What could a free man hope to accomplish by crossing without permission into North Korea, to ask its rulers to repent, close the prison camps and free the people? Robert Park, a young American of Korean descent made exactly that crossing on Christmas day, walking from China into North Korea across the frozen Tumen River. There are reports that as he crossed, he called out, “I came here to proclaim God’s love.”
A manifesto attributed to Park, leader of a Christian group advocating human rights for North Koreans, includes the statement: “All we are asking is for all North Koreans to be free, safe and have life.”
Chances are nil that North Korea’s regime will receive Park in that spirit. North Korea-watcher Joshua Stanton, who includes the full text of the above manifesto on his well-informed One Free Korea blog, worries with good reason that Park will become yet another pawn in the endless extortion rackets and depravities of North Korean “diplomacy.” Park reportedly said before he went in to North Korea that he did not want to be ransomed by the U.S. government. But based on dismal experience — recall Bill Clinton’s Pyongyang trip in August to pick up the detained Laura Ling and Euna Lee — Stanton fears that already “junior and has-been diplomats all along the Eastern Seaboard are imagining themselves escorting Robert Park up the steps of a charter flight at Sunan Airport, having left behind enough ransom aid to run a small concentration camp for years.”
That sounds sadly accurate. And yet… there are powerful reasons why a man who cares deeply about human rights for North Koreans might feel impelled to set out across that frozen river. For years, the monstrous miseries inside North Korea have been known, detailed, attested to before congressional committees, documented by carefully cross-correlated reports, deplored by human rights groups and chronicled by defectors. For a sample, you can browse the atrocities documented by the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea — and if you want to look further, you can amass a large collection of books, movies, news reports and graphic findings about the brutalities North Korea’s government systematically inflicts on its people.
And yet, the horrors continue. And in the corridors of world officialdom — not least in Washington — human rights in North Korea chronically take a backseat to diplomatic deals with Kim Jong Il, feelers toward the Pyongyang regime, and endless schemes for “aid” — billions worth of aid over the years, which has served not to liberate North Korea, but chiefly to employ United Nations and other official aid workers, dish out goodies in fruitless western nuclear haggling, and shore up Kim’s regime.
For private individuals or groups trying either to help North Koreans escape, or bring some measure of freedom to North Korea, the experience is a constant struggle with grief, frustration and despair.
They get arrested in China, rebuffed, harrassed or sidelined in Washington and Seoul. The stories have stacked up over the years — champions of human rights for North Korea trying desperately to make any headway: speaking on the Washington Mall, holding protest posters in the streets of Seoul, doing time in the prisons of China, and trying to send into North Korea not only charity, but the precious gift of information. There have been high-risk campaigns for North Korean refugees to seek help and publicity for their cause by rushing into diplomatic compounds in China, or by approaching the shamefully unhelpful and cloistered offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing. There have been cases of incredible courage, such as that of seven North Koreans who in 2003, despite the risk of arrest, tried openly approaching China’s foreign ministry in Beijing to ask for refugee status — and were promptly bundled into security vans and never heard from again (“So, Where is Ms. Cho?”).
What, then, must be done? Robert Park’s Christmas crossing into North Korea can be parsed as rash, foolhardy, or simply crazy. I read it an act of enormous courage, embodying a desperate question: What will it take?