Ahead of Human Rights Day this week, RFA’s Korean Service interviewed Joanna Hosaniak, the Deputy Director General at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), a South Korea-based NGO.
Her interest in the North Korean human rights situation has its roots in her upbringing in communist Poland and her experience living through the country’s 1989-1991 democratic transition.
After learning about the human rights situation in North Korea, Hosaniak could see copious similarities between Poland’s former situation and the situation in North Korea both then and even now.
A graduate of Warsaw University, Hosaniak moved to South Korea in 2004 to join NKHR, having previously worked for the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. At Sogang University In Seoul, she earned a doctorate degree in international relations, with a focus on transitional justice.
Her work analyzes how justice and accountability were applied in Eastern Europe’s political transformation, and how lessons learned from that era could be applied to a future North Korean transition.
Hosaniak also discussed the situation in North Korea—how the coronavirus is crippling the ability of humanitarian organizations and the international community to provide aid and information to the North Korean people.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: You have been very passionately involved in North Korean human rights activities throughout your career at the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) and living in South Korea since 2004. What motivated you to leave your family behind to dedicate your life to the improvement of human rights for the North Korean people?
Hosaniak: I’m originally from Poland, and I was born during a time of communist rule in Central Europe and Eastern Europe, and so have experienced a lot of similarities to how North Korean society lives right now under the North Korean regime. My first contact with the North Korean situation was in my university.
My master's degree major was in Korean studies, but we didn’t discuss much about the situation in North Korea or their situation regarding human rights, even though at that time Poland had already democratized. However, a majority of our Polish professors had trained at Kim Il Sung University in North Korea, and there was never such discussion during the classes. This sparked my interest to look for other information and because this is when the internet was first becoming available, I now had access to the first website that was opened by the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, which posted the first translated testimonies from North Korean victims who escaped from North Korea to South Korea.
This was one of the first moments when I realized that I would like to commit to somehow work on human rights in North Korea, especially because among these testimonies were those of people who had experienced concentration camps or political prison camps in North Korea. For a Polish person who knows history, our painful history that is still kind of an open wound is the Nazi concentration camps that were run in Poland. And this was a kind of a moment when I realized that we have to do something to close these concentration camps.
A second maybe very decisive moment came when I decided to apply for a course for human rights activists hosted by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland. This foundation even though it has Helsinki name it's a Polish committee. These were committees based on the Helsinki Accords that were signed between Western countries and communist countries [in 1975]. Based on the Helsinki Accords, there was a provision that civil societies, so called Helsinki Committees, would be established in communist countries. However, at that time, many of the opposition leaders and human rights activists were afraid that if they officially registered, they will be persecuted by the communist government. So they established the Helsinki committees in every country, in Russia in Bulgaria in Serbia in Poland and so on, but they were mostly underground.
However, when these countries democratized, these Helsinki Committees were officially revealed, and so they were running a lot of training sessions and they were helping with amending laws, and also, one of the one of the activities in Poland was training for judges for prosecutors, for human rights activists and so on, and I applied in order to become a human rights activist on North Korea.
Coincidentally at the same time after I just finished my training, the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights contacted the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland to ask them to organize a conference together on North Korean human rights and refugees, so the Helsinki Foundation asked me to be a coordinator from the Polish side.
At the end of the conference on the final day, the founder of the Citizens Alliance for which I now work, who passed away last year, Mr. Benjamin Yoon, told me that, because I am so devoted to North Korean human rights and I want to continue, they wanted like to ask me to come to South Korea to work for them and I immediately said yes.
And so, within a few months, in the winter of 2004 I went to Geneva to lobby for a resolution and two months later I came to South Korea. It has now been 16 years that I’ve been working and living here and working on North Korean human rights.
RFA: You have received a doctorate degree with the focus on 'transitional justice' while working as a North Korean human rights advocate. How can the 'transitional justice' of Eastern and Central European countries be applied to the situation of North Korea?
Hosaniak: While doing my Ph.D. at Sogang University in Seoul, I was concentrating my research on transitional justice in the Central European countries, the type of transitional justice that was adopted especially in Germany and what was formerly Czechoslovakia, especially in the Czech Republic and in Poland.
It is difficult to make a direct application to North Korea because [a similar political shift] has not yet happened in North Korea. However, my my research for my Ph.D. was a big impetus for a lobbying for the commission of inquiry to be established at the U.N. in 2013. This was how I viewed it at that time, is it was that my work would contribute to the first type of public, let's say truth seeking and truth telling inquiry that would maybe start some form of accountability for North Korea.
And as such my research for my Ph.D. was very informative, however, you know, when we discuss accountability, it has to be remembered that that any changes would have to come from society. It is up to society to decide on what types of transitional justice they would like to see in the future.
In terms of North Korea, it is of course difficult to discuss it now because we don't have any type of civil society in North Korea that would advocate for anything like that. For example, Citizens Alliance is part of the Asian Federation Against Enforced Disappearances, and among those there are there are organizations and civil groups and individuals from countries where the situation is also very dire, where many of them disappear or are arrested every day because they work in Bangladesh or in Sri Lanka or Kashmir, for example. And yet even there, there are civil society groups and individuals that call for justice, for truth and for accountability.
But we can only be part of this group from South Korea because [North Korea] is the only country in the world that doesn't have any sort of civil society. However, one thing to remember is that there should be certain guarantees in the future toward the realization of victim’s rights to truth to justice, to reparations and the guarantees of non-recurrence. These are the key issues of accountability.
And I hope that that what we have established with the commission of inquiry was a milestone that changed the dynamic at the international level.
The South Korean society, and especially the North Korean victims who are settled here in South Korea can advocate for that. They are undertaking many programs and researching, and they are a very important voice in this process. But in the future, however the North Korean situation evolves, there will be probably voices also from North Korea itself when there is any opening up of the society, and how they wish to pursue [accountability].
This will of course depend on different scenarios. It is difficult to discuss right now whether South Korea and North Korea will remain as two countries or whether they will be reunified. These scenarios, however different they may be, they will impact the process of accountability differently.
RFA: North Korea has been blocking its borders since the beginning of this year due to COVID-19, and that closure has further isolated it from the outside world. Is there anything specific about this situation that you have observed?
Hosaniak: This is a really terrible situation. Coronavirus somehow exacerbated the human rights situation in North Korea, by shutting down the borders. Because it's difficult to provide any assistance to people and because people cannot cross the border, it is first of all very difficult to get to know what the situation is inside the country. Secondly, it seems that so far, the majority of the population was reliant on the black market.
However, because the borders are closed, there are voices that say that the black markets also do not have a lot of necessities right now. So that means that people may be losing their means of subsistence in North Korea, and yet, they also do not have a way to escape the country. So it is a very dramatic situation.
During such times, it is not only humanitarian assistance that is helpful, there is also a great responsibility for the international community to provide information, because North Koreans might not be receiving this information from the North Korean government, including on coronavirus and including to possible access to health and other types of information.
Reported by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.