I recently sent someone a link to The Chosun Journal. He replied in essence, “Thank you for the referral, but I am not Korean.” This person was not a racist nor did he mean to offend. He only revealed an honest and very important assumption that Korean-Americans especially need to realize.
His assumption was that those of Korean descent would naturally have an interest in the atrocities happening in North Korea. Or more to the point, that most Caucasians would not have as much concern over what is happening in N. Korea as would those of Korean heritage.
The assumption that cultural ties still bind is held by most people, particularly among first and second generation Americans. During the Olympics or World Cup, American citizens of different ethnicities still hold some pride or disappointment as to how their father and mother’s country of origin did. Americans read over news articles related to their parents’ country of birth that most other Americans would simply skip over. This may not be ideal, but this is reality.
This reality of affinity to cultural ties is why decent, compassionate Korean-Americans must take responsibility for the human rights of the 21 million Koreans north of Seoul. For if those of Korean descent do not, no one else will. This is not how things should be, but this is the world we live in.
Incidentally, contrary to popular belief, North Korea is not a separate country from South Korea. According to both governments’ constitutions, there is only one Korea, and at least in S. Korea, any refugee from the North who arrives is automatically a citizen. In other words, the two regimes still recognize that 50 years of division cannot deny the country’s over 1,000 years of cultural unity. What the North during the US Civil War was not willing to concede (”a house divided will not stand”), neither North nor South Korea have been willing to do either.
Perhaps undermining my earlier observation of the influence of cultural ties, some may point to non-Korean activitists like Pierre Rigoulot (France) or Norbert Vollertsen (Germany), both of whom are doing excellent work for NK human rights. But they are the exception, and arguably an inefficient exception in the use of the limited resource of human rights activists in the free world.
To explain, Sudan, Malaysia, and Indonesia are just some of the human rights-abusing nations which have relatively few numbers of people with cultural ties living in free countries to advocate on their behalf. Therefore those living in free countries which afford them the luxury to advocate for the voiceless who are not ethnically related become all the more priceless. Moreover, the fact that these activists are not culturally related to the victims makes them all the more rare.
Thus the prominent work of European advocates for North Korean human rights, while encouraging, is an indictment on the failure of the numerous Koreans in the free world to give voice to the 200,000 N. Koreans dying in political concentration camps today. If even 10% of Korean-Americans advocated on behalf of N. Korean human rights, this would free up more Vollertsens for countries like Indonesia. The indifference of Korean-Americans not only ends up hurting Koreans in the North, it affects the advocacy for other countries as well.
An elderly black man was once asked why he had gotten involved with the great US Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He replied that he wanted to be able to face his grandchildren with honor the day they would ask him, “What did you do to help stop the great evil of institutionalized racism in your generation?” As we seek to pass down some of our cultural heritage, I believe the grandchildren of our generation of Korean-Americans will be asking what part we took in relieving the incomparable suffering of the people of North Korea.
For those who consider themselves Korean-American, please remember to identify with the half of Korea that is currently suffering under a brutal, cultish regime. That half needs your help desperately. Or else, for honesty’s sake, refer to yourself as South Korean-American