|NKHR’s 12th Annual Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees|
NKHR’s 12th Annual Conference on
NKHR and the Union der Opferverbände kommunistischer Gewaltherrschaft (UOKG) co-organized NKHR’s 12th Annual Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees this past June in Berlin. First held in Korea and taken around the world (Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Poland, Norway, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Japan), NKHR’s conferences have played an integral role in raising international awareness of the human rights atrocities taking place in North Korea and spurring governments to condemn these human rights abuses.
Shortly after our 11th conference in Geneva in 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed the resolution on the human rights situation in North Korea by consensus for the first time. This past March, the Human Rights Council also established the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea, giving our work a renewed sense of urgency and significance. The international community’s censure of North Korea’s treatment of its citizens has certainly become more vocal, but there is much work to be done looking forward, especially in order to fully utilize the presence of the COI, whose mandate lasts for one year.
In Germany, this June marked the 60th anniversary of the June 17 1953 uprising in which East Berliners rose up en masse against its Communist government. There were events all over the city to commemorate the day, and NKHR was privileged to be a part of several of them. The spirit of freedom and democracy that we witnessed during these events infused our stay in Berlin with great energy. Particularly encouraging was our meeting with President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel at a commemoration ceremony at Seestraße cemetery. President Gauck had already sent us a message of solidarity for our conference, so we knew that he strongly opposed the North Korean government’s stance on human rights, but meeting him in person was a powerful moment. NKHR Deputy Director Joanna Hosaniak asked him directly to become an active supporter of NKHR in our work to improve the North Korean human rights situation.
Our conference was held at the headquarters of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED-Dictatorship (Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur), an organization that aims to provide testimony to injustices committed by the Socialist Unity Party in East Germany, to recognize victims, and to strengthen democracy and German unity.
This conference was not only strictly about North Korean issues. As we were in a country that had faced its own division, that had experienced dictatorship, and that had also put its citizens in political prisons, it was imperative that we hear from those German activists, scholars, and victims. Each panel was organized so that both German and Korean speakers presented their thoughts around a topic. In this way, it was a unique opportunity to learn about German unification and to think about the situation in the Korean peninsula.
Our invited speakers included such noted people as scholar Dr. Manfred Wilke, political prison camp survivor Siegmar Faust, and Human Rights Watch director Julie de Rivera, as well as scholars and activists from South Korea and former victims from North Korea. During her presentation, former MP Vera Lengseld reminded the audience of the international assistance that Germany received during unification and called for Germany to forward that assistance by helping the North Korean human rights issue. She proposed that the panelists gathered that day send a letter to the UN Human Rights Council denouncing the Chinese government’s policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees.
Following the conference, NKHR and UOKG sent such a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, and upon our return to Korea, NKHR sent an official request to President Gauck asking for his patronage of our ongoing work to improve human rights for all North Koreans and to take up the next leg of international advocacy.
Germany and Korea’s shared experiences in division make our advocacies necessarily interlinked. Germany’s history of unification gives us great optimism in South Korea. While Germany is now redressing injustices of the past, South Korea must prepare, and be prepared to take action in regards to the atrocities taking place against North Koreans at this moment.
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