North Korea is an extremely closed society. The flow of information is not free even within the country, and the authority keeps a very tight control so that no information would leak to the outside world. Therefore, people outside of North Korea do not have much information about the isolated society, and whatever information they have tends to be distorted. Therefore, it is very difficult but critical to verify facts when we deal with North Korean issues.

There have been many controversies about the truth of the great famine in North Korea that began in 1995. Different arguments fought over the question of whether North Koreans were really dying from hunger caused by flood-damaged crops, or whether the North Korean authorities were exaggerating their food deficiency in order to receive food aid that they would turn around and use for its military. Some appealed for immediate food aid for the dying children, while others opposed the idea because they believed North Korea’s government would distribute the food aid to North Korean soldiers only. We needed to find out the truth before we could begin aid to North Korea. There was much conflicting information about the North Korean situation, and even people who had been to the North said different things. Faced with the confusion, we thought we might find out real facts if we went to the North Korea-China border area in Northern China. So we made several field trips to Yalu River and Tumen River that separate China and North Korea. There we met many North Korean refugees.

The story of the on-going famine that the refugees told us was much worse than those we heard from people who came back after visiting Pyongyang. We interviewed some 1,800 refugees over the period of one year. We asked them how many of their family members died between 1995 and 1998 and how many of their neighbors in their neighbor units died (1 unit consists of 30 household at the minimum). After processing the survey data, we concluded that at least 3 million North Koreans died of hunger and diseases. We released this information to the international community and appealed for humanitarian aid for North Korea. We also began our own aid to North Korea.

At the time, there were significant number of North Korean refugees living in China, and their human rights situation was getting worse and worse. North Koreans who came to China first marveled at the abundance of food and exclaimed, “Wow, China is socialism socialist heaven! They even feed dogs with white rice!” However, North Koreans fell into the trap of human trafficking in China, got arrested by the Chinese police and then repatriated to North Korea. Their human rights were seriously violated, and many suffered and regretted having defected from North Korea, saying they would rather die of hunger than suffer like this. So we began to investigate how many North Korean refugees were in China and how seriously their human rights were being violated. With a sample of 2,500 villages surveyed in China, our statistics revealed that there were at least over 300,000 North Korean refugees living in China. After conducting in-depth interviews with them, we published our findings and recommended that the Chinese government not arrest and repatriate North Korean refugees. At the same time, we started helping some North Koreans to go to a third country, if we thought they needed special protection because they were either underage or former South Korean soldiers during the Korean War and others who, for various reasons, would be severely punished if they were repatriated to North Korea.

In the 2000s, massive starvation began to slow down in North Korea, but the people’s human rights situation remained extremely critical. People had to wander around to find food, and this survival-driven mobility facilitated the flow information. As they heard about news from other places and exchanged their opinions, their awareness began to rise and many managed to live outside of the government’s immediate control. In response, the government tried to keep its harsh control over the people. As a result, the human rights of the North Korean people worsened.

We then turned our eyes to the human rights situation within the North Korean society. We found that the lack of food represented the most immediate threat to their basic right to life. Additionally, their political freedom was extremely abridged, ranking as the worst in the world. We tried to bring North Korean human rights violations to the international community’s attention and appealed for its improvement. However, there were serious limitations in what we could do about North Korean human rights. We are still struggling at this. North Korean government refused any dialogue when the issue of human rights was raised. As we could not talk to the North Korean authorities about their human rights records, we could not make much progress.

In terms of aid, we could provide more humanitarian aid to North Korea as we came to certain agreement with the government. We could help North Korean refugees because they were outside of North Korea. However, without the North Korean government’s cooperation, we could not do much about the human rights of those who are in North Korea. This made the improvement of the North Korean human rights the most difficult problem. At first, our priority was to disseminate the seriousness of North Korea’s human rights situation, but, after it became well known, our biggest concern was that what we should do to actually improve the human rights situation in North Korea. It is still the biggest challenge to us. We have to come up with some skillfully-crafted recommendations to improve North Korean human rights situation that North Korean government can reasonably accept.

