Carter Upsets NK Human Rights Activists
All week South Koreans watched former U.S. President Jimmy Carter make another trip to North Korea with high curiosity and low expectations.
Few people expected the North’s dictator Kim Jong Il to strike a bargain with Mr. Carter in the way that his father Kim Il Sung did in 1994. And officials in the South Korean government had been bracing for Mr. Carter to come out of Pyongyang and level criticism at them, which he did at a news conference on Thursday.
But even those most sympathetic to Mr. Carter’s mission, activists and charities in Seoul that are eager to regain access to North Korea, were surprised by the way he responded to a South Korean reporter who asked whether he had discussed human rights problems with the North Korean officials he met.
“There are human rights issues that relate to the policies of the North Korean government, which I don’t think any of us on the outside can change,” Mr. Carter replied. “But one of the most important human rights is to have food to eat. For the South Koreans and the Americans and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really a human rights violation.”
The first part of that answer is news to the few dozen Seoul-based non-government organizations, some of them led and staffed by former North Koreans, that are devoted to shining a light on the North’s abuses — and seeking change.
Indeed, many of those organizations had come together this week for “North Korea Freedom Week,” staging a series of events in Seoul and Washington to raise awareness of the abuses by the Kim regime and compare their work to fight it.
On Friday afternoon, a collection of five non-government groups called a news conference to criticize Mr. Carter. They pointed out that, when he was president in the late 1970s, he criticized human rights violations carried out by authoritarian government that ruled South Korea at the time. By 1987, South Korea had democratized.
“He denies that doing the same thing now will make a difference in North Korea. It’s really ridiculous,” Young Howard, president of Open Radio for North Korea, said at the news conference.
Tim Peters, director of Helping Hands Korea, a group that helps North Koreans migrate to the South, in an interview said the first part of Mr. Carter’s statement reflects a “blind spot” that he’s seen in other people who think nothing can be done to transform North Korea from the outside.
“I moved past that 15 years ago, starting with sending one ton of food there a month and then helping the North Korean people one person at a time,” Mr. Peters said. “So I really would disagree with Mr. Carter. Admittedly, it’s difficult. But he ignores the idea that we can help people who have lived there start new lives.”
Mr. Peters added he agrees with sentiment in the second part of Mr. Carter’s statement that more should be done to help starving North Koreans.
“The question is really whether, when feeding North Koreans, is that feeding your enemy,” Mr. Peters said. “There’s a verse in Proverbs that says ‘If your enemy hungers, feed him.’ That has been the underpinning of our modest humanitarian effort.”