[Interview] Attorney for N. Korean human rights says US only listens to politically charged defectors

Posted on : 2021-04-09 17:35 KST Modified on : 2021-04-09 18:02 KST
Jeon Su-mi calls on the US to stop using North Korean human rights as a tool to pressure the North Korean regime and to find actual solutions
Jeon Su-mi, a human rights attorney who has been involved in the North Korean human rights issue for 20 years and director of an NGO called Coalition for Reconciliation and Peace, talks during an interview with the Hankyoreh on April 1 in the NGO’s office. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)
Jeon Su-mi, a human rights attorney who has been involved in the North Korean human rights issue for 20 years and director of an NGO called Coalition for Reconciliation and Peace, talks during an interview with the Hankyoreh on April 1 in the NGO’s office. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)

Since Joe Biden took office as US president, North Korean human rights have become a major issue, reflecting Biden’s personal concern for human rights. To learn what’s behind the recent interest in North Korean human rights, how this issue should be viewed, and how it can be practically addressed, the Hankyoreh sat down with Jeon Su-mi, a North Korean human rights attorney and director of an NGO called Coalition for Reconciliation and Peace.

Jeon has been involved in the North Korean human rights issue for 20 years both as an attorney and an activist with NGOs that support North Korean defectors. She has provided pro bono legal work for defectors who have suffered sexual assault and defectors indicted under the National Security Act for attempting to rescue family members still in the North.

While working with an NGO in her 20s, Jeon released balloons filled with propaganda pamphlets along the border with North Korea, and she also brought North Korean defectors out of China and into the South. At the time, she worked alongside the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an American agency that provides funding for North Korean human rights groups.

During the debate about a bill banning the launch of propaganda balloons to North Korea in the summer of 2020, Jeon discussed specific issues with such launches based on her personal experience.

This interview took place at the Institute for Reconciliation and Peace office in Seoul on April 1.

Hankyoreh (Hani): What kind of activities are you involved in as an attorney?

Jeon Su-mi: I’m exclusively involved in pro bono cases involving North Korean defectors. I don’t take on other civil or criminal cases. With the males, there are many cases involving the National Security Act; with the females, there are a lot of sexual assault cases.

During the dictatorship era, South Koreans were unfairly indicted based on the National Security Act. These days, there are a lot of defectors being indicted.

Intelligence institutions in North Korea will make threatening calls to defectors in the South, telling them, “If you don’t come to China with money and contact information on other defectors, all your family members in the North will die.” So in many cases, defectors meet with North Korean intelligence agents in China to keep their family alive, only to end up being indicted on espionage charges or for violating the National Security Act.

There’s also a serious sexual assault problem in the case of female defectors. For every 100 female defectors I meet who have suffered sexual assault, fewer than ten proceed as far as a lawsuit. They’re too cowed by threats of retaliation by the perpetrators. Unable to speak out about the abuse they’ve suffered, some of them have taken their own lives or talked about how they “really want to go back to the North.”

Jeon Su-mi talks during an interview with the Hankyoreh on April 1 in the NGO’s office. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)
Jeon Su-mi talks during an interview with the Hankyoreh on April 1 in the NGO’s office. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)
The leaflet distribution has serious side effects

Hani: Back when the issue of [South Korean defector groups] distributing leaflets in the North was receiving so much attention last summer, you talked about your own experiences with the kind of problems it presents.

Jeon: In my twenties, I also got involved with sending [propaganda] leaflets. We’d send them together with dollar bills and USB flash drives. A few times, I was caught sending them by police and let off with a warning. I also saw the whole production process, including things like choosing the phrases that go into the leaflets.

Hani: A recent annual human rights report by the US State Department criticized [South Korea’s] law banning leaflet scattering activities, calling it a violation of freedom of expression. The US seems to view the leaflets as an important means of introducing information into the closed North Korean society.

Jeon: Beyond the people who get all the media attention for leaflet distribution, there are also people who are active along the North Korea-China border. They have deep religious convictions and send items to North Korea quietly so that it doesn’t draw attention.

The USB drives contain South Korean TV series and movies that slowly change North Korea as they are introduced, sharing information about the outside world. Outside information is making its way into the North through different pathways, including the North Korea-China border.

There’s already a huge influx of information into North Korea. I don’t really see the need to go through so much trouble sending leaflet balloons out from the Gyeonggi Province border region.

Hani: Are you saying the leaflet distribution is ineffective as a means of introducing outside information?

Jeon: It’s ineffective, and it has serious side effects. The markets are where North Koreans earn a living, so the North Korean authorities have looked the other way about the South Korean TV shows and movies circulating there. But there are reports that after the leaflets became an issue last year, they designated South Korean TV shows and movies as “enemy items.”