What bothered me most as I was leading the civil movement for more humanitarian aid to North Korea and for its human rights improvement was that our activities had only partial impact and its reach was quite limited. This was because all matters regarding North Korea were inextricably tied to political conflicts between North and South Korea. The bad human rights situation in North Korea comes from its dictatorship, which benefits from the conflict between the two Koreas. I realized that unless we have peaceful Koreas recognizing each other as good neighbors – cooperating and exchanging – any effort we make for the improvement of North Korea’s human rights and the refugee problems can only provide partial and limited solution. What we most needed were good policies for a peaceful Korean Peninsula. Therefore, we established a research institute that is committed to providing policy solutions for the peace of the Korean Peninsula.

To induce lasting peace in the Korean Peninsula, we need to foster a cooperative relationship between the North and the South. The first step is to normalize the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea as well as to improve North and South ties. The problem is that the U.S. considers the North’s nuclear weapon as the biggest obstacle on the road to the normalization of the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic relations, and North Korea considers the U.S. hostility against North Korea as the ultimate obstacle. North Korea argues that U.S., as tangible commitment to withdraw its hostile policy against North Korea, sign a peace agreement that ends the half-century old war and normalize their diplomatic relations. However, the U.S. argues that, unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons first, it can neither sign any peace agreement nor normalize their relations. North Korea insists that it cannot give up its nuclear weapons first because of its security considerations, unless the U.S. discontinues its hostile policy against the North first. Needless to say, this issue is not something civil societies can resolve; it needs to be dealt by the governments. In order to facilitate governmental dialogues, civil societies should keep raising public awareness and providing policy recommendations.

The humanitarian crisis in North Korea continues at this moment. We have been recommending that the North Korean government provide protection to its people’s basic rights to life, i.e., change its policy from prioritizing military industry to promoting public and private economic activities. The international community should expand humanitarian and economic aids to North Korea because the North Korean government does not have enough capacity. My organization continues fund raising activities and provides humanitarian aid to the North. We prioritize the most vulnerable people, e.g., orphans, seniors in nursing homes, and disabled people, and provide aid to approximately 12,000 people across North Korea.

Recently it has become more difficult to come across new North Korean refugees in North Korea-China border areas, largely because the North is keeping a very tight control over its border and China is also keeping sharp control over illegal migration. Although North Koreans outside of their country continue to bring their family members out of North Korea through brokers, and human traffickers are still active in bringing North Korean women to China, voluntary refugees are rare these days. However, we believe there are still over 50,000 North Korean refugees living in China. Their human rights are still being seriously violated. We should solve this problem by persuading the Chinese government not to arrest and repatriate them, and North Korean government not to punish them even if they are repatriated. Or we can send them to a third country so that they can start their lives anew.

Thus far, we have explained how we started aid to North Korea and how we have expanded our area of interests and activities. We believe we can achieve our goals when we have the government’s cooperation. While governments have to be very prudent in their acts, civil organizations can move promptly. On the other hand, civil societies can only solve certain problems partially with limited impacts, whereas governments can provide a fundamental solution. We should be aware of these different characteristics and try to share duties and act appropriately according to the different roles. Civil societies should grow up from being dependent on governments or only criticizing them. They need to move forward doing its best in areas it can perform best, cooperating with governments as well as giving constructive critiques.

And finally, although my organizations work on the basis of Buddhist philosophy with a core Buddhist group, we are not missionaries. The objective of our work is to provide humanitarian aid to people who are suffering from human rights violations, to protect the refugees, to make the Korean Peninsula peaceful, and to foster exchange and cooperation between the two Koreas. Spreading Buddhism is not our goal. Whenever any crisis arises such as North Korean human rights abuses or massive famine, we work in a pan-religious manner with people from many different faiths such as Christians, Catholics, and Won-Buddhists.

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, a respected Buddhist monk and activist, is the chairman of The Peace Foundation in Seoul, which supports policy research and analysis aimed at Korean unification and humanitarian issues. He concurrently serves as the chairman of GoodFriends for Peace, Human Rights, and Refugee Issues, whose weekly publication “North Korea Today” provides detailed, up-to-date information about conditions on the ground in North Korea. Venerable Pomnyun is also chairman of the Join Together Society, an international relief agency. He has worked extensively to supply humanitarian aid to famine victims in North Korea and defend the human rights of North Korean refugees in China.  In recognition of his efforts, Venerable Pomnyun received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding in 2002. Venerable Pomnyun can be reached at [email protected].