At a crucial time in North Korea’s political climate and humanitarian crisis, Jung-Hoon Lee, the South Korean Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights, and Yosep Paek, North Korean refugee, spoke to Cornell students on Friday drawing from their expertise to stress the escalating tensions between North Korea and the world.
“[North Korea] is a country whose economy has collapsed a long time ago. People are suffering from hunger, famine, and yet the government is developing weapons of mass destruction and the international community must interject,” Lee said.
Considering a recent propaganda film released by the North Korean government with its mocked-up scenes of a nuclear bomb striking a city in the United States, Lee said that he believes “they are preparing for World War III.”
“Everything is government controlled and government oriented,” he said. “It’s as tough as it can get. They are threatening nuclear attacks. It sounds surreal but it’s escalating.”
In addition to the current rising tensions between North Korea and the United States, Lee also addressed diplomatic relations between the countries in the present and past. The occasion of President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office did not escape his notice.
“Strategic patience is over. This has been said over and over by the President, the Secretary of State, the Vice President, and the Secretary of Defense. Today marks the 100th day of the presidency.” Lee said. “Only yesterday, President Trump invited every single member of the senators to the White House for a detailed briefing on North Korea. That’s pretty unusual.”
Lee believes that secondary boycott and sanctions are some of the possible actions that can be taken regarding North Korea.
“[A] secondary boycott, which is not targeting North Korean businessmen or individuals but those who deal with those people, redesignation of North Korea as a state sponsoring terrorism, and redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea are possible ways of tackling the issue,” Lee said.
According to Lee, North Korea is “armed to its teeth” with not only “nuclear weapons but chemical weapons and biological weapons.”
“North Korea has said multiple times it has no intention whatsoever to denuclearize,” he said. “Last year, they had two nuclear tests. North Korea is no doubt, proceeding with the development of the ICBM [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile]. We don’t know if it can carry a nuclear warhead but it’s certainly trying.”
Lee also brought up the definition of communism as opposed to the current political regime in North Korea — which he said was rather a “totalitarian state.”
“Kim Jong Un wants to be left alone and he wants his son to rule next. This will be one century of the Kim regime. North Korea is not communist. Communism does not practice hereditary succession. This is a unique, totalitarian state,” Lee said.
Beyond military action by the country, Lee also stressed the major violations of human rights by North Korea. To address these violations, Lee explained the role of defectors moving forward.
“These are crimes against humanity. North Korea is violating every single article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said. “I’m trying to encourage the defectors to pull together and coordinate their efforts to fight. Just like the North Korean nuclear issue, it’s not going away. It really is going to take a monumental effort to make a difference.”
Yosep Paek provided a first-hand account of such human rights violations from his own experience as a North Korean defector and as a soldier in Pyonyang, North Korea for two years.
“I was only 41 kilograms when I was first in the military, when I left after 2 years, I was 31 kilograms. I ate everything, except stone and wood. I ate mice, snakes, raccoons, frogs. Many friends died so I ran away,” Paek said.
Paek also said that while the international community believed it was helping,reality was relatively unchanging.
“Between 1998 to 2008, the international community donated a lot of money to North Korea,” he said. “3 million people died during this time. Interestingly enough, the more amount that is sent in, the more people died.”
To escape these conditions, Paek’s journey from North Korea to his eventual freedom was across six different countries that was over “35,000 km and took more than 2,090 days.”
“I repeated the process of running away, getting caught, running away, getting caught,” he said.
Paek, who currently works as a journalist in South Korea, explained that only 30,000 out of 300,000 people survive when escaping North Korea.
“It’s only 10 percent success rate. We have a big responsibility to speak up,” Paek said. “All the corpses that we had to pass by while crossing the border, they live on within us. I am not alive alone, but those who died are also standing behind me.”
With his woeful account of the atrocities that he had suffered, Paek’s presentation held important emotional resonance for the audience.
“We sink in the sea every night with no lights. Why do we have to suffer? What we call freedom, that’s everyday for you,” Paek said.
While concluding, Paek addressed what he felt being in front of Americans, who are meant to be his “enemies.”
“While it’s very frightening to be here, in front of my ‘enemies,’ Americans, I’m very appreciative to be here,” he said. “Someone is listening. Thank you so much for this opportunity.”