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Excerpt of Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (c) Victor Cha.  Printed courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 

The Worst Place on Earth


The only reason that we cannot claim that North Korea is the worst human rights disaster in the world today is because we are not allowed to see the extent of it. The victims are faceless and nameless, whether they are forced to study Kim Il-sungisms, banished to live in gulags, or tortured and executed for trying to escape the country. No one has a claim to be treated fairly and equally with rights that inhere in one’s dignity as a human being. On the contrary, individualism in North Korea is taught by the state to be a normatively bad trait, because the rights and duties of the citizen are based on the collective. The country maintains the tightest grip on its internal workings, so that the world can never find an individual around whom to organize a cause. Human rights groups, for example, do not have an Aung San Suu Kyi, as in Burma, or a Kim Dae-jung, as in South Korea, that could act as a nameplate for human rights abuses. Without names or faces, the North Korean human rights abuses become an abstract policy problem. President Bush tried to humanize the issue. On April 28, 2006, he hosted a six-year-old girl named Kim Han-mi in the Oval Office. She is the daughter of a young family that tried to escape from North Korea when the mother was five months pregnant with Han-mi. The family hid in China, where Han-mi was born, and then tried to defect by entering the Japanese consulate in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. Their attempted defection was captured for the world to see as two Chinese guards tackled the mother as she tried to make it through the consulate gates onto foreign diplomatic territory. Pigtailed Han-mi, then four years old, stood at the entrance to the consulate, crying as she watched her mother beaten by the guards. In the pre-brief before the Oval Office meeting, the president stared at the picture that captured this horrific but heroic moment. We explained to him that the girl was now six years old and that she did not speak any English, and that the family may be a little bit in awe of the moment, coming only a few years from the life as defectors to a visit to the White House. (Thanks to the help of human rights advocate Suzanne Scholte, the family made the trip to Washington on very short notice.) President Bush stared pensively at the picture, said nothing, and walked over to the door through which guests enter the Oval Office. The door flung open and Han-mi, sporting a pink dress and pigtails, was the first to enter the room. President Bush flashed a big smile and then swooped up Han-mi in his arms as though she were his own granddaughter. Any nervousness in the room melted away at that moment. With the girl in one arm, he motioned with the other, inviting the parents to sit down and tell the story of how they left the North and made a new life in the South. Han-mi, clearly excited and giggly, sat next to the president in the chair normally reserved for visiting heads of state, and swung her legs as she showed the president a card she made in anticipation of her meeting with him. Like a grandfather, the president stopped his conversation in midstream, pulled out his reading glasses, and then studied the pictures together with Han-mi, complimenting her artistry. When the father finished telling his story of escape from the North, the president asked him what he was doing now. Han-mi’s Father responded that he was living in Korea. The president stated that he knew that, but wanted to know what he was doing for a living now. The father apologized for misunderstanding the question and responded, “Oh, I sell cars for Kia Motors,” which the president found wonderful. He then looked at Han-mi’s mother and expressed genuine admiration for her strength and courage to find a better life for their child. The entire meeting was extraordinary, and one could not help but wonder what was going through the family’s minds. When the press came into the room, President Bush made clear what was on his mind:


I have just had one of the most moving meetings since I’ve been the president here in the Oval Office. . . . I talked to a family, a young North Korean family that escaped the clutches of tyranny in order to live in freedom. This youngcouple was about to have a child, and the mom was five months pregnant when they crossed the river to get into China. They wandered in China, wondering whether or not their child could grow up and have a decent life. They were deeply concerned about the future of their child. Any mother and father would be concerned about their child…  The world requires courage to confront people who do not respect human rights, and it has been my honor to welcome into the Oval Office people of enormous courage. . . . We’re proud you’re here. I assure you that the United States of America strongly respects human rights. We strongly will work for freedom, so that the people of North Korea can raise their children in a world that’s free and hopeful…

On a separate occasion, in June 2005, the president hosted North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan. Kang and his family lived a fairly normal and comfortable life in Pyongyang. During the Japanese occupation, Kang’s family was among the thousands that colonial authorities forced into labor conscription programs in Japan. Kang’s grandfather occupied an important position as a community leader of the ethnic Korean minority living in Japan and, after the end of the war, returned to Pyongyang to settle. One night, guards burst into his house and took him and his family to a political concentration camp on alleged charges against his grandfather pertaining to treasonous activities as a collaborator with the colonial Japanese. In the blink of an eye, the life of this ten-year-old boy was turned upside down. The only belonging he managed to take with him was his fishbowl. He would spend the next ten years of his life in the camp. He was released in 1987 and then defected in 1992 to China, and then South Korea. He wrote of his experiences in a book titled Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag (2001). Though I had used the book to teach my classes at Georgetown, it was a relatively obscure work, and I never anticipated that the president would read it, until it was recommended to him by Henry Kissinger. (Bush was a voracious reader, contrary to what many may think; studious staff could not keep up with his reading list.) The president became deeply interested in Kang’s story. He knew it so well that he corrected a fact I had flubbed about Kang’s family in a briefing paper. He asked to meet the author. This was the first meeting between a sitting American president and a North Korean defector. It was a private gathering (i.e., not on the official schedule), and we only released a picture to the press, but several accounts of the event have since become available. During the forty-minute visit, the president asked Kang to describe his life imprisoned in a North Korean gulag.  Kang, who now lives in South Korea and works as a journalist for the major daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo, recounted how even at the age of ten, he was forced to do hard labor.

Bush said that the world did not pay enough attention to human rights abuses in the North and that it broke his heart to hear stories of pregnant women and children starving in the country while the military lived in relative splendor. He asked Kang what he thought would be said in North Korea if they knew that he was meeting with the U.S. president, to which Kang responded, “The people in the concentration camps would applaud.” The president then asked Kang to autograph his copy of Aquariums, which he still considers to be one of the most important books he read during his presidency.

Han-mi’s family, Kang Chol-hwan, and other victims of North Korean human rights abuses said afterward that never in their wildest dreams did they ever imagine a journey from the worst place on earth to the White House. They said that only a country like the United States would care about what was happening to the people of North Korea. As I escorted Kang to his meeting, we entered the White House compound through the front entrance to the West Wing. It was an overcast and rainy day, and he paused at the front as the Marine guard opened the door. He glanced at the entrance and naively asked if this was really the White House. I explained that this was the West Wing, where the president worked, and that there was the larger main residence of the White House. He took all of this in with some awe, and said under his breath, “There truly is a God.”

President Bush’s meetings with North Korean defectors were part of a larger effort to reach out to human rights advocates around the world. But in the case of North Korea, these meetings had the effect of attaching names, faces, and inspirational stories to the North Korean human rights issue. The president was never under the impression that a couple of meetings with defectors would somehow magically solve the problems in North Korea. But he used the tallest soapbox in the world to draw global attention to the issue, as well as to humanize it. This was especially important to do with a country like the North, which through opacity tried to dehumanize the issue and make it abstract, distant, and a lower priority than their nuclear weapons programs. The North tried to create a dynamic in which the United States and other members of the Six-Party Talks would be deterred from pressing Pyongyang on human rights because Washington would not want these issues to stand in the way of ongoing nuclear negotiations. But President Bush, to his credit, would not accept such arguments. He was moved by the defector accounts, and in meetings with other world leaders would talk about them, raising the world’s consciousness about the problem.

Victor Cha, who served as Director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, has recently written a new book on North Korea entitled, The Impossible State:  North Korea, Past and Future.  Victor Cha holds the D.S. Song Chair in Government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  To read Part One of the excerpt, click here.