What’s the situation in North Korea? It’s a difficult question to answer. Refugees from the nation are painted as liars by their former government, and it’s nearly impossible for outsiders to get a clear picture of what life is like inside the nation. The few foreigners who do visit North Korea are closely watched and presented an “official” image of the nation by the regime. Suzanne Scholte has spent the last 20 years not only trying to answer this question but also advocating for the rights of the North Korean people. She is president of the Defense Forum Foundation and chairperson of the North Korean Freedom Coalition. She is one of the world’s leading activists in the North Korean human rights movement and is dedicated to promoting the freedom, human rights and dignity of the North Korean people. Late last year she spoke with Religion & Liberty’s Sarah Stanley in Falls Church, Virginia, about North Korea and the broader fight for democracy worldwide.
For more of the interview, visit blog.acton.org and search for “Suzanne Scholte.” See also essays about North Korean and Communist defectors in “Stories from the worst regimes.”
R&L: What originally got you interested in fighting for human rights in general, but also in North Korea specifically?
Suzanne Scholte: As president of the Defense Forum Foundation, I was organizing programs on foreign affairs and defense policy. Our foundation was founded during the early years of the Reagan administration to articulate why we needed to rebuild our defenses after the Carter years. DFF’s mission is to bring expert speakers to Capitol Hill for bipartisan programs in support of a strong national defense and to promote the concept of peace through strength.
When I became president of DFF, I expanded the focus to also promote freedom, democracy and human rights abroad because in every single case, the countries that are a threat to the United States—or any other democracy—are always a threat to their own people without exception. So I felt we should do more than just promote a strong national defense but also promote freedom, democracy and human rights abroad. So, to start that mission, I decided to bring people who had escaped from totalitarian regimes to come and speak about why they left. What made them turn against the country of their birth? I hosted defectors from the former Soviet Union, Cuba, China and elsewhere. It was remarkable to hear their stories.
I hosted a gentleman named Harry Wu from China, who exposed the Chinese Laogai—the political prison camp system. During those years of bringing speakers to talk about why they defected, I thought, “I really want to hear a North Korean.” Back then, just as today, the focus was always on the nuclear issue. So I really wanted to hear from somebody who actually lived in North Korea who had defected. I started beating down the door of the South Korean embassy in Washington in 1996, because all the defectors were totally under the control and care of the Korean government. At the time, there weren’t that many. So I begged them. I said, “Look, I’m doing these programs featuring defectors from these totalitarian regimes. We’d love to hear from a North Korean.” And it took a year of trying to convince them this is important for Americans to hear from an actual North Korean, to share their story. I finally won them over. In 1997, DFF hosted the first North Korean defectors who had ever spoken out publicly in the United States.
Immediately after that I hosted the first survivors of the political prison camps from North Korea. At the time, there were only five. One of them was a camp guard. I consider him a survivor even though he was a guard, because he turned against the regime. We also hosted other witnesses: women who had been victims of trafficking in China, others who had suffered torture and abuse when they were forced back to North Korea by Chinese authorities. We were just trying to expose what was happening in North Korea by eyewitnesses, by actual people who could share their stories. This issue was really hard to get people’s attention. For example, it took me a year of requests to get the South Korean government to allow North Korean defectors to visit the USA, and then it took me another year to get the U.S. Congress to host a hearing on the political prison camps. We finally had a hearing in 1999 on the political prison camps. It was then Senator John Kerry and former Senator Craig Thomas, whose staff members helped me put that hearing together.
I would host these defectors from North Korea and listen to what they went through, and I’d have nightmares. I could hardly sleep at night…
It was nonpartisan, with support from both the Republican and Democrat senators, and it was the first time there had ever been a hearing on the North Korean political prison camps. But it was very frustrating to make that happen. I have to confess I really wanted to give up on the whole issue and go do something else. The American policy regarding North Korea was totally focused on the nuclear issue. It was frustrating because people didn’t believe the stories, and it was debilitating to listen to the stories. I would host these defectors from North Korea and listen to what they went through, and I’d have nightmares. I could hardly sleep at night because it was so horrible. The reason I stayed with this work was because of answered prayer. In terrible frustration, I cried out to God, “Why did you put this North Korea work on me?” He reminded me that he had simply answered my prayer. Then I remembered, I had prayed once that God would break my heart for what was breaking his heart. I realized at that moment in frustrated angry prayer to God that what was happening to the people of North Korea was breaking his heart, and I had to do this work; I had to keep at it. Only because of my faith have I been able to walk this walk, because it is really, really hard.
What is it about totalitarianism that is so violent against religion in general, but especially Christianity?
Christianity teaches that you’re free. Under totalitarianism, you’re a slave to the state and therefore they’re very anti-religion. Their religion is the state. North Korea is unique because of their ideology. They’re not a purely Communist state, although they’re definitely totalitarian. Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, was raised a Christian—his parents were Christians.
I believe that as Kim Il Sung was growing up during the Japanese occupation of Korea, he witnessed the power of the Christian faith. In the Korean Declaration of Independence, you will see that over half the signers of that document were devout Christians. The general population was maybe 20 percent Christian. Christians dominated the movement for Korean independence. Kim Il Sung saw firsthand the power of the Christian faith, and when he took over North Korea, he took the tenets of the Christian faith and turned them into the worship of himself. For example, he set himself up as the god. Juche is the Holy Spirit, the ideology they operate under. Then Kim Jong Il, his son, was like the Christ figure, the father, son and Juche. North Koreans have to pray after a meal: “Thank you father, Kim Il Sung.” They say a creed that’s very much like the Apostles’ Creed to the dictatorship. They have study centers all over North Korea where people have to study the ideology and the words and teachings of Kim Il Sung. It’s a complete perversion of the Christian faith.
The greatest threat to the regime is Christianity because the people are slaves to that dictatorship. He is their god. I point out to the North Koreans, “My God is alive; yours is dead. Kim Il Sung is dead, so is Kim Jong Il.”
You’ve said North Korea is the “world’s worst human rights tragedy.” Why is that?
It’s the only country in the world that does not enjoy a single human right. North Koreans do not have the right to travel. They don’t have the right to choose their profession, go to school where they want to go to school, even live where they want to live. Their entire lives are controlled by the regime and by the Songbun—this elaborate system of how every citizen is classified according to their loyalty to the regime. In Songbun, you have a booklet, and all this data about you is continually kept. How loyal you are to the regime is how you move up. But you could be classified for your entire life and never actually make it up. It’s similar to apartheid.
So even if you’re doing everything right, but your parents were listed for something, you’d be considered less loyal?
Exactly. You’re marked for life. So the system was set up as part of Kim Il Sung’s regime. People who were loyal or fighting against the Japanese were high up, but anybody who was a landlord, a Christian, a land owner, all of them were considered hostile to the regime and on the lower end of the Songbun classification. There are three major categories: loyal, wavering and hostile. If you were loyal to the regime, you got rice. But if you were classified as wavering in your loyalty, you may only have access to corn. In addition to deciding if you got food, the Songbun system would also control your access to material goods. If you had a refrigerator, if you had a car, all the positions you have in life—everything.
It’s also important to note: The political prison camps in North Korea have been in existence longer than the Soviet gulags, longer than the Nazi death camps, even longer than the Chinese laogai. The fact that children are in these camps shows that most of the people in these camps are innocent. They haven’t really committed a crime. Generations of a family are locked up in these camps.
I absolutely believe David Sneedon (American who disappeared in China in 2004) is in North Korea right now teaching English. This is a regime that abducts citizens from other countries. I don’t know of any other country in the world that’s involved with the abduction of citizens of other countries.
There has never been, in modern history, massive starvation and death in a so-called industrialized country. That has never happened when there hasn’t been war or some kind of armed conflict that created the famine. Millions of people starved. The reason why that happened was a combination of factors. It was their terrible agriculture policy and the collective farms rather than private farming and the fact that they used food aid as a weapon. Colonel Choi Joo Hwal, one of the first defectors I ever hosted, said that during the famine when the humanitarian aid trucks would arrive, they would go to a town (whether it was a world food program or whatever relief agency) and deliver the rice to the different families. They would take that written receipt that the Kim family got this rice and the Lee family got this rice. Then they would take that written confirmation of the delivery of the aid, and then they would go onto the next town. Colonel Choi testified that the army, in unmarked trucks, would roll into that town and take all of that rice back. This is why people starved. That’s why Action Against Hunger, Doctors Without Borders, very well-respected humanitarian relief agencies with no political agenda, left North Korea in protest. The humanitarian aid was sent with the good intentions of the people of the international community, but it ended up helping the regime because they transferred it into cash and used food aid as a weapon against the North Korean people.
Here’s an interesting fact to confirm the regime’s plans to divert the aid for the outset: When the famine was at its height in the 1990s, and when the world community decided they were going to send humanitarian aid to North Korea, the regime required that the people who were delivering the aid not speak Korean.
So they can’t talk to the people. They can’t find out what’s going on.
Exactly. They wanted to be able to control the people who were delivering the aid. So no Korean speakers allowed. That’s the reverse of what you would ever want if you really cared about your people.
Another aspect of North Korea that sets it apart: It is a crime punishable by death to leave the country without permission. That’s just terrifying.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded in February 2014 that North Korea does not have any parallel in the contemporary world for their human rights violations. The U.N. COI did interviews with hundreds of defectors and came to the exact same conclusion as what all of us were saying in the human rights movement: North Korea is the world’s worst human rights tragedy.
Why do you think China collaborates with North Korea to hunt down and arrest refugees?
That is an extremely good question, because China is so key in all of this. I believe they would rather have a fellow dictatorship on their border than a unified and free Korea. They continue to prop up the regime. One of the ways to do that is to control the people who are trying to escape. China and North Korea are in close collaboration. It actually intensified when Kim Jong Il died. The Kim Jong Un regime was afraid more people would escape. So they intensified the border to prevent people from escaping. If the regime did collapse, I think China fears that they would be infiltrated by refugees. What I point out to the Chinese is that they want North Korea to take on Chinese-style reforms. China has encouraged North Korea: “Why don’t you open up to more markets like we’ve done? We’re still a Communist country, but our people are doing so much better. Why don’t you do the same thing?” North Korea won’t do that.
The North Koreans have always had the policy of block the “yellow wind.” North Korea is racist against the Chinese. If a North Korean woman gets repatriated back to North Korea from China and she’s pregnant, the North Koreans force her to abort the baby because it’s half Chinese. That’s a racist policy. We ask the Chinese, “Why are you propping up this dictatorship that’s committing crimes against humanity, that’s racist against the Chinese people, that refuses to accept your recommendations on reforms? You are relieving North Korea of the pressure that could be made to make them adopt Chinese-style reforms.”
What would happen if the North Korea regime collapsed and Korea unified? You would have an economic boom in that region. China would benefit economically because North Korea would be free to develop. They have a terrible infrastructure. They need railroads. They need electricity. It could be a huge boon to the economy. Also, the Chinese don’t want American troops there, but those troops are only at the DMZ because of the threat from North Korea.
We could make many arguments with the Chinese Communist government about this, but they continue to support the dictatorship in North Korea. However, the Chinese citizens are on our side in this issue. The Chinese citizens who know about this issue don’t see South Korea as a threat. They see the tremendous, robust trade relationship South Korea and China have. They know South Korea is the future. They’re embarrassed that their government keeps bailing out this dictatorship that is loathed by the world community and committing crimes against humanity.
Finally, we point out to the Chinese government, by supporting this regime, that they are complicit in crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the Communist government in China would rather have a fellow Communist leader, a totalitarian state, rather than a democracy. That shows you the poor judgment the government of China has. They want to be seen as a world leader. Instead, they’re causing terrible instability in Asia. It’s going to get worse because South Korea is going to develop the missile defense system, and China is totally against that. But the only reason why South Korea wants to develop a missile defense is because of North Korea’s nuclear threat. If Kim Jong Un wasn’t threatening South Korea, they would have no interest in developing a nuclear defense.
Can you talk about the underground economy in North Korea, and how it works as a market-based culture to undermine the regime?
The amazing thing about the market economy is that it’s a testament to the power of the human spirit, capitalism and self-determination. The North Korean people created this economy themselves. It shows the resilience of the North Korean people as well as the power of free enterprise. When the Public Distribution System broke down, whereby food and material goods were distributed according to your Songbun classification, the North Korean people saved themselves from a system whereby everything came down from the great dictator who bestowed upon you all your needs.
The distribution system broke down because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lack of support coming in, aggravated by the famine, which was partially triggered by the regime’s agricultural policy. Also, the collective farms were failing to produce.
There’s a North Korean defector, Lee Min Bok, who was an agricultural specialist. During the time of the famine he went around the country to look at how the farms were functioning. He put together a report for the “dear leader,” Kim Jong Il. He said, “I see that the collective farms are not performing as well as the private farms. If we privatize more farms, we will be able to avert famine.” He turned that report in and he was called in for a meeting with higher-ups in the regime. He thought he was going to get a reward. But his friend said, “Don’t go. You’re about to get arrested because you have questioned Kim Jong Il’s policies through your report. You’re going to be sent to a political prison camp.” So he fled. Any doubt against the regime will lead to imprisonment.
What happened when the PDS system collapsed and millions of North Koreans were starving? The North Korean people started trading among themselves.
I know a woman who was a teacher, Eom Myung Hui. The system couldn’t support her teaching anymore because the whole education system collapsed as well. She was able to connect with a South Korean trader and they set up a business together. They would import seafood. Then she would go to one part of the country and trade to make money. People would use whatever means they could to try to survive.
There were over 200 steady markets that were regularly functioning. The regime tried in vain to control the market. First it said, “Ok, we’ll allow you to have the markets, but only women over 35 can use the markets.” Then they changed and said, “Ok, if you’re 25 or older you can use the markets.” They tried to restrict it, but the people were starving, and with these markets they were making money, and they were finding out how to survive on their own. So these markets continued to spread. Because of the famine, people had started to lose faith in the regime and they realized that the most important thing was to make money. That was the only way you could feed your family.
In 2009, a very critical thing happened. The regime realized that it couldn’t control this anymore. They could not put the toothpaste back in the tube. So they decided to devalue the currency and create a new currency. The people would have to trade in their money for the new currency. But something happened that had never happened before in the whole history of North Korea. There was such an uproar because this was not just the hostile class, this was the wavering and the loyal class; they were all up in arms. The regime thought, “We better do something or we’re going to have a revolution.” So they backed off. They blamed one of the leaders in the regime. They executed Pak Nam Gi and made him the scapegoat. I’ve heard it was Kim Jong Un who came up with this idea; certainly Kim Jong Il instituted it. They had this guy shot and killed, and they did something they have never done in their nearly 70-year history—they actually apologized and let the markets function. Now the elites are all involved in all these markets and there are plenty of material goods in Pyongyang that the elites have access to.
Women are treated terribly in North Korea. They are like second-, third-class citizens. The markets allow them to empower themselves because no one else will.
Today you have a new generation—the market generation, the North Koreans who are in their 20s and 30s who were young enough to experience the famine but also saw the market system. The stories they tell about survival and whatever their mother did to try to make money to feed the family. The stories that they’ve told are amazing. It’s a great change inside North Korea, because people are no longer counting on the regime to survive. They depend on each other and their own resilience.
Do you think these markets have empowered women? You say it’s primarily women working in the market.
Totally. Women are treated terribly in North Korea. They are like second-, third-class citizens. The markets allow them to empower themselves because no one else will.
A North Korean defector living in Virginia tells me that when she got to America, she came through New York City. She said she couldn’t believe men opening a door for her and men picking up her heavy luggage. She was immediately suspicious. She said to somebody, “Why are they doing this?” The person said, “Oh, that’s how their parents raised them. In America, women are valued.” It was shocking to her. She says, “I’ve come to realize my value as a woman now that I’ve lived in America.” In South Korea, a lot of North Korean women marry South Korean men. They also respect women in South Korean society.