North Korea continues to make news for all the wrong reasons. Scarcely a day goes by without a headline about Pyongyang’s ambitions to develop and perhaps use nuclear weapons. North Korea’s unwillingness to respect the norms of international relations derives from the fact that there is no rule of law. As the Trump administration and Congress grapple with Pyongyang’s security challenge to the United States and our allies, it’s important to remember that North Korea’s human rights abuses are not unrelated.
Just as North Korea refuses to respect the norms of international relations, it also commits human rights abuses of its people on a massive scale, including executions, torture and detention. The people are denied fundamental rights like free expression, association, assembly and religion. In North Korea, voicing an opinion or engaging in religious worship can be punished by imprisonment or death. Leaving the country is a capital crime, but for some North Koreans, it is a risk worth taking.
Escaping North Korea tests physical endurance and is typically a harrowing experience. Escapees know that their actions may mean their families will be punished by the security forces. Most leave by crossing into China, where they risk repatriation back to North Korea and are often victims of sex trafficking.
The lucky ones are assisted by a loose network of organizations and individuals that helps shepherd refugees out of China to third countries. Once there, they can apply for refugee status in South Korea or the United States.
While the vast majority of escapees choose to resettle in South Korea, around 500 North Koreans have come legally to the United States as refugees or immigrants since President George W. Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Act into law in 2004.
Research commissioned by the George W. Bush Institute has revealed that most North Koreans living here have adjusted well, and that they want to contribute to American society. They remind us why helping others escape oppression is not only the right thing to do, it is in our best interest as Americans.
Nevertheless, they face significant challenges. Many struggle financially and have limited prospects for careers or professional advancement. Many of them desire to improve their education and skills as a way to secure a happy and prosperous life. Yet they are often unable to afford the cost of education.
For that reason, the Bush Institute established the North Korea Freedom Scholarship program. It allows individuals who were born in North Korea and now live legally in the United States to apply for scholarships to attend institutions of higher learning. The scholarship may be used at four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, and vocational and technical schools.
Through learning a trade or taking up a profession, these escapees can better provide for themselves and their families and contribute to our common prosperity. They also serve as a vital link to those trapped behind in North Korea by sending remittances and uncensored information to friends and family. Increasingly, many of the refugees have become active in promoting freedom in their homeland by speaking out on the plight of those they left behind.
In June, the Bush Institute awarded the first eight scholarships to North Koreans who have resettled in the United States. The recipients will attend four-year and community colleges and are studying in a range of fields, including nursing, information technology and theology. While their stories of escape are heartbreaking, they share a goal of wanting to improve life for their fellow North Koreans. The second round of applications for the scholarship will open in January 2018.
North Korea remains a dangerous and repressive country, but by enhancing the prospects of individual North Koreans, we can hasten the day when all North Koreans are free.
• Lindsay Lloyd is Deputy Director, Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.
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