Friday, July 22, 2005

Conference on North Korean Human Rights, Washington DC July 19, 2005

For all the authoritative and comprehensive information on this event you need to go to One Free Korea. And as a further disclaimer I'm not involved in any organised charity on North Korean human rights and showed up merely as an interested and concerned person (not even a US citizen).

Unlike "One Free Korea" I didn't have eleven pages of notes, I had a mere page and a half. And unlike OFK I do NOT consider starting 15 minutes late, breaks constantly eating into the sessions by 5-10 minutes and lunch that went half an hour longer than scheduled as being "like the Tokyo train system--on time, efficient". I would however, say that is was typical of conferences of this size and nature.

1. The Content
The highlight was clearly Natan Sharansky and the testimonies of North Korean defectors and their helpers including Tim Peters and Rev. Chun Ki-Won. And kudos also needs to be given to the coverage which touched on conditions in Korean concentration camps, the plight of refugees in China, human trafficking and women's issues, and also Japanese abductees. This was further strengthened by the range of speakers which included charities and those directly affected, government - both US and South Korea, academia and church.

There was no open floor Q&A during the conference. Although I regret this somewhat as I think it would've made it more interactive I also understand that the reason the schedule kept such clear focus was because it didn't open itself up to divergences that the audience may have taken us on. Also, with such a controversial issue, open floor may have gotten out of hand.

2. The Speakers
As mentioned the defectors, Sharansky and Tim Peters were all very interesting to listen to. I should also put in Donna Hughes' account of human trafficking of women as among one of the best talks of the day. Senators Brownback, Leach and all the religious folks were good speakers per se but the constant dramatic pauses for gratuitous applauses was difficult to stomach.

Deborah Fikes, Executive Director of the Midland Ministerial Alliance who claimed that the US government placed the genocide by Nazi Germany as a key reason US entered and fought in WWII needs to urgently read a basic history on the US government's approach and actions against genocide claims made during WWII. Even a simple trip to the Holocaust Museum may clear up some confusion for her.

Dr. Kim Sang Chul of Save North Korea was fortunate not to have a coronary and as the audience it was a miracle we didn't all simultaneously blow our eardrums. Nobody knows what he said because he was screaming too much.

In fact, of the speakers, the (mostly Korean and mostly religious) freaks who put on the afternoon show (3:30-5:00) where all too much for me to bear. I was planning to stay for the evening US politicians but couldn't stomach it anymore by this stage.

The whole religious and political gang who kept on about "moral clarity" also started to get on my nerves as well. I don't need "moral clarity" to know that 2 million starving to death, execution for defection and concentration camps are "wrong". Frankly, that kind of term only serves to create a "holier-than-thou" attitude which will only serve to repel secular would-be activists. And praying is also a BIG NO in a conference. Being told to stand and hold hand has got to be the most off-putting turn of events I have ever encountered at a conference.

About the speakers, I don't want to imply that the message was bad - indeed as mentioned the content was good and the topic is critical but the delivery at times made the SOME of speakers seem disingenuous.

3. The Audience
This was a big crowd. Mostly Korean and, I'm guessing, predominantly involved or otherwise associated with either Freedom House of other charity groups that were taking part in the conference. As such, I viewed this event pretty much as a "preacher speaking to his choir" affair. I doubt that there were any among us who had not already read "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" and I'm guessing the majority had also read Sharansky's book. And like me who wrote only a page and a half of notes, I think the rest of the audience also heard very little that they didn't already know.

4. Conclusion
My thoughts at the end of the conference were mixed. I'd had a gutful of politicians and preachers and was disappointed in the lack of new information but at the same time I was encouraged by the scope of people who were concerned about the issue and more convinced than ever that more needs to be done than simply holding conferences like this. My role in helping North Korea's people is not going to be served by attending these events or by joining groups like Freedom House but in my individual actions.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui