Activists bolster NK rights drive
When visiting U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen attended a rally here to call on China to release a group of detained North Korean defectors in May, the moment carried extra significance for American activist Dan Bielefeld.
One of the small handful of foreign residents in Seoul specifically to work on North Korean human rights, it elucidated his unique situation.
“That day, I got to walk out of my office and hear a U.S. Congresswoman say, ‘Hu Jintao, let these people go!’” Bielefeld, 37, recalled. “That was pretty exciting.”
Look and listen to the crowds and you may find one of the select few, who despite some challenges are using their skills and perspective to help amplify the issue around the world.
The movement has reached a head in recent months on the back of high-profile campaigns to free South Koreans detained by the North as well as protest China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors. Yet the situation remains a riddle given a dearth of access to the country – which activists say is all the more reason to better connect with the international community.
“When it comes to North Korea, frankly, it is an information war,” said Bielefeld, who is from Wisconsin. “(Foreign activists) know what the international audience wants and can use that to expand and add gravitas to the movement.”
As the English-language webmaster for the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet), Bielefeld runs a website with information on the group and the situation in North Korea and helps to organize events.
A long-established NGO, the group has been in the news in recent weeks after it emerged that one of its researchers, Kim Young-hwan, had been detained by China on charges of breaking its national security law. Many suspect he was detained for human rights work.
This spring, Bielefeld organized an English lecture series featuring a wide range of topics on the North. Each session was packed with students, mostly non-Koreans, as well as diplomats and media. “The interest level in the foreign community has definitely grown since I got here,” he noted.
Joanna Hosaniak, 38, head of the international campaign and cooperation team at Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), uses her background promoting human rights in Poland to shed light on the North’s violations.
NKHR has been petitioning the United Nations to take up the issue of the South Koreans abducted by the North since the Korean War, including those who were kidnapped during the hijacking of a Korea Airlines flight.
She said Polish media looking to cover North Korea naturally contact her first.
“Foreigners have links to people in their countries, access to people and media the NGOs don’t have access to. We expand the support base,” said Hosaniak, who spent most of her childhood under communist rule in Poland.
As is often the case for activists, their road is sometimes bumpy. Securing a position at a local NGO, due to lack of funding and complicated bureaucracy, is often prohibitively difficult.
Bielefeld, a psychology major with experience as a professional web developer, began to want to work more deeply as a language student here. After volunteering to get involved, he began discussing the possibility of working for a local group.
“The longer I was here, the more I wanted to do something with North Korean human rights. But for a while, it was a dead end,” he said. He was eventually approved because of his computer skills, not his activism. These days, he gives English lessons to supplement his income.
The American noted that cultural differences sometimes come into play, especially when it comes to Korea’s “ppali-ppali” culture of working quickly and is encouraging his colleagues to allow more time when working with international counterparts in order to optimize communication.
Hosaniak, meanwhile, had somewhat less trouble joining her NGO, as she held a degree in Korean studies and also studied human rights at university and worked for the South Korean embassy in Poland.
Still, she said Korea could benefit from more foreign manpower, recalling that when she worked at a Polish human rights NGO, foreigners were considered a staple as they could seamlessly transmit information to their networks back home.
She said that local NGOs would greatly benefit from outside knowhow especially in terms of public relations, where she says they fall far behind other groups such as those focused on Tibet or Darfur. Foreigners could also help greatly in grant writing and other areas of expertise.
“Simply speaking, civil society, whether it is in North America or Europe has a much longer history and different experiences in engaging society,” she said.
Both said they were happy to be dedicated to the freedom of a long suffering people.
“I look at my role in the terms of what I can do to get people involved,” Bielefeld said. “The larger the movement gets, the more minds tackling the problem, the more creative and better solutions can be pursued.”