By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
“What can be done about North Korea? How can we help North Koreans?” Those are the big questions that were recently asked of North Korean refugee Shin Dong-hyuk when we speakers at the World Conference on Market Liberalization held in Bali.
These big Questions are constantly asked at North Korea-related events, but I have yet to see a satisfied questioner: “At last! This is the answer to the North Korea problem, clear path to what I can do.” Instead, questioners nod with frustrated smiles as they take a seat, waiting for the next forum and expert to tell them what to do.
Well-funded governments, international organizations, and numerous one-man NGOs don’t know what to do about North Korea. NK News asked several North Korean refugees, but they came up with conflicting answers.1 At a speech contest that I hosted earlier this year, seven North Korean refugees addressed the imperative, “How you can help North Koreans.”2 There came not one effective solution, even from them. After three years of discussing North Korea, I still calm myself down by counting to ten before answering the “big questions”.
Shin, born in a prison camp in North Korea and still learning about the world, told the Big Questioners at the Bali conference what they needed to hear. Firstly, that no one has the complete answer as to what should be done; otherwise, they would have already done it. Secondly, if he had the answer, he would not have waited until he arrived on Bali to announce it.
I loved Shin’s answer, but I do want to add to it. 19th century American abolitionist Frederick Douglass remarked about activism in his day when people asked how they should fight slavery: “Give the tools to those who can use them.“3 That is, use your skills for the appropriate task. Some workers love counting paper clips, others are more perceptive and see the forest, not the trees. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. People know this. But just as we know we should exercise and eat right, yet squander our gym-memberships, knowing and doing are different.
If you come across a friend in a fight, would you ask, “How can I help?” You would assess the situation, figure out what you could do, and then do something, ranging from jumping in, calling the police, to asking others to join in to break up the fight. But in North Korea’s case, most bystanders are politely asking, “How can I help?”
To be clear, I’m not saying that people must get involved with helping North Korean refugees or try to increase liberty in North Korea. But to those who do join: find a role for yourself. Don’t wait for a speaker at a conference to tell you what to do.
I don’t say this as a critic; this is more of a confession. It took more than a year of knowing North Korean refugees personally before it dawned upon me that I could make a difference.4 At first, I was more of a thermometer, merely registering the temperature, analyzing as a researcher would. My first “activity” about North Korea was organizing and moderating a discussion in September 2011 with Russian-born North Korean scholar Andrei Lankov.5
But my focus changed when about 30 North Korean refugees were arrested in China in early 2012. I became more of a thermostat. In contrast to a thermometer merely identifying the temperature in a room, a thermostat can control and change the temperature.
These days, when people ask me how they can help, I suggest they click their heels three times, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, to find the answer in themselves. They won’t be able to topple the regime or save the world6, but they can find a niche for themselves to help North Koreans.
Get involved, learn about challenges and opportunities, and so you can contribute based on your skills, interests and tools, eventually becoming a thermostat. It may even lead you to speak at international conferences. I will be watching to see if you count to ten as people ask you what they should do about North Korea.The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.7 in Seoul. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu.
This article was originally published in the Korea Times on August 26, 2015.8