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.
"We've issued a calll to action to help raise global awareness of the suffering of the North Korean people. We can do more to support and empower refugees, break down information barriers within North Korea, and make human rights a priority for all governments."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Light through the Darkness: A Call to Action Paper
by Victor Cha
North Korea: U.S. Attitudes and Awareness
July - August 2014
North Korea: U.S. Attitudes and Awareness
This report is dedicated to the people of North Korea and to the many brave North Korean refugees who have shared their stories.
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.
Former North Korean political prisoners Shin Dong-hyuk and Kang Chol-hwan describe life in North Korea’s gulags.
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.
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.
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.
Carl Gershman (National Endowment for Democracy) outlines the next phase of satiating North Koreans’ information appetite.