Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

We See You as Strong, Not Just Victims, US Official Tells North Koreans

Assistant Secretary of State discusses appalling state of human rights but says change will come one day.
By Eun Jung Huh
  • US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski interviewed by Eun Jung Huh for  Radio Free Chosun. (Photo: Department of State/US embassy, Seoul)
    US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski interviewed by Eun Jung Huh for Radio Free Chosun. (Photo: Department of State/US embassy, Seoul)

A senior US State Department official has spoken of the “complete denial of basic freedoms ” in North Korea while noting that more information is getting into the country as people there have greater contact with the outside world.

“Once people know something, they cannot be made to un-know it,” Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski said when he was interviewed by IWPR’s partner radio station Radio Free Chosun on October 27 during a stopover in Seoul.

The interview was conducted by IWPR trainer Eun Jung Huh and broadcast to North Korea the following day.

What is the purpose of your visit to Korea this time?

The purpose of my visit is to talk to the government of South Korea, and to the many North Koreans who have come to live in South Korea, about the situation in the North and about what we can do to help the people of the North get through the difficult times they are experiencing.

Could you tell me what the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour (DRL) specifically seeks to do?

DRL tries to report objectively and fairly about human rights condition in other countries, both in countries with which we have a bad relationship like North Korea, but also in countries that are friendly to us including South Korea and Japan. We try to recommend improvements in all the countries we conduct our diplomacy with.

I’ve heard you have had a personal interest in North Korean human rights issues for a long time. Is there any special reason for this?

My interest began because I was born in a communist country, Poland. I have some experience through my childhood. That gave an extra sympathy for what the North Korean people experience.

Years later, I met a young man who had escaped North Korea and who told me what life was like for him as a child during the famine in the 1990s, I was very moved by his stories. I was moved in particular by realising that even people who are taught from the very early age that there is no such thing as freedom still want it. I thought that was very inspiring and it made me want to do everything I can do.

How serious do you think the North Korea human rights situation is?

I think it remains very, very, serious – perhaps amongst the worst human rights situations in the world. Nowhere else in the world have I seen such a complete denial of basic freedoms and basic ability to make choices about one’s life.

But I also see that the people of North Korea are getting more information about the outside world including through radio broadcasts like this, but also in many other ways they are gaining greater opportunities to take responsibility for their livelihood – engaging in markets, in trading, in more contacts with the outside world particularly through China. I see the North Korean people becoming a little bit more empowered.

Hopefully, their future will be better.

In this situation, the role of the US government is important. What is the current US policy?

There are a couple of things we can do. First of all, we need to try to empower the North Korean people to make their own choices. The best way we can do that is trying to make them have information about the outside world, information about how people live.

Radio broadcasting can connect the North Korean people to outside world. I think we can help with that. Second, we need to make sure that the North Korean government understands that the world sees what is happening. There will be a price to be paid if they continue to deny their people. Government can no longer hide the situation inside the country. We have begun to deliver the message in much more effective way.

The North Korean government strongly insists that it has no domestic human rights issues. What do you think about this?

It is too late. The world has changed. There is knowledge coming out of North Korea and knowledge going into North Korea. We see what is happening. Once people know something, they cannot be made to un-know it. I expect the North Korean government to do what it has done before, but I think it will realise it’s not working this time.

The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (COI) submitted its final report to the United Nations in February. How do you evaluate the report?

The North Korean people already know everything in the COI report because it’s their life. But for much of the rest of the world, there is information that is new, very troubling and very shocking, particularly the description of the system of camps. I think the world perception of North Korea will never be the same after this report. That’s why it’s very significant.

It’s also significant because this is a report from the UN. It is a report that represents the conclusions of all countries in the world. The North Korean government has to take it seriously.

There has been concern regarding the effect of the report. Please tell me if there have been meaningful follow-ups to make it effective.

The COI report is not a one-time event. It is an event that will change the attitude and policies of the world towards North Korea permanently.

There will be follow-up activities. The UN General Assembly will be taking up the report very soon in New York. I expect an overwhelming vote in favour of carrying forward the recommendations made by COI. There will be a permanent UN office in South Korea that will continue the investigation.

If North Korea shows no change in attitude, could Kim Jong-un and other leaders be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

We have a basic principle that is no one should be above the law, no matter how powerful they are. We must treat the North Korean people as human beings who have dignity and worth, and they should be able to decide this question – whether the people who have caused them great suffering should be held accountable for the crimes they have committed for years.

There should be some mechanism that enables the North Korean people to make that choice: That mechanism could be the ICC or it could be some other mechanism that should exist.

The North Korean government should understand that calls for this kind of justice will only grow.

Could you give a message to the North Korean government about what the US and the international community demand?

It is not going to work any more to try to hide or deny what is happening inside North Korea. Propaganda is just a waste of time.

We do not want a confrontation or conflict, including over human rights issues. We want to see change for the people of North Korea. We want them to have a better life. They need to address human right issues in a serious way, close down the camp system, and allow greater access to North Korea, greater contact and greater choice for their people.

Many officials of the State Political Security Department who are actually persecuting the North Korean people are listening to this programme now. Could you specifically give a message to them?

I know that you are in the difficult situation, too. You are not in a position to just leave your job. You have to follow orders. But you have choices. You can choose to treat people with greater kindness, and every active kindness you do will be remembered. Things will change because no system lasts forever.

Every cruel action will also be remembered. People will know who tried the best. You will have much better future if you are known as one of the people who tried to do the right thing,

In closing, please send a special message of encouragement to to North Korean people.

First, I am glad that some people in North Korea can listen to a broadcast like this. I wish that you could say something back to us, and that we could actually talk together. I hope that some day not very long from now we’ll be able to do that. I want to say that people in the United States, South Korea and the whole world see you as having the same worth and dignity as anybody else. 

We don’t just see you as victims of a cruel government. We actually see you as very, very strong. You have endured and survived. Anyone who can do that is someone who will do very well when they have the freedom to make choices and to make their own lives. I don’t know when that day will come, but I do think it will.

We know each other better, and that is a big change over the last 50 or 60 years.


IWPR’s US-funded project in support of three NGO radio stations run by North Korean refugees and human rights activists recently came to an end. We are continuing to work with them to identify new sources of funding that will help them to keep broadcasting and to develop radio soaps aimed at building human rights education and civic activism across the border.

For more information on IWPR’s North Korea work, contact Alan Davis, IWPR’s Asia Director.