Light Through the
Darkness

Improving the human condition in
North Korea. Defining a new path forward.

North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive countries. Satellite images show the country – close to 47,000 square miles in size – sitting in virtual darkness. More than 24 million North Koreans live under tyranny. They are subjected to widespread human rights violations and denied fundamental rights like free expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Over the past two decades, the United States and other free societies have focused growing attention on the plight of the people in North Korea, but more must be done. In 2014, the Human Freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute convened unprecedented awareness raising and consensus building meetings, commissioned original research, and helped break new ground in our understanding of one of the worst human tragedies of our time. The result is a call to action for governments, the private sector, and civil society to work together to improve the human condition in North Korea.

President George W. Bush

Improving the Human Condition in North Korea

North Korea Today: The Status Quo

North Korea is ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of "Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party" and "Eternal President."

The government of North Korea controls all aspects of the lives of its citizens. It determines where each citizen will live, their education, and what their profession will be. Travel within the country is strictly limited. Access to information is restricted by the state. All media outlets are owned and controlled by the government. Radio and television sets can receive only government frequencies. Receiving radio or television signals from outside North Korea is an offense punishable by prison.

"Every aspect of life [in a political prison camp] is the worst you could imagine for a human being." North Korean escapee Kang Chol-hwan

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed.

The government operates a network of forced labor camps for as many as 130,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely.

Punishment is extended to three generations. Offenders' parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform.

Offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

In-depth resources

Moving Forward: A New Approach

The human rights abuses in North Korea demand our attention and our action.

On the heels of the 2014 Commission of Inquiry report, the first formal action by the United Nations to investigate and address human rights abuses in North Korea, the Bush Institute undertook efforts to spotlight the issue and foster bipartisan discussion about how the United States and other free societies can support the people of North Korea.

The effort was intended to help expose the suffering of the North Korean people, put the gulags and other human rights issues on the radar screen of opinion leaders and the general public, and develop policies for the public and private sector that help the North Korean people. The result is a call to action that defines a new approach for keeping the issue in the spotlight of international attention and improving the human condition of the North Korean people.

Raise Global Awareness

While there's growing global awareness of the magnitude of human injustice in North Korea, there are not enough people who know about the issue or what they can do to help. Survey work commissioned by the Bush Institute shows that while 71 percent of Americans know that North Korea abuses the human rights of its people, only 13 percent have heard of the Commission of Inquiry report. And only about half have ever heard of the country’s political prison camps.

Recommendation

This cause needs a broad voice to include Korean and non-Korean communities around the world. A global awareness campaign involving governments, civil society, and the technology sector is needed to keep the issue of North Korean human rights in the spotlight of international attention and action.

U.S. Attitudes and Opinions

Support and Empower Refugees

Refugees have a unique role to play in the future of North Korea. Bush Institute interviews with refugees living in the United States reveal areas where more could be done to streamline asylum processes, ease the transition to life in America, and position them to serve as "ambassadors" in the cause of North Korean human rights.

Recommendation

The United States is the only country outside of South Korea to have a North Korean refugee resettlement program. Other countries should consider similar programs, but the United States should open the pipeline to admit more than the 171 cases thus far. Refugees also must be empowered to access English-language classes, vocational training, and higher education opportunities, and to share success stories.

It’s so free here. I’m not under anyone’s control. [...] I am proud that I chose to come to America. North Korean refugee living in the United States
(U.S.-Based North Korea Refugees: A Qualitative Study)

Make Human Rights a Priority for Governments

There is an overriding need to better integrate North Korean human rights issues with mainstream strategy for the Korean peninsula. Just as the United States emphasized both defense and human rights in its relations with the Soviet Union, today, we must address both the threats North Korea poses to international security and the regime's denial of freedom to its own people. There is also growing momentum and interest by citizens of free countries around the world to lend their voices in support of the people of North Korea.

