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I am a North Korean Dissident; Human Rights Matter in My Home
North Korea is the place where I was born and lived until I was 15. It is the place, where at the age of 12, I saw my father wither away and die of starvation; it is also the place where I said my last goodbye to my older sister, not knowing she would never return because she would be forcibly sold to a man in China.
I was an orphan, homeless, and survived for three years during the great famine by begging in the informal North Korean markets, before I escaped to China in 2006. A year later, I came to the United States as the first minor North Korean refugee, thanks to the North Korean Human Rights Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004. I am forever grateful to this nation for giving me the opportunity to experience freedom.
I cannot begin to imagine the challenges President Donald Trump must face at the upcoming Vietnam Summit when he meets with North Korea’s Leader Kim Jong-Un. Achieving the objectives of Complete, Verified, and Irreversible Disarmament (CVID) and holding the Kim regime accountable for its human rights abuses are indeed difficult tasks.
The nature of the negotiations requires both parties to compromise on certain interests in order to accomplish shared objectives, otherwise we would not call it a negotiation. It would simply be called extortion. But why would North Korea’s human rights abuses be part of that compromise?
Forty-one percent of the North Korean population is undernourished, and 28 percent of children under five have stunted growth. Furthermore, Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear program is partially funded by sending North Koreans to places like China and Russia to perform slave labor in exchange for currency.
I recognize North Korea is not the easiest country to negotiate with. By focusing on less sensitive issues, like aiding people with disabilities, President Trump can take a small step toward addressing human rights abuses.
If human rights is not addressed, it will weaken the power of the United States. I say this for two reasons: one practical and one theoretical that could have grave consequences in the long-term.
The inspiring stories of North Korean refugees are an asset and not a political tool, something I hope the White House agrees with since President Trump invited Ji Seong-Ho and seven other North Korean defectors to the 2018 State of the Union Address. Employing stories of North Korean defectors only for political gain can seriously damage this nation’s reputation.
I urge President Trump to empower North Korean defectors and not exploit them. Otherwise, the international community could start questioning our motivations and intentions, even if the U.S. genuinely advocates for North Korean human rights in the future.
Moreover, I believe what makes America a great nation is not merely having the best military and economic powers. Rather, what makes the United States a great country is its commitment to the nation’s principles and identity. That is to promote and protect universally that all people are equal and entitled to freedom, to be treated fairly with dignity, and the understanding that this is not a privilege reserved for Americans, but all citizens of the world.
As an example, there is no denying that China is rapidly advancing its economic power. But we would not necessarily call China a great nation, unless it treats its people with dignity and respect.
While it is difficult to suggest a new pathway to make the Kim regime give up its nuclear ambitions while pressing human rights issues at the summit, what can be assured is that abandoning U.S. national principles and identity will make America weak. Even if the Vietnam Summit achieves a concrete and comprehensive agreement on denuclearization, failing to address the gulags, slave labor, and other human rights abuses is neither an investment nor a gamble. It is simply a lose - lose game.
In the fall of 2013, as I was traveling through South Africa, at the Johannesburg airport I saw a message on the wall, “They call it Africa, but we call it home.” It resonated with me. There is no doubt that North Korea is one of the darkest places in the world, but it is still a home for me and 24 million North Korean people.
For the sake of this nation and for my friends who are still suffering under the North Korean dictatorship, I cannot wish for anything else but a successful outcome of the Vietnam Summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un.
Joseph Kim is an assistant on the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. He was born and raised in North Korea. At the age of 12, his father died of starvation and he was separated from his mother and sister.
In 2006, Joseph escaped North Korea and went to China. In China, he connected with an international NGO called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). A year later, he left China for the United States and claimed refugee status under the North Korean Human Rights Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2004.
In 2013, Joseph delivered a TED Talk on the importance of hope and published a memoir, “Under the Same Sky”. Joseph interned as a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Korea Chair. He is a former America Needs You Fellow and Council of Korean Americans PSI Intern.
He completed a B.A. in political studies from Bard College and published a thesis titled, “Marketization in North Korea is Corrupting the Corrupted”.Full Bio
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