Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the release of a United Nations’ Commission on Inquiry’s report on human rights in North Korea. The U.N. report laid out, in devastating detail, what we’ve known for all too long: The regime’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” the report found, “entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
And while 25,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea, and perhaps 200,000 North Koreans are in hiding in China, some 25 million North Koreans continue to suffer in silence, unable to communicate to the outside world because of their enslavement at the hands of their government.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the U.N. report – which, sadly, has yet to have a discernable effect on life in North Korea – the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, in Washington, D.C., convened a panel discussion with three defectors. The tales that the three former North Koreans – Hyun-ah Ji, Praise Joo, and Johan Kim – told were predictably grim, involving torture, hunger, and fierce repression. But the panelists also struck a positive tone, noting that the world is paying attention to North Korea’s abuses (they have been traveling the States for weeks, telling their stories), and trumpeting the success of initiatives like balloon launches into North Korea (which one panelist said the North Korean regime hates the most), and broadcasting free media into the country.
That these courageous refugees are devoting their life to talking about North Korea shows, in a tragic way, that they are in some sense still psychological prisoners of the regime – they cannot escape. But the world — and their fellow countrymen — benefit from their bravery. For these defectors speak for the 25 million North Koreans who cannot.