North Korean authorities have undertaken large-scale efforts to track down defectors. When a family member defects, North Koreans will report them dead or missing. Last year, North Korean authorities did a deep investigation into whether these people were actually dead or missing or whether there were records of remittances to the South or phone calls.

As these kinds of large-scale crackdown efforts have continued, things have become very dangerous for defector family members who are still in North Korea. There have been several defectors who have called me in tears, telling me, “My family in North Korea is in danger.” Far from improving North Korean human rights, the leaflet distribution efforts have only made everyday life more dangerous for North Koreans.

The reason I spoke out publicly about the leaflet problems last year is because I was asking myself questions like, “Who are North Korean human rights for?” and “Who are the leaflets for?”

Hani: What do ordinary defectors think about the leaflets?

Jeon: The people who speak out in the media represent less than one percent of all North Korean defectors. Their views are by no means representative of everyone.

Sometimes, it harms the defectors who are simply struggling from day to day to establish themselves in South Korea. There have been cases where job offers were rescinded due to the negative image of defectors after the leaflet furor last year.

Hani: What has been the response among the North Koreans who have seen the leaflets?

Jeon: If you look at the leaflets’ content, it’s all calls for “destroying the Kim Jong-un regime.” I was really curious about it, so I asked some people who had gotten the leaflets in the past.

And they were really upset about them. They told me, “It made me really mad. That stuff about ‘destroying the regime’ is just ridiculous.” It was all very different from what they had been taught since they were children, and while it was all well and fine for them to insult their own leader, they got upset when others did it.

Their second complaint was, “If you’re going to give us money, be generous about it. Why do you put these fake dollar bills in here?” I was told that fake dollar bills trade for half their actual value in North Korean markets. So what they’re saying is, “If you’re going to give us fake money, at least be generous and send a hundred dollars. That way, I can buy US$50 in real money. But if you send me a [fake] dollar, that’s worth just 50 cents.”

In the past, the leaflets did have an impact on North Koreans. But today, the tiny flash drives circulating in North Korean markets can contain tens of thousands of pieces of information, with things like movies and TV shows. Everyone watches South Korean movies and series. The leaflets used to be effective at introducing information, but not anymore.

Hani: So why send the leaflets if they aren’t even that effective?

Jeon: If you want to gain the image of a “fighter for North Korean human rights,” you do the leaflet distributions in front of a bunch of reporters. You can also get money from NED and other related organizations in the US.

In a word, they’re using North Korean human rights as a tool. Once the foreign press has images of people being stopped by police from sending leaflets, the US treats them like fighters or martyrs for North Korean human rights. They receive more support funds. So in a sense, human rights are being exploited as a means to an end.

One of the dangers is that people working on behalf of North Korean human rights with truly pure intentions can end up being disparaged because of people like that. The leaflets are Cold War products that served as tools of warfare. We’re in an armistice situation right now, which means that war could break out anywhere. We need to tell people, “We can’t send these leaflets because they’re tools of warfare.”

Jeon Su-mi talks during an interview with the Hankyoreh on April 1 in the NGO’s office. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)
Jeon Su-mi talks during an interview with the Hankyoreh on April 1 in the NGO’s office. (Kim Bong-gyu/The Hankyoreh)
The US only hears half the story

Hani: Why do you think the US is ignoring the leaflets’ danger and focusing only on the “freedom of expression” aspect?

Jeon: The US human rights activists and State Department people I met back when I was involved in sending leaflets had unfortunately only heard half the story. They meet with certain people, but they don’t really hear from people opposed to the leaflets, like the residents of the border region and me. It’s unfortunate because they hear only half the story and think that’s all there is to it.

I’d like to see the US meeting with defectors who represent the whole gamut of opinions. Many ordinary defectors complain that their family members in the North are at risk because of the leaflets and that it’s gotten harder for them to find work in the South. But since they’re struggling to make a living right now, they don’t even have the opportunity to speak out.

So we’ve ended up with a situation where the views of fewer than one percent come to represent all 34,000 defectors in the South. I’d like it if the US listened to ordinary, non-politicized defectors.

Hani: Why does the US only listen to half the story when it comes to North Korean human rights?

Jeon: It’s because the people who have connections with the US have long tended to fall only on the one side. Americans want to meet personally with people from North Korea and hear from the horse’s mouth. People in the US tend to put a lot of credence in first-hand accounts by defectors.

Among those sharing their accounts, there are people who really did suffer human rights violations, and some of the things they share are meaningful. But most of them are people who defected in the 1990s or early 2000s. Human rights in North Korea were much worse 20 or 30 years ago than they are today.

