Jews, Korean-Americans talk human rights in Iran, North Korea

Two organizations of young professionals, two isolated nuclear (or near-nuclear) powers with terrible human rights records, one Beverly Hills living room. 

Those were the ingredients for an Aug. 30 event that brought together experts on North Korea and Iran to address members of Access, the young professionals division of American Jewish Committee, and NETKAL, the Network for Korean American Leaders, to discuss human rights violations being committed, largely out of the public eye, in these two countries. 

Though the words “axis of evil” were not uttered, the obvious similarity between these two countries — their pursuit of nuclear weapons — couldn’t be overlooked. But unlike most foreign-policy wonks, the presenters were focused on the Iranian and North Korean records of human rights violations. 

David Kaye, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law, described how, over the past three years in the wake of the “Green Movement,” Iran has jailed journalists and bloggers, confined opposition leaders to house arrest and pressured activists and their lawyers. Kaye also talked about some of Iran’s longer-standing human rights violations — including restricting the freedom of women to marry or divorce, applying the death penalty “pretty extensively,” and restricting religious freedom. 

But as bad as the situation is in Iran, Adrian Hong’s presentation on North Korea pulled the faces of the 50 or so Korean-Americans and Jewish-Americans in attendance into expressions of shocked disbelief. 

Hong started with chronic hunger. An estimated 1 million North Koreans starved to death because of a famine in the mid-1990s. Today, Hong said, one-third of North Korea’s 25 million citizens are perpetually undernourished, which is why, Hong said, “If you meet a real, live North Korean, no matter how tall you are, they’re shorter than you.” 

North Koreans can’t leave the country, nor are they permitted to travel from one town to another within North Korea without explicit permission. Until recently, women could not wear pants. All radios are built so that they can be tuned only to government frequencies. 

“Every single right that we experience here doesn’t exist there,” said Hong, a managing director of the New York-based strategic planning firm Pegasus Strategies. 

And yet, each for slightly different reasons, the human-rights situation in these countries is hardly even on the agenda of American and other diplomats. When it comes to Iran, Jews around the world are far more interested in discussing whether that country will achieve nuclear weapons capability. And in the case of North Korea, Hong said, by and large, South Koreans and Korean-Americans haven’t engaged with the challenge of advocating for change. 

At least, not yet. Hong founded the nonprofit organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), and Hannah Song, the organization’s current president and CEO, was also present at the event. 

Since early 2010, the Torrance-based LiNK has helped 100 North Koreans to escape to South Korea and the United States. During the question-and-answer period, Hong, Kaye and others in attendance urged attendees to stay aware of the human rights challenges facing the citizens of these countries. But afterward, Song pointed to the nascent “marketization” in North Korea — a trend of citizens starting their own trade relationships in a proto-capitalist system that started off as an illegal activity and has since been legitimized by the government.  She said she believes change will likely come from within the country. 

“At the end of the day, that power is not going to come from outside,” Song said.