China tried to keep me from speaking out on North Korea, but it won't succeed

Learn more about Joseph Kim.
Joseph Kim
Associate and Expert-in-Residence, Freedom and Democracy
George W. Bush Institute

Joseph Kim, Associate and Expert-in-Residence of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute, details his experience speaking at an informal U.N. Security Council meeting and how China responded.

The Chinese government can silence my voice, but it can’t take away my hope for freedom in North Korea.

But it tried.

I was invited to speak in New York at an informal U.N. Security Council meeting in March on the North Korean human rights situation. Having grown up in and later escaping North Korea, I witnessed the regime’s cruelty, abuse, and degradation of human life personally.

The meeting was convened to highlight ongoing human rights abuses by the North Korean regime and call for more robust international efforts to promote peace and accountability for human rights violations. However, a Chinese representative said the meeting was a waste of time and resources, and China blocked the event from being livestreamed.

The Chinese diplomat argued that the primary function of the Security Council is to advance security and peace, not human rights. But how can we talk about peace and security without human rights? Human rights and security are inextricably linked, as Dr. Victor Cha, Senior Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, likes to say.

North Korean rights and security can’t be treated as separate issues when we’re talking about a regime that finances its nuclear weapons program by offering its people as forced labor overseas.

China blocking the livestream “was yet another attempt to hide the DPRK atrocities from the world,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “But let me say, it was in vain. Because, as you can see, we were not deterred – and we never will be.”

The ambassador was right. I was not deterred – then or now – and I wasn’t afraid to deliver my remarks. North Korea wants to be internationally recognized and seeks economic prosperity, but these goals can only be attained if the regime improves human rights conditions at home.

Foreign investment is critical to North Korean economic growth, but U.S. companies and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund cannot invest under current U.S. law. And lifting U.S. sanctions is impossible unless the human rights conditions in the North adhere to international norms and standards.

Denuclearization is also not possible without addressing human rights. How can we trust that the regime would honor denuclearization commitments when it does not honor the basic dignity of its own people? Human rights must be an end goal. Therefore, integrating human rights and security into the grand strategy on North Korea is not a choice, but a necessity.

Overlooking and neglecting human rights abuses would send a signal to other bad actors that their behavior is acceptable and undermine the legitimacy and credibility of free nations.

Even though my speech was well received, my heart felt heavy as I was leaving New York City. This was the third time I had spoken at the United Nations. I wasn’t afraid to speak the truth in front of the Chinese delegation. I wasn’t scared to talk in front of North Korean delegations in 2017. But what I did fear is that it wouldn’t be my last time speaking at an event like this.

The difficult and inconvenient truth is the human rights conditions in North Korea won’t improve immediately. Trying to maintain and protect hope in the presence of little to no evidence of improvement is difficult.

But my colleague Chris Walsh, Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute, puts it beautifully: “Hope is a strategy for freedom in North Korea,” he says. “Hope is a full-contact sport that requires commitment and action.”

Hope requires not only imagining a better future but also taking action.

Since giving my speech, not much has changed regarding human rights abuses in North Korea. But I believe events like this one, where we imagine a better future for Korea with unwavering commitment and action, will eventually free North Koreans from oppression and their brutal dictator.

The events of my last visit to U.N. headquarters brought back memories of a tour I took on a visit in 2015.

Our guide told us that the construction of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) ceiling was intentionally left unfinished to symbolize that the U.N.’s work toward fostering peace isn’t finished.

Like that U.N. ceiling, the work to improve North Korean human rights conditions remains unfinished. But as long as people continue taking action and envision a future in which every North Korean is living in a free and democratic country, it won’t always be that way.

Indeed, hope is both a strategy and a weapon for North Korean human rights activists.