Unveiling the shadow over North Korea

    Ever since President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002, North Korea has gained increasing attention in the United States as part of Bush’s “axis of evil.” North Korea’s isolationist policies have turned the country into something of a clandestine chocolate factory, where nobody goes in and nobody comes out. So it is no surprise that very few Americans know that the communist state currently faces a human rights disaster.

    According to a report conducted by the Human Rights Watch, North Korea’s government resembles that of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. The report continued to state that the government promptly sends any opposition to camps similar to Stalin’s Siberian gulags. North Korea’s failed economy, as well as its agricultural disasters, produced a massive famine in the mid-1990s, prompting many North Koreans to seek refuge across the border in China. There are an estimated 10,000 to 300,000 North Korean refugees living in China, hiding among Chinese citizens of Korean ethnicity, according to HRW. However, if they are found by Chinese authorities, they are promptly repatriated to North Korea, where they face severe punishment in concentration camps and even death. The Chinese government recognizes them not as refugees but as illegal immigrants and grants them no asylum.

    Enter L.i.N.K., Liberation in North Korea, an organization founded in March at the 18th Annual Korean-American Students Conference. The group first sought to educate Korean-American students about human rights issues in North Korea, but the organization has expanded from its original mission to encompass more than that: to bring the issue of North Korean human rights to the world. With chapters all over the United States and Europe, L.i.N.K. has grown into an international effort to address various human rights issues in North Korea, such as Chinese repatriation of North Korean refugees. The local L.i.N.K. chapter, called SDLiNK, was formed earlier this year.

    “When we first started the organization, we didn’t want to isolate L.i.N.K. from UCSD, so we named it SDLiNK,” said Revelle College senior Do Kim, an SDLiNK core member.

    But the organization no doubt faces a great deal of skepticism. What can a group of student activists do to help the millions of people under the rule of a dictator?

    “We’re just trying to make the issue known about in the U.S.,” Kim said. “People need to know about what’s happening first.”

    One of the first projects taken on by the organization was to make T-shirts to spread a visual image with which the cause can be associated. Projects now include a political push, which has the organization appealing to local politicians to bring the issue into the mainstream. There are also plans for an SDLiNK art gallery, where artists can show their interpretations of North Korean suffering. In addition, Kim hopes to enlist the aid of nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Nations Human Commissioner for Refugees to educate the world about the situation.

    That may prove difficult, as a nuclear-weapons crisis with North Korea overshadows the human rights crisis. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and announced last February that it has nuclear weapons. On May 5, North Korea fired a test missile into the Sea of Japan, seemingly flaunting its delivery capabilities. The United States’ policies towards North Korea were even an issue in the 2004 election, where President Bush insisted that six-party talks between North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan and China could be used to bring stability to the peninsula.

    But Kim wants SDLiNK to rise above the politics of the situation.

    “We’re really trying to stay away from politicizing the organization,” Kim said. “Our goal is exclusively about the human rights crisis, not the political situation.”

    Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore Joseph Juhn first heard about SDLiNK from Kim last year, when both were involved in the Korean-American Student Association. After hearing about the human rights crisis, Juhn felt compelled to play a larger role in the organization. Raised in South Korea, Juhn said he knew surprisingly little about the situation in North Korea.

    “The [South] Korean government at this point is having a ‘sunshine policy’ which doesn’t depict North Korea as an axis of evil anymore,” Juhn said. “So in accordance with the policy and government, the media [are] trying their best to depict North Korea as a friendly nation, therefore, and paying little attention to human rights issues.”

    An aspiring filmmaker, Juhn hopes to aid the organization by making films about North Korea to help bring the cause to the mainstream.

    “I want to bring awareness to the Korean-American community and, in a broader sense, American society, by making documentaries that deal heavily with North Korean defectors,” he said.

    SDLiNK’s most recent endeavor has been three free screenings of a documentary concerning the North Korean refugees in China. Titled “Seoul Train,” the film examines the lives of refugees and their attempts to flee from China to other countries. The film is aptly named because the North Korean refugee situation mirrors that of the Underground Railroad of the American South in the mid-19th century. It opens with a chilling image of East Asia at night, in which industrialized countries such as Japan, South Korea and China are illuminated by city lights, but North Korea remains dark except for the capital city of Pyongyang. Images of gaunt, malnourished children picking bits of rice out of the mud to gain some sort of sustenance illustrate the reason why there is a six-inch height discrepancy between South Korean and North Korean children at age seven. The film follows two groups of refugees who attempt to run from China to more democratic nations with the aid of Harriet Tubman-like activists. Some manage to escape successfully, but others fail.

    With all the things happening in the world, it is easy to fall into the condition of “compassion fatigue.” But Juhn remains firm in his beliefs.

    “It is one thing to know and pray for North Koreans; it is another thing to put compassion into action,” he said. “If I don’t help North Koreans, who else will?”

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