Saturday, May 27, 2006

LiNK gains a convert

I think I'm going to do something I haven't done in a long time and join an organization.

I attended the LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) session today. It was held at Smoo's Centennial Hall, Room 503, and started at about 4:30. The symposium went for almost three hours, and was in many ways an eye-opening event. What did we learn, kiddies?

First: I was surprised to see the room-- which wasn't that large-- packed mostly with students (high school? college? I'm guessing college for most of them), not scholars and other stuffed shirts. Many students were wearing LiNK tee shirts, and had apparently come to Korea from America to pass out flyers and spread the word about problems in North Korea. A few of the students were newcomers, including one I knew because she's currently in my English conversation class.

Second: I was glad to see that most of these students seemed truly to care what was going on. One of the speakers made the point that mere caring isn't enough, of course: you have to do something. What is belief without practice, after all? If you can't make the move from is to ought, why waste time attending symposia?

Third: I saw firsthand that some folks still seem to be in denial. One male student, who spoke English quite well, seemed to be hounding one of the presenters with his doubts about both LiNK's mission and the true nature of the North Korean problem. Even one of the previous presenters seemed not to understand that LiNK has made international efforts on behalf of North Korean rights.

Fourth: I thoroughly enjoyed the testimony of one presenter (there were four presenters in all), a North Korean defector who had been a prison guard, and who made it to South Korea in 1994. He sounded a lot like Kang Chol Hwan in expressing his disappointment over how little South Koreans seem to care about what's happening just across the border. He also tweaked the students' noses by declaring that he liked George Bush for speaking out about the North Korean problem, and said he wished the South Korean government would do the same. I imagine that, if you have the guts to risk your life escaping a dangerous hellhole, you won't be impressed by the spinelessness of your new host country's government.

Fifth: I was reassured to hear that, at least among LiNK members and presenters, the term "t'al-buk-ja" is alive and well, not replaced by some politically correct term for North Korean defectors. The term literally translates as "escape-north-person," i.e., "escapee from the North." Good! Keep this term alive and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. T'AL-BUK-JA IS WHAT THEY ARE.

Sixth: A PowerPoint presentation by one of the college-age LiNKers (and let me say that I was wowed by the poise of many of those students, especially two college women who did a masterful job of interpretation for the presenters) contained some harrowing film clips and some slides. Two slides caught my eye, both showing the same thing: a LiNK demonstrator holding a protest sign that used the mathematical symbol for "greater than" in the following manner:

22 million people > Dokdo

Got that, punks? You have no idea what evil, evil gratification I felt to see that sign being flashed before college students (and others) who need a bit more perspective. If I can find that photo online somewhere, I will happily make that a permanent part of my blog's sidebar, right up there with Dalma Daesa.

I'm sympathetic about Dokdo. I think the Korean claim is historically legitimate. But there are worse problems, more pressing problems, to deal with. The final presenter made that point succinctly. He said something to the effect that, "If we have to choose between reunification and human rights, we choose to make human rights the top priority."

The second presenter, the ex-prison guard, felt that South Korea (and, I suppose, other nations) needed to stop its food aid. Pace Andrew Natsios, he felt that the North Koreans who have learned to survive this many years of hardship would endure such a stoppage, and the lack of food aid wouldn't change their reality that much. What would happen, however, is that the food aid would no longer be there for the greedy creatures diverting it. Imagine: hungrier soldiers, hungrier party cadres, a hungrier North Korean government.

I mention this because I was deeply affected by the dilemma laid out in Natsios' book, The Great North Korean Famine. Natsios saw many of the problems in North Korea firsthand. Being a compassionate soul, and having his head screwed on right, he came to two conclusions, both of which I find fair: (1) North Korea is ultimately responsible for its own predicament, and (2) other countries should not combine the issues of food aid and politics. I think (1) is absolutely correct, and I understand why he advocates (2). I think Natsios has the right idea in advocating (2), but ultimately, we have to be cold bastards when it comes to food aid.

The ex-prison guard's testimony today gave me permission to envision the implementation of a grindingly hard-line policy, one that stanches food aid totally. Is it true that any civilization is only a few missed meals away from anarchy? It wouldn't be hard to find out! Natsios's well-written book had me hesitating on this subject. Back when I read and reviewed The Great North Korean Famine (five-part review: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), I favored the hard line, but my conscience bothered me.

After tonight, I don't have that worry. Hard-line stance, baby. The ex-prison guard said it best: "Not much will change as long as Kim Jong Il is alive." This comment produced a good bit of nervous laughter from the students.

Seventh: The first presenter made an interesting point: many of the North Koreans who've settled in South Korea hope one day that, after reunification, they'll be able to go back north to restart their lives. If I recall correctly, a comparison was made between those North Koreans and South Koreans who study abroad, but come back to South Korea to live and work, using their education as an advantage.