In a lot of cases, they’re demonizing North Korea, cementing an image that implies to all of North Korea, and refusing to acknowledge North Korea today based on the situation there a long time ago.

There’s also an element of it being related to US interests. I think it’s because emphasizing the poor human rights situation in North Korea offers a way of boosting the US’ moral leadership and its orientation toward human rights and democratic values.

Hani: Do you see the US government as genuinely committed to improving North Korean human rights?

Jeon: As an example, the US government makes a big issue out of the political prison camps in North Korea. When Germany was divided, West Germany paid money to bring over 32,000 political prisoners from the East over a period of 26 years. If the US and the rest of the international community really want to solve the problem of political prison camps in North Korea, they could follow the German example and pay money to bring them over. This is a practical method that could be used to rescue North Korean political prisoners. I’m not sure why the US won’t consider it.

Hani: What was your impression of the Americans you encountered as a North Korean human rights activist?

Jeon: Some of them viewed human rights as a means of pressuring and bringing down the North Korean regime, while some of them had the pure intention of improving North Korean human rights. The people who wanted to bring down the North Korean regime would also attempt to foster underground organizations in the North, things like the “association for smashing statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”

The Americans who were genuinely trying to improve North Korean human rights didn’t even ask for receipts when they provided financial support to North Korean human rights NGOs in South Korea. They had absolute trust in the North Korean human rights campaign and firmly believed their money would benefit North Korean human rights.

But there were also many people who took advantage of those funds being provided without a receipt. I’ve seen at least one North Korean human rights figure pulling out US$300 or so in support funds and offering them as a celebratory gift when a friend’s child was getting married.

In a word, getting funds from the US gives you a kind of authority in the South Korean defector community. It says you’ve been “certified by the US.” And the defectors tend to congregate around those people because they have the money to spend however they see fit.

Celebrity defectors silence other defectors

Hani: Is defector testimony reliable?

Jeon: An ordinary defector — someone who isn’t a high-ranking official — isn’t in a position to know everything about North Korea’s politics, society, economy, military, and so forth. I was watching TV one time with a defector who got really angry about it. They said, “That person lived next door to us, and now they’re telling all these lies. Isn’t there a law in South Korea to punish people who lie like that?”

People aren’t seen as having any value if they don’t meet the networks’ expectations about defectors, so they come on and tell lies or exaggerations. There’s a kind of power that comes from your face being widely recognized by the media.

When celebrity defectors get increased police protection, none of the other defectors can touch them. They become all-powerful figures, and you end up being unable to speak out if you’ve been victimized. It’s had serious consequences, as I’ve seen working with female defectors.

Hani: Can you talk about some of the specific issues?

Jeon: They’ll approach female defectors who’ve just arrived in the South and tell them, “So-and-so spoke before the US Congress, and I’m the one who got her an English tutor and fixed her pronunciation. I made her. Don’t you want that to happen for you?” So they get someone who’s a success story, and then that person becomes abused as a tool for sexually exploiting or assaulting female defectors.

There are also cases where the same hierarchies that operate in North Korea get imported into the South and applied to female victims of sexual assault. Speeches before US Congress, photographs with the US president — things like that get used as tools for sexually exploiting female defectors and violating their human rights.

Hani: Is this an issue that doesn’t get talked about?

Jeon: Women coming from North Korea end up buried within the defector community. They’re not in a position to speak out. When women have tried to talk about being victimized, they’ve been silenced by people who tell them things like, “Don’t speak out. If you do, the image of the whole defector community will be tarnished.”

I have to ask whether it’s a genuine human rights “conversation” when we’re talking about North Korean human rights while failing to properly address the human rights violations suffered by defectors in the South.

Hani: The North Korean government has objected to raising human rights issues as a violation of their “sovereignty” and a method for their US imperialist enemies and South Korean authorities to plot against them.

Jeon: North Korea aspires to be a normal state. If only for the sake of being recognized by the international community as a normal state, they need to listen to international concerns about human rights issues and work to improve North Korean lives to meet the universal human standard.

Hani: How do you think the North Korean human rights debate should proceed?

Jeon: Rather than limiting the idea of North Korean human rights to the rights of people living in North Korea, we should be looking at them in terms of “Korean human rights” that apply throughout the peninsula. When we limit it just to human rights within North Korean territory, it becomes fuel for political attacks, and the human rights of defectors in the South get shut out of the discussion. I think we should also be able to raise issues of our own internal human rights issues as well as those in North Korea, broadening the discussion to improving Korean human rights in general.

Hani: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jeon: I hope we can stop politically exploiting North Korean human rights and using them as a means to an end. Things like your hometown or gender aren’t what matters — we need to be respected as individuals. I see North Korean human rights as being about recognizing each individual as they are.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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