Nineteen years ago, when she first spoke with North Korean refugees — and helped them find a voice in the United States — Suzanne Scholte recognized the size of the challenge.
“I felt like those who tried to get out word of the Holocaust after World War II,” Scholte said. “People simply couldn’t believe it.”
Scholte will visit Pierce College’s Puyallup campus Wednesday (Feb. 25) to talk about human rights abuses that remain routine under the regime of dictator Kim Jong Un. After her presentation, three North Korean refugees will lead a panel discussion, and Scholte said as many as 15 other North Koreans now living in the Northwest may be on hand.
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“I think most people know North Korea is a dark place, but they don’t know the details,” she said. “They’ve heard about the crazy stuff North Korea has done — the hacking and threats to Sony.
“What I don’t think they know about are the political prison camps, that children are sent to those camps. If a grandfather is caught listening to a foreign radio broadcast, three generations of his family can be imprisoned.
“That means the grandfather, his sons and his grandsons ....”
Scholte brings with her credentials that include the 2008 Seoul Peace Prize for her work for human rights. A 55-year-old Virginian, she is president of the North Korea Freedom Coalition and vice chairwoman of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
As such, she has worked to finance radio broadcasts from South Korea by North Korean refugees, established North Korea Freedom Day and helped rescue North Koreans trying to flee their country.
She points to another Asian country that is complicit in the North Korea mess.
“Whenever I speak to a college group, there’s always a Chinese student who is appalled by what China is doing to placate North Korea,” Scholte said. “The citizens of China are on our side. The government is on North Korea’s side.
“The Chinese government won’t acknowledge North Korean refugees, so those refugees are sent back. We know 100 percent of those returned are tortured and/or executed.”
Women are not always returned.
“Women refugees are victimized by traffickers and sold,” Scholte said. “Last year a woman in her early 20s was able to make a telephone call to a cousin who lived in the United States, and we were able to purchase her freedom for between $6,000-$8,000.
“She told us she had been sold in China and gotten pregnant. The man who ‘owned’ her wanted her to have an abortion, and she escaped but was caught by traffickers and sold again. She eventually was forced to have an abortion.”
None of the human rights abuses in North Korea are new developments.
On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with each of its 30 articles covering aspects of life people of all countries should expect.
“There’s only one country on earth where not one of those rights was ever allowed, and that’s North Korea,” Scholte said. “Since 1948, the country has been ruled by three men — Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.”
Last year, when Sony Pictures’ computers were hacked to stop the release of “The Interview,” a Hollywood comedy about two dimwits trying to assassinate Kim Jong Un, Scholte said all it did was illustrate part of life in North Korea.
“That shows you Kim Jong Un is their god, that the regime keep citizens from realizing he is mocked and ridiculed and despised by those outside North Korea,” she said.
America could use its influence more forcefully, she said.
“The U.S. has never made human rights the main focus in North Korea,” Scholte said. “We’ve focused more on the nuclear program there. We need to articulate to the people of North Korea that we’re concerned about them.”
Nineteen years after her involvement began, the frustration hasn’t diminished.
“There hasn’t been much change in North Korea,” Scholte said. “We’ve been successful in letting people know these atrocities happen, but been able to do very little to change what’s happening.”