In case the above was a confusing, non-chronological jumble to you, let me state clearly the order of the presenters this evening. I didn't take notes and don't have anybody's name (perhaps Andy can email those to me, so I can give proper credit to the folks I saw tonight); please forgive the lack of specificity.

A college student's speech kicked off the symposium. Then:

1. The first presenter was a lady who runs schools for North Korean defectors, helping them adapt to South Korean society. She also spent a couple years in China, helping NK defectors there, teaching them and providing general care. She spoke on the subject of the t'al-buk-ja. Along with noting that many of the defectors dream of reunification and of one day going back north, she talked about the recent question of NKers going to America. In her opinion, the language barrier would be an enormous obstacle for those defectors. I've seen bloggers and commenters who beg to differ, citing the large Korean communities in America (and sometimes bemoaning those communities' insularity; some folks fear that NK citizens in America would still be treated as second-class citizens if they tried to make their fortune in America's Koreatowns).

This presenter was also a bit critical of LiNK and wondered why LiNK wasn't applying more pressure internationally, and not just pressuring South Korea. I understand her reasoning, but find it exasperating: as subsequent presenters mentioned, South Koreans are physically closest to the problem. It's on their doorstep, and, given the amount of "ka-t'eun-minjok" (same people/race) rhetoric, it's primarily their responsibility to do something about the problem. (I'm in the habit of using salty language in this blog and in person. Be aware that it took a lot of effort to write this paragraph without including swear words.)

2. The second presenter was a former NK prison camp guard who defected and arrived in Korea in 1994. He spoke about SK indifference and talked a bit about the wider political ramifications of SK government inaction (or, less charitable souls might say, outright collusion with NK in the destruction of their own people). He'd love to see Kim Jong Il dead-- soon-- and thinks George Bush is right to be hard on North Korea about the crisis up north. By implication, he also made known his contrition at having been part of a system of oppression.

3. The third presenter was a female college student who gave us a PowerPoint presentation that included the "22 million people > Dokdo" slide, along with two beautiful quotes by non-Koreans who know something about human rights. One by Martin Luther King was:

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Another was by Elie Wiesel. I couldn't keep the quote in my head, but it was similar in spirit to this quote, also from Wiesel:

Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.

And just a reminder: this is what Kang Chol Hwan, the author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, wrote:

The citizens of South Korea should realize they have an important role to play in welcoming refugees. They aren't just people who have fled something; they are people who have a hard time adapting and a hard time forgetting what they have endured. ...It is not enough for people to say they are for reunification. Their actions need to prove it. The rhetoric of reunification is one thing, people's attitudes toward North Korean renegades quite another. I don't question the South Korean population's desire for reunification, even though a large segment couldn't care less one way or another. What I do wish to denounce-- based on my own experience-- are the countless prejudices that are held against people from the North.

4. The fourth presenter (who looked at me after the symposium was over and asked, "Aren't you a blogger?") was one of LiNK's leaders (it frustrates me that the LiNK website doesn't seem to list its staff, and I'm kicking myself for not having asked for a business card). He spoke in English but obviously could speak some Korean and had no trouble understanding it. He talked at some length about LiNK's objectives and gamely fielded questions and critiques from the audience, including some of the questions/critiques mentioned earlier.

I was surprised-- and not a little pleased-- to be one of the oldest farts in the room this evening. It was heartening to see so many students in attendance. I view this as a hopeful sign, and have decided to cast my lot with LiNK. I don't know what this will mean in terms of how I will be spending my time. Perhaps it will mean more blogging about North Korea. Perhaps it will mean pounding the pavement in Seoul and spreading the word. It almost certainly will mean attending more LiNK symposia.

I don't know what's in store. All I know is that, tonight, something changed.

I found some of the missing names via Andy's blog, in this post. Two of the presenters this evening were:

1. Cho Myung Sook (Principal of Yuh Myung School/Jayoutuh School-helps North Korean refugees resettle in South Korea)
[She was the first speaker.]

2. Ahn Myung Chul (former North Korean prison guard)
[He was the second speaker.]

3. ????

4. Adrian Hong (LiNK director...?)
[The final presenter; he fielded some tough questions.]

Alas, Andy the Yangban wasn't in attendance this evening. Sneaky Republican scum. I know you're avoiding me, you bastard!



Anonymous said...

Wow, great post. Never been to a LiNK meeting myself. Almost makes me want to attend one.

Anonymous said...

hi. i'm grace with the LiNK Seoul Chapter. thanks for coming to the symp. please email me at if you want to attend our meetings resuming mid-June!

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for such accounts for weeks. It sounds like Project Sunshine is doing very well.

Anonymous said...

As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

-Elie Wiesel