“First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time
there was no one left to speak up for me.”
Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945
Today I joined about thirty others in front of the Chinese embassy in Los Angeles to protest against Beijing’s crackdown on N. Korean refugees. It was the second time in my life that I had participated in a protest rally.
The first time was a few years ago at Washington, D.C. in front of the U.S. State Department which had sided with the Japanese government in a lawsuit filed by a dozen Korean “Comfort Women.”
This is worth mentioning because these victims of systematic rape have been protesting weekly in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul for 11 years. Only now is there movement within Tokyo for passage of a bill that would elicit an official apology as well as compensation to the few survivors left alive.
Incidentally you can be sure that only a handful if any at all who protested against the United States in recent rallies, numbering in the tens of thousands, participated in the Comfort Women protests. The latter cause just wouldn’t have been hip enough to warrant such passion. Hmm… dubious priorities and misdirected zeal displayed in the name of justice. Why does this sound so familiar?
Where were the thousands of Korean-Americans in Los Angeles who just hours before worshipped the God who commands, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17)? Oh, yes, they were probably praying about it. Where were the thousands of anti-US protesters against a potential war in Iraq during the protest rally against China’s war on North Korean refugees? Only blind faith in political correctness and Hollywood actors could foster such hypocrisy and evoke such pathetically unbalanced attention.
But I digress. Hopefully it will not take 11 years of protests for the Chinese government to allow UN inspectors into the border regions where thousands of detained and hunted North Koreans have valid cases for refugee status. Or more to the point, hopefully it will not take 11 years for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to grow a backbone and call for binding arbitration proceedings on behalf of those detained North Koreans. Beijing repeatedly says ad nauseum that North Koreans in China are economic migrants, not political refugees. Human Rights Watch, Medecines Sans Frontiers, and thousands of North Koreans themselves say otherwise. Such a dispute over the UN Refugee Convention, of which Beijing is a party, demands UN arbitration now.
As we thirty held up banners (”Free the boatpeople”; “Don’t Return NK Refugees”), chanted slogans, sang “We shall overcome,” prayed, marched around with lit candles, I was reminded that we were not alone in our struggle for justice from Beijing. There were about 40 practioners of Falun Gong who sat next to us in rows in the Lotus position meditating. There were a few protesting for a free Tibet. I had forgotten that Beijing has been violating the fundamental rights of groups, even entire populations, for a long time.
It was then that Rev. Niemoller’s haunting statement became true for me for the first time. How tragic that it took the persecution of a people group that I could personally identity with to mobilize me to publicly protest in common cause with others who have been carrying on their struggle for justice for years and decades.
Around 6:30pm it began to grow dark and I began to feel cold, tired, and hungry. Such was the blessedness of what will hopefully be a regular experience for me. It was blessed because it was only then that I could honestly feel more solidarity with the thousands of families and orphans huddled in small caves in wooded hills and mountains, hiding from Chinese police collaborating with North Korean agents. Whatever awkwardness I felt about standing on the side of a road in front of the Chinese embassy translated into more solidarity – however slight – with the thousands who are being daily humiliated and treated worse than animals even as I write this piece.
Weekly protests on behalf of North Korean refugees at Chinese embassies recently have been conducted in major cities around the world. For more information on how you can join, please visit www.nkrefugee.org.