“There is no freedom at all. People only do whatever is asked. It’s life without faith or meaning.”-Jin Hee Seo, North Korean defector
In 1986 Ronald Reagan met Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland for a summit. Broad-sweeping proposals were laid out, but not agreement was ever met. The historians will likely tell us that the biggest show-stopping moment in the summit was when Reagan refused to go forward with a full ballistic missile disarmament (which he had proposed) if it meant giving up the defensive technologies (real or imagined) of the Strategic Defense Initiative. I think there may have been a bigger moment though, a bigger game-changing proposal.
In Reykjavik, Reagan proposed that the talks should include human rights. This was outlandish and far-reaching indeed. While Gorbachev was there to haggle about military affairs, Reagan came in with an agenda that included pressing Gorbachev for human rights … for the Soviet people. The man really was brilliant.
At first blush, it would appear to be a giveaway. Why should Ronald Reagan push for greater liberties for Soviet citizens, particularly if it meant concessions at the negotiating table? Its “nothing for something”. But I suspect it would be viewed the other way by the Soviets. After all, when an oppressed people start to taste freedom – even just a little bit – they are going to want more.
The summit didn’t actually produce direct agreements on those human rights, but Gorbachev would go on to introduce “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” – moves toward freedom and openness that would ultimately destroy the Soviet Union.
There was something more important than arms control going on there in Reykjavik. Freedom was afoot.
Fast-forward a few decades and one of the few remaining ultra-Stalinist regimes in our world is on the brink of collapse. Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is facing the onslaught of another famine. The last one killed millions, and the DPRK (it’s tough to even write that with a straight face) is going to need a lot of foreign aid to keep from facing another such tragedy.
I submit that there is something more than famine going on here though. It is not enough to feed these oppressed poor and pat ourselves on the back claiming to have done a humanitarian thing. Giving the DPRK food assistance will only help them stay in power and continue to oppress the people. How many people are put under boot by attempts to do good for the North? How many lives are ruined by the world’s benevolence?
Somebody, somewhere needs to demand, outright demand, that food assistance will only come with greater freedom and human rights for the North Koreans. We’ll pick up the tab tomorrow – heck, I bet we could fund the whole thing out of private donations. (They’ve only asked for $224 million in food aid … the Red Cross alone raises well over $3 billion a year. We can find this money.) But we want freedom in exchange.
Just a hint of freedom, just a hint of information from the outside world showing these oppressed masses what they’re being robbed of. The house of cards would collapse in a moment.
Here are a few videos; a two part interview with an escapee. They’re a bit long, and some of the images (though only drawings) are quite painful. For a more in depth account of life in a North Korean gulag, check out Kang Chol-Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyonyang.