Why I won't go to North Korea (Korea Times, December 27, 2012)

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

“Have you ever been to North Korea?” This is the question I am almost always asked here in South Korea when people learn that I have become an activist for North Korean escapees. My response is curt: “No.” “Do you plan on going?” they ask next. My answer remains the same: “No.” When they start to ask a follow-up question, I cut them off: "No."

People are often just trying to make conversation, I know, but I am blunt for a reason: I am not interested in going to North Korea as long as North Koreans are held captive. I could go one day, but for now, I can do without a government-guided tour by "men-stealers and women-whippers," to borrow a phrase from American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. I don’t mean to criticize people who have gone to North Korea for political, educational, business, religious reasons or just plain curiosity.

However, some people push me on the issue, ― and I push back. A good friend who visited North Korea five years ago insists that I am missing out by not going. During the conversation, I asked her how much it cost her to go to North Korea. More than 2 million won for four days, she said.

The number stung when I heard it. Peter Jung of Justice for North Korea (JFNK) recently told me that it costs his organization about 2.3 million won to rescue a North Korean trying to get out of China. Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea (LINK) told me that it cost the organization about $2,500 to do the same. Other organizations have quoted similar costs (for brokers, direct assistance for escapees, bribes).

My friend is a smart lady who is committed to helping North Korean refugees as well as improving human rights in North Korea, so this is not a slap at her. She was devoted to these issues well before I was even aware of them. She says that the trip to North Korea inspired her to work even harder against North Korea. Everyone can be inspired by different things, so I didn’t mean to discourage her. But I did ask: Do you think that everyone had to personally visit the American South during the 1850s in order to fight against slavery?

People can be inspired by many things. In what may be an apocryphal story from the American Civil War (1861-65), President Abraham Lincoln allegedly spoke to Harriet Beecher Stowe about her 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” about the brutality of American slavery: “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War!” During the 1960s, the scenes of non-violent civil rights protesters getting attacked by mobs appealed to a need for justice among Americans that led to legislation.

Activists and organizations share videos, photos, and stories about injustice around the world to move others to action. Some South Koreans interested in North Korean issues are inspired by personal connections, some for ideological reasons, and others by dreams of reunification. Some simply despise the North Korean crime family that has ruled the country since 1945. I don’t expect everyone to have the same reasons for assisting North Korean escapees. I welcome them all to my side, and perhaps the reverse is true.

However, I still won’t feel any desire to visit North Korea until people there are free to leave whenever they choose. Unification and North Korea’s nukes are important, but I rarely read about them without yawning. I’m not interested in seeing photos or videos from North Korea ― I want to send videos and texts to North Koreans held captive to inform them about the world. I won't go to North Korea until people there are not prevented from leaving.

The writer is the international adviser to the Mulmangcho School for North Korean Refugee Children in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province, and a member of the board of trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu.

Original Korea Times link