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Helping North Koreans 'strike the blow' (Korea Times)

Have you ever engaged in action not because you were sure it would change the world, but to satisfy your own heart? That, I emailed to an American friend, is why I have joined the effort to help North Koreans who are trying to escape from their homeland.

I can’t change the direction of policy in North Korea or China but I can row the boat I am sitting in rather than lamenting that I can’t steer the yachts somewhere else. So I have tried to do what I can: Attending protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul (and I plan to do so when I visit America in April); donating money to the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (; educating myself, writing articles and emailing friends; and, as a member of the board of trustees, I recently submitted a resolution to the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association (FDMHA) in Washington, D.C., to try to call attention to the plight of North Koreans.

Our organization’s mission is to preserve the legacy of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), a runaway slave who later became an outspoken abolitionist and human rights advocate who fought government oppression during his lifetime. It was in this atmosphere that Douglass spoke at an event in Boston in 1869, arguing in favor of continued Chinese immigration to America. It certainly was not a popular opinion (in 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act). Douglass spoke movingly of the “right of locomotion” of individuals seeking liberty of movement.

The key paragraph for me occurs when Douglass argued in favor of human rights, saying that the question of Chinese immigration “should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.”
Douglass argued that “there are such things in the world as human rights” which are “external, universal, and indestructible,” which “belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike.” His focus on human rights is a reason I proposed the resolution in order to connect Douglass to the plight of North Koreans seeking to escape to freedom and from oppression.

It has been exhilarating meeting people who have actually risked their lives to escape to freedom I take for granted. Escapees from North Korea must remain in hiding for fear of retribution against their families. They still cannot write the type of letter Douglass wrote on the 10th anniversary of his escape from his former slave owner, “In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living,” concluding his letter, “I am your fellow man, but not your slave.”

One of Douglass’ favorite quotes was from Lord Byron: “Hereditary bondmen, know ye not, Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?” Those escapees from North Korea have struck the first blow. Many others have tried to free themselves but are victims of North Korea and China working in cahoots to engage in “man-stealing,” to borrow a phrase from American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

You may not change the world immediately but you can attend protests, give money to organizations helping those trying to escape, or get organizations you participate in to be involved. It may not make a change immediately, but I doubt that Frederick Douglass thought his words in 1869 could inspire an American in South Korea in the year 2012.

The writer is director for international relations at the Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul and a member of the board of trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C. He blogs at and

This article originally appeared in the Korea Times on March 22, 2012.

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