Joanna Hosaniak, head of the international campaign and cooperation team at Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights
/ Korea Times photo by Kim Young-jin
By Kim Young-jin
When the chance came for Joanna Hosaniak, a native of Poland, to move some 8,000 kilometers to Seoul to fight for North Korean human rights, she didn’t even blink.
Having spent most of her childhood under communist rule, the activist whose parents slipped her prohibited books knew right away she wanted to fight for those suffering in worse conditions under the Kim Jong-il regime.
Her break came seven years ago after she helped organize an international conference in Warsaw for Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), a South Korean NGO that raises awareness on the North’s deplorable rights record.
That’s when Benjamin Yoon, founder of NKHR, asked her to join his organization.
“I told him I would pack my bags,” Hosaniak, 37, recalled in recent interview at the group’s headquarters in downtown Seoul. “I knew the situation in North Korea would be much, much worse than it had been in Poland.”
Now head of NKHR’s international campaign and cooperation team, the activist says her experience watching Poland overthrow communism is vital to her work raising awareness and assisting North Korean defectors.
North Korea is widely considered among the world’s worst violators of human rights, reportedly imprisoning some 200,000 people in a brutal gulag system.
Despite increasing media coverage on such violations and the 23,000 defectors now living here, suspicion lingers in some circles over reports on the plight of North Koreans.
“Foreigners with a background like mine give confirmation to these cases. We know of the political prison camps in the Soviet Union, the Nazi camps in Poland,” said Hosaniak, a rare case of a foreign resident working fulltime on the issue.
“If a South Korean doesn’t believe (what is happening in the North) and then reads something from me, he might think again because of my experience,” she said. “For me, that would be success.”
Due in large part to the huge opposition movement that eventually toppled the regime 1989 and propelled Nobel laureate Lech Walesa into power, Poland boasts a strong, well-supported tradition in human rights activism.
But South Korean rights groups, especially those focused on the North, receive far less public and private support, Hosaniak said.
Under previous liberal administrations that supported engagement with the North, NGOs were often discouraged from awareness-raising campaigns for fear of upsetting Pyongyang.
“The issue of human rights has become too politicized here,” she said. “On both the right and left, it has become a political weapon to beat up the other side.”
Even the well-established NKHR, which recently marked its 15th year, finds that few citizens are willing to donate as little as $10 a month.
Hosaniak warned that if South Korean society doesn’t wake up on the issue now, it could be vastly unprepared for eventual reunification. “How can South Korea be ready for 20 million North Koreans if it is not ready for 20,000?”
Aside from raising awareness, NKHR focuses most of its attention on helping youth defectors who it believes, if armed with higher education, could become key players in case the Koreas unite, teaching their countrymen about democracy, capitalism and the rule of law.
After receiving much of her outside information as a student from sources such as Radio Free Europe, the Catholic Church and banned books, the effort is one dear to Hosaniak.
The group’s programs to help young defectors play catch-up in the ultra-competitive school system and integrate better with their peers are starting to pay off, she said.
“When I first came seven years ago, there would always be some young people that would not want to study or be big troublemakers. Now all of them just want to study,” she said.
The activist said people are constantly surprised by her story and often ask how long she plans to stay here.
“I tell them I am staying until unification,” she said. “My dream is to go to North Korea when it opens up and do human rights work there,” she said.