The Best Way to Solve N. Korea's Humanitarian Problem: "N. Korea Should Start By Opening Up to Int'l Inspections and Visitors," ILHR Pres. Arsenault
Question: Mr. Robert Arsenault, president of International League for Human Rights (ILHR), what was the purpose of your visit here in Korea? Answer: The purpose was to deliver a special lecture at Hanyang University on the occasion of the 40 years of leadership by Dr. Kim Hyun-joon of the Korean League, who also founded the university. Dr. Kim came to the United States in 1978 and we helped him with access at the General Assembly of the United Nations. He is remembered quite kindly by the people who worked in the league in those years. The Korean League considered one of our affiliates, but Dr. Kim really has devoted a lifetime of work and leadership to human rights issues in Korea, per se, in South Korea. Then in 1994-1995, he started to strongly dedicate himself to North Korean issues. He was active in humanitarian work in South Korea and interested in the SOFA agreement. In the last 10 years, North Korea has been a focus of the league here.
Q: What is your impression of Mr. Kim Chong-yang, current president of Hanyang University? A: Mr. Kim is committed, as his father was, to human rights issues and to growing that university, which is a spectacular place. I was really astonished to see such an institution for 35,000 students thriving as it does.
Q: What is the result of your visit to Korea? A: The result was an interesting trip. It was an interesting time to be in Korea. The U.N. General Assembly passed the resolution today about the North Korean issue, so my visit is timely, even though it is accidental. I am curious to find South Korea abstaining.
Q: Will you comment on the passed resolution at the United Nations on North Korea's human rights? A: The international pressure is important. It is more important that 82 countries voted in favor of that event than the fact that South Korea abstained. One can look at the bright side of things. On the prospect of the resolution in the future, it depends on the pressure of other countries in the region - China, Japan and Russia. They all have to be interested and involved. They have something at stake because of securing transparency. North Korea will make the whole region safer and more stable.
Q: What is the best way to solve North Korea's humanitarian problem? A: North Korea should start by opening up to international inspections and international visitors to visit labor camps, prisons, and places like that. Another step would be to allow complete monitoring of humanitarian assistance and food aid so that one could guarantee that the food is going where the donor intends it to go.
Q: Do you have any plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il? A: I don't know. If he would like to meet me, I would be ready to visit him this afternoon. But I don't think that it is very high on his agenda. I will make a request soon, and if I do get a meeting there, I will come here and talk to you afterwards and give you my impressions.
Q: Will you explain about your organization, the ILHR, in brief? A: The International League for Human Rights began in 1941. A group of French activists that had to disband during World War II came to New York. It was a French organization and became the International League for the Rights of Man when it was reconstituted in New York City. It was sometime in the mid-70s where the International League for the Rights of Man went to the first international conference on women. When all the participants saw the literature from the international equal rights of man, they took the literature off the table because they thought it was a women's conference. They shouldn't have the word "man" on the literature. Next year, the league changed its name from International League for the Rights of Man to the International League for Human Rights. The main function of the organization is the league defender of human rights. If there is someone who is in prison because they have been defending the rights of others, those are the people that we try to help. Full time in our office in New York are five researchers, three specialists and then an administrator. Then we have people that work with us overseas. We have someone in Geneva, Sierra Leone, and Central Asia. In 1945, the league was involved with Argentina and Paraguay on problems with those dictators there. The fund of our organization comes from some few wealthy individuals, some small private foundations, and the U.S. government.
Q: What are the achievements of the ILHR? A: The league was one of the first nongovernmental organizations to be accredited at the United Nations. The founder of the league, Roger Baldwin, was instrumental in drafting the covenants on civil and political rights. The league, at that time, was composed mostly of hardworking volunteers. As you see, human rights has sort of become professionalized. Since the Cold War, the league has changed as well.
Q: What is the vision of your organization? A: The vision is to be able to put it out of business so that there are no more human rights problems so we don't have to exist anymore. It is to do enough work and have enough governments behaving themselves so the organization is not necessary anymore. Unfortunately, I think that we are going to be in business for a while.
Q: What main problems are you facing today? A: Currently, the league is very active in the country of Belarus, which you know has a not very pleasant dictator. The countries are the post-Soviet Central Asia - Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. We also have programs in West Africa that work with women and children in Sierra Leone and Senegal. Since I became president of the league, I have my own interests. One of my interests will be North Korea. That is one of the reasons why I accepted the invitation from Hanyang University in addition to the fact that the league, the Korean League, has been our affiliate for so many years.
Q: What is your organization's project next year? A: I just want to be actively involved in human rights in North Korea. That is really my project, but I want to continue our interest in Turkmenistan as well. I cannot spend my time on every country. There are wonderful programs that the league will work on very hard in countries, so I will leave most of that work to them. My job is to raise money.
Q: What is your general impression of Korea? A: Everything is wonderful all the time, so how can I know what it would be like to live here? Everyone has been very friendly, hospitable, and extremely efficient in lining up one meeting after the next. Certainly, I have a good view from the government side and the NGO side about the North Korean human rights issues as it is dealt with in South Korea. I look forward certainly to returning.
Q: What is your impression of the opposition leader, Ms. Park Geun-hye? A: Extremely charming. It was very interesting for me to meet with her and hear her views. We discussed North Korea. That is about it. It was very interesting. I think that she takes the view that one has to really pay attention to human rights in North Korea and not ignore it and raise the issue whenever it is possible. I agree with her, but not because of any common political affiliation.
Q: What is your background in brief? A: I began my interest in human rights when I worked in the United States Senate for Sen. Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts. Andrei Sakharov's family lived in Massachusetts so they were his constituents. That is where I came in contact with the Sakharov family and that was the beginning of it. In my academic training, I never had any thought at all about getting with anything in the Russian language with the Soviet states or anything. My interest was in India, specifically in South India, South Indian politics and religion. So I sort of fell into this human rights stuff.
Q: What is your hobby? A: Good question. I mean you know, if I weren't involved in human rights, I suppose that I would develop a hobby, but this is not such a bad way to spend one's free time.