Recommendation

Free societies should put human rights front and center in their interactions with the North Korean government. Diplomatic agendas and economic sanctions should be tied to measurable improvements in the human condition. Countries must also maintain pressure on China, which continues to repatriate refugees, contrary to its international obligation under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

U.S. Attitudes and Opinions

Break Information Barriers

Informal markets and outside forces are making a difference in North Korea by broadening access to information. Videos, DVDs, radio broadcasts, and other communication methods are weakening the government's information monopoly and empowering the North Korean people. Traditionally negative views of South Korea, the United States, and other free societies are also changing inside the country.

Recommendation

Both government and the technology industry have a role to play in developing and funding new content dissemination methods that cannot be blocked by the North Korean government, including broadcasting systems. Content going into and coming out of the country should also be improved, focusing on the condition of people in North Korea.

U.S. Attitudes and Opinions

Act and #ExposeNK

In the end, the North Korean regime faces an inescapable dilemma. The will for freedom cannot be forever tamped down; North Korean society is changing and growing more independent, despite a government that’s even more attracted to its hardline instruments of control and deceit.

In an increasingly global society, the human condition of others matters to free people around the world. Those who live in freedom have a responsibility to raise their voices and lend their support in advancing the universal right of all men and women to be free. The world cannot turn a blind eye to the human rights atrocities happening today in North Korea.

Help the people of North Korea, and shine the light of freedom into one of the darkest, most repressive places on earth.

© George W. Bush Presidential Center

The George W. Bush Presidential Center, rooted in the guiding principles of President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush, engages communities in the United States and around the world by cultivating leaders and advancing policies to solve today’s most pressing challenges.

The George W. Bush Institute is an action-oriented, nonpartisan policy organization with the mission of engaging communities in the United States and around the world by cultivating leaders and advancing policies to solve today’s most pressing challenges. The Bush Institute's Human Freedom initiative seeks to advance the development of free societies rooted in individual liberty, civil society, and democratic institutions and practices.

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Download the Reports

Light through the Darkness: A Call to Action Paper
by Victor Cha

U.S.-Based North Korea Refugees: A Qualitative Study

North Korea: U.S. Attitudes and Awareness
July - August 2014

North Korea: U.S. Attitudes and Awareness
October 2014

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Credits

This report is dedicated to the people of North Korea and to the many brave North Korean refugees who have shared their stories.

Produced by the George W. Bush Institute at the George W. Bush Presidential Center
Margaret Spellings, President
Holly Kuzmich, Senior Vice President

Human Freedom Initiative
Victor Cha, Human Freedom Fellow
Amanda Schnetzer, Director, Human Freedom
Lindsay Lloyd, Director, Freedom Collection
Christopher Walsh, Program Coordinator, Human Freedom

Report Design and Development
Hannah Abney, Production
Brittney Bain, Editing
Pamela Hughes, Project Management
Andrew Kaufmann, Design and Development
Scott Robertson, Video Editing and Production
Illustration by visual.ly
Development support by Adfero
Video editing and production support by Grace Creek Media

This publication was made possible by the John Templeton Foundation.

Lead photograph: Photo via NASA. Astronaut photograph ISS038-E-38300 was acquired on January 30, 2014, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 24 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 38 crew.

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Infographic:
The Hidden Gulags of North Korea

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Infographic:
North Korea's Refugees

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Infographic:
Breaking North Korea's Information Barriers

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Life in the North Korean Gulags

Former North Korean political prisoners Shin Dong-hyuk and Kang Chol-hwan describe life in North Korea’s gulags.

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Raise Global Awareness

Greg Scarlatoiu (Committee for Human Rights in North Korea), Hannah Song (Liberty in North Korea) and Michael Kirby (United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea) discuss the importance of raising global awareness on North Korean human rights.

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Make Human Rights a Priority for Governments

Victor Cha (Center for Strategic and International Studies & George W. Bush Institute), Ambassador Jung-hoon Lee (Republic of Korea) and Melanie Kirkpatrick (author of Escape from North Korea) talk about governments putting North Korean human rights front and center.

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Support and Empower Refugees

Refugees Joseph Kim and Ji Seong-ho express their desire to help those still in North Korea and explain the importance of empowering North Korean refugees.

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Break Information Barriers

Carl Gershman (National Endowment for Democracy) outlines the next phase of satiating North Koreans’ information appetite.