaching out to every segment of North Korean society. We do need to reach out to the elites in North Korea to give them an option. Think about it. If I’m an elite in North Korea and I just saw someone’s brains get splattered all over me because this guy fell asleep during a speech —this guy who devoted his whole life to the regime, killed so brutally. Now I’ve got to get up every morning going, “Am I going to live through this day?” They have to have the sense of fear. So to me if you’re an elite in the regime, the only choice you have is loyalty to Kim Jong-un or death. So we have to communicate to them that in every society, in every totalitarian regime where there was a collapse, the people that were part of the regime ended up being part of the system to change things. For good or for bad. Sometimes for bad, especially in Russia. But you have to realize that you do have a choice. You can be part of transforming North Korea and unifying the Korean Peninsula. So that’s why it’s really important for American governments, foreign governments, American citizens to support the defector NGOs. They’re doing the effective outreach. The elites that are living in Seoul are communicating to the elites in North Korea. The North Korean People’s Liberation Front, formed by former DPRK soldiers, has a program on the radio totally targeted to reaching out to the military. Remember what happened in Rumania and most recently in Egypt” the military went against the dictator in favor of the people.
Image: “Children in North Korea” CC BY-SA 3.0
For more of this interview, visit “The human rights threat and the North Korean Regime.” This blog will be updated when the full interview is available.