Suzanne Scholte is a human rights activist and chairman and founding member of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, an organization of over 65 nongovernmental organizations and individuals from around the world promoting the freedom, human rights and dignity of the North Korean people.
Scholte started working on the North Korean human rights situation in 1996, bringing over 70 defectors to testify in front of the congress. In 1997 she hosted Ko Young Hwan- a high ranking diplomat and Choi Joo Hwal-a military attaché first defectors ever to publicly speak out in the USA.
Scholte credits the Capitol Hill rallies, congressional hearings and demonstrations she helped organize for the passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004.
Scholte is also the recipient of the 2010 Walter Judd Freedom Award and 2008 Seoul Peace Prize for her work promoting freedom and human rights in North Korea.
In an interview, Scholte discusses the long road to freedom: achievements, challenges, milestones and the journey ahead.
1. How did you get involved in the North Korean human rights issues?
I was initially involved in bringing over people who had escaped from different regimes. It was a part of a program to help promote freedom and democracy abroad and raise awareness on human rights issues. We found that the countries that are a threat to the U.S. are also the threat to their own people. So we began bringing over people who had escaped China, Soviet Union, Cuba… and that’s how we got started.
Although that’s how I got started -when I started meeting people from North Korea, once I began to understand what they have been through, and got to know them, I really fell in love with the North Korean people. Their ability to triumph over this evill regime, to escape and get their freedom is very inspiring to me. Especially the ones who have come over to testify and re-live the horrors they have been through; whether it was a political prison camp survivor, whether it was a woman who was trafficked and sold three times in China – to hear from the very people who have faced so much adversity but want so much to the get the word out, is what has really kept me going.
2. Could you please highlight the major activities of the North Korea Freedom Coalition?
We hosted the first North Korean defector to speak out publicly in the U.S. in 1997, followed by the first survivors of the North Korean political prisoner camps in1998 and organized the first U.S. congressional hearing on the North Korea’s political prison camps in 1999. Also since 2004 we started the North Korean Freedom Day and North Korean Freedom Week (2005-2011) promoting freedom, human rights and dignity of the North Korean people.
3. ould you please describe the evolving awareness and perceptions of U.S. policy makers on human rights issues since your work began in 1996?
I would say that there wasn’t a full appreciation for this issue until people started to testify in front of the congress.
At the beginning, people dismissed the human rights issues in North Korea- kind of like the holocaust- people couldn’t believe what was happening. People taught it was too horrible to contemplate what was happening and the stories that were coming out were just exaggerated.
But when they saw a survivor of North Korean political prison camp like Kim Young Soon and heard her story and then another survivor Kim Tae Jin tell a similar story- people really became convinced that it was really happening. Based on the brave testimonies that people gave, a real understanding and a real appreciation grew and unity and purpose of believing in the human rights mission formed.
Politicians like U.S. Senator Sam Brownback and James Leach were the first people to meet with the defectors when they came over which led them to sponsor the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004.
4. What would you say your biggest successes have been?
Bringing the first defectors over to speak is the most important thing. Also empowering the defectors- giving them the strength and support they need to get the message back to North Korea. For example, we won a state department grant in 2006 to help fund Free North Korea Radio (a defector run broadcasting station in South Korea that transmits news back to North Korea) is a huge achievement. Empowering the defectors is very important because they are the best people to get the message across. They know how to communicate to their people. The stuff that they are sending is really hard hitting. It talks about Kim Jung Il’s real life, true history of the South and North Korean war and the economic prosperities in South Korea – North Koreans are made to believe that South Korea is economically behind.
Another success is encouraging the support for the balloon launch in South Korea. Creative means are needed to get information to the regime. We have sponsored about 14 balloon launches since 2007.
5. What are your biggest challenges?
Our country is going through a very difficult time. So keeping the people interested in this issue throughout is a challenge. People who have supported me over the years are not able to help financially because the economy is so bad. Donations are down compared to the past- not because people don’t support what we are doing but because everyone is suffering financially and the economy is really squeezing people.
The hardest thing is having the resources to be able to do the work.
6. What specific actions would you like to see from U.S. and Korean government to fight against the human atrocities in North Korea?
There are specific actions I would like to see. For South Korea, I believe that North Koreans are citizens under the South Korean constitution so South Koreans have a legal obligation to pursue justice for them. For example, there are 23,000 defectors- eye witnesses living in South Korea. I believe that South Korea should call for a tribunal and bring the process of holding accountable the crimes that have been committed against the North Korean people.
It’s really important to give the defectors that kind of closure. We have to start naming names and hold people responsible.
In terms of the U.S.- I think President Obama should talk consistently about how to get food aid there, how much we care about the sufferings of the North Korean people and how urgent it is for political prison camps to be shut down and how much he is concerned about the torture.
Most importantly South Korea should pass North Korean Freedom Act. Japan and the United States have already done this. The country that should care the most hasn’t done anything about it. It’s a national embarrassment.
7. Could you please describe some of the upcoming goals for the North Korea Freedom Coalition?
Our first goal is always to save lives. If there is a situation we learn of where an individual is in jeopardy we will rally, write letters and raise funds to get the person out of the situation. We also have the third annual Save North Korean Refugee Day coming up on September 22. We will continue to raise awareness and empower defectors and give them the tools that they need to advocate for people back home.
8. What can an average citizen do to help?
We need financial resources. Also people can get involved in the campaign. For example, the public can host events that raise awareness on the issue and invite defectors to speak at the event.