Symposium brings together experts to discuss human rights

Symposium brings together experts to discuss human rights

Byung-Chul Hyun, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea, addresses the audience (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)

Abuses against children, political prisoners and families among the topics addressed

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December 2011 brought the isolated Asian nation into the headlines, but the stories of life in North Korea, including human rights abuses, that garnered global attention have since left the headlines and, in turn, the public consciousness.

But not everyone has forgotten.

Human rights in North Korea was the subject of a half-day symposium held May 14 at the Charles E. Young Research Library. Hosted by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies and the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea (NHRCK), the event attracted a standing room only crowd, as well as media from a number of Korean-language news agencies.

Following opening remarks from Byung-Chul Hyun, chairperson of NHRCK, and David Schaberg, interim dean of humanities at UCLA, the audience heard from keynote speaker Jong-yil Ra, director of the Korea Millennium Institute and a professor at Hanyang University, who gave a heartfelt presentation on the prolonged abuse of human rights by the North Korean government and spoke of the “common responsibility of humankind” to not sit idly by as atrocities are committed.

He also spoke of the physical and intellectual repression of people, the isolation of North Koreans from the rest of the world, and the constant fear felt by North Koreans, who risk being reported on by their friends, family and neighbors and subsequently imprisoned for their “crimes.”

“People are compelled to think, feel, enjoy and act according to official guidelines,” said Ra, adding that former inmates have shared accounts of the atrocities experienced in North Koran political prisoner’ camps. “Even an act of passivity is not permissible. One has to actively conform to the guidelines. As one refugee recalls, there is no freedom even not to weep when they are expected to.”

Ra's talk was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by John Duncan, director of the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, that featured a presentation by Sung-young Kim, NHRCK commissioner, and insights from David Hawk, from the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, who highlighted political prisoners’ camps in North Korea;  Sandra Fahy, a post-doctoral fellow at the USC Korean Studies Institute, who discussed human rights violation committed against children; Lee Ki Wook from the Korean Assembly for Reunion of Ten-Million Separate Families, who spoke about the eight- to ten-million people in South Korea who remain separated from their extended families due to the political division that exists between North and South Korea; and Hannah Song from Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), who spoke about the repatriation of North Korean regugees by China.

The second panel, moderated by Jae-Chun Won, a law professor at Handong University in South Korea, featured a presentation by Professor David Kang, director of the USC Korean Studies Institute, as well as talks by David Hawk, who returned to speak about ways to apply United Nations mechanisms; David Austin, operations manager of Mercy Corp, who spoke about food security the role of international organizations; Lynn Lee, from NED, who spoke about the role of international non-governmental organizations; and Gi-Wook Shin from Stanford University, who spoke about how Korean American student activists in the are spreading the word about human rights abuses in North Korea.

"Korean American students have helped to raise awareness in a variety of ways, ranging from movie screenings about North Korean human rights to speaker events involving North Korean defector guests," said Shin. "Not only are these student-organized events gaining popularity among student bodies on the whole, they they are also generating steady interest within the larger surrounding communities."


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Published: Wednesday, May 16, 2012