President Obama's Broken Promise to the North Korean People

Remembering Rev. Kim Dong-shik: Hero to North Korean Defectors

I myself had hope in 2008 that the Obama administration would have been able to do some good on behalf of the North Korean people. This is in spite of the fact that as Senator of Illinois, Mr. Obama had already reneged on an important promise concerning North Korea, and to the heartbreak of one Korean-American family from the smalltown of Skokie.

The promise was concerning Rev. Kim Dong-shik, a U.S. permanent resident whose wife and two children are U.S. citizens. Mr. Kim was abducted in January 2000 by North Korean agents while assisting North Korean refugees in China, whose brutal and unlawful policy of blanket repatriation for all North Korean refugees found within their borders has led to countless deaths and separated Korean families. Mr. Kim was operating nine shelters for these refugees in Yanji, providing for their material needs and helping defectors come to South Korea, before being forcibly taken to North Korea where he eventually died from the effects of torture and malnutrition suffered during his imprisonment.

Responding to pleas from Rev. Kim's wife and fellow church members for help, in 2005 then-Senator Obama and other Illinois lawmakers co-signed a letter to North Korea's UN Mission in which they called Mr. Kim a hero and compared him to Ms. Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist who established the underground railroad before Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat and humanitarian who rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Second World War.

The comparisons then-Senator Obama and his Congressional Delegation drew were accurate: North Korea is a "slave state" that has murdered several million innocents and which runs a concentration camp system where political prisoners, including children, have been systematically starved, tortured, raped, publicly executed, gassed, experimented on – where crimes against humanity and genocide occur on a daily basis, and, it is true, Mr. Kim was and is a real hero. The question then must be asked how Mr. Obama could so easily change positions on a matter as fundamental as this.

In that same letter the signatories pledged that they would oppose the removal of the North Korean government from the State Department list of State Sponsors of Terrorism "until such time, among other reasons, as a full accounting is provided to the Kim family regarding the fate of Reverend Kim Dong-shik." Yet in 2008, when the Bush administration had decided to go forward on an ill-conceived attempt to negotiate a deal with Pyongyang to end its nuclear program, agreeing to the removal of North Korea from the Sponsors of State Terrorism list in exchange for a declaration on its nuclear activities, the Democratic nominee had decided not to "stand in the way of the agreement by focusing on one individual," according to the Washington Post.

A horrible decision, not only from a moral standpoint but also from a strategic one, no doubt. Today, North Korea is the number one proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in the world and, according to an August 16 report from The Institute for Science and International Security, is on course to possess up to 48 nuclear weapons by 2015. Astonishingly, the DPRK has still not been placed back on the State Department list since the Bush administration's unprincipled and catastrophic mistake.

So why did I once have hope? It was in part because of Mr. Obama's unique appointment of Samantha Power as a foreign policy advisor during his 2008 campaign and, after elected, as the Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the National Security Council. After reading Dr. Power's 2003 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which examines and criticizes America's complete inaction in the face of various genocides throughout the 20th century, I held out hope that she might help press the burning issue of mass atrocities in North Korea and become a powerful advocate for North Korea's forgotten victims in Washington. Needless to say, I was wrong. To date, the Obama administration has not taken any meaningful action to address the humanitarian and human rights emergency in North Korea, focusing instead, like his predecessors, entirely on the security threat but without any success, having presided over a DPRK nuclear test in 2009 and a ballistic missile test as recent as April of this year.

Precious time has been and continues to be wasted while masses of North Korean innocents toil in hellish conditions, suffer brutality, and die. What is long overdue is for the United States to bring the matter of crimes against humanity and genocide in North Korea before the UN Security Council and, in all bilateral or multilateral discussions and initiatives on North Korea to now prioritize the fundamental freedoms, rights and lives of the North Korean people.

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