When asked when her most difficult moment was, Suzanne Scholte, the chairman of North Korea Freedom Coalition, said she feels she's pushed to her limits every single day. It was an unexpected answer from someone who dared to pioneer into a field in which no one had any interest, and built it up to become what it is today. Scholte said that in the countless moments in which she felt pushed to her limits, she remembers the first prayer she prayed, and desperately asks God for help.
Though mainstream media doesn't mention this aspect as often, Scholte is a devout Christian. Her deep interest and dedication to the cause of human rights in North Korea started from a moment when she was meditating on the Bible. She prayed, "Break my heart for what breaks yours," and what came to her in response were tears for the North Korean people and refugees who are constantly faced with trials. The 12th annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) taking place this week features the leaders of various North Korean refugee organizations, and shares the testimonies of these refugees and what they know regarding the status of freedom and human rights in the regime.
This interview with Scholte took place on the third day of the activities of NKFW.
Q: Many say that a lot of changes will occur in North Korea this year. And during the press conference, you mentioned that since the NKFW began 12 years ago, many things have changed in the country, especially in the last year. Do you have any predictions as to what kinds of changes will take place in the country this year?
A: Many people ask me when I think the North Korean regime will end. But that's not something that can be predicted -- we have to be ready and have the mindset that it'll open up at any time. The doors might open even tomorrow.
However, it is true that over the years there have been many changes. The key part of those changes is information coming out and going in. The North Korean government has been trying hard to block information from outside the country from going in and reaching the people, but these days, there are so many refugees, and through them, people within North Korea are able to obtain so much information. And as the refugees communicate with the North Korean people, they've also been able to send money, which is also contributing to changing society in North Korea. The North Korean people are slowly starting to understand that the difficulties they face in their daily lives are due to the regime of Kim Jong-Eun, and I would say that's a huge change.
Q: In the press conference, you mentioned that a capitalistic society is starting to grow within the country, but how is it possible to have such a drastic change within the regime?
A: According to satellite photos, we've estimated that there are about 200 marketplaces within North Korea, and we predict that there are many more marketplaces that weren't shown in the photos. And this implicates that already, within North Korea, there are many people who are participating in a capitalistic marketplace culture and economy. North Korea tried in various ways to stop the marketplace culture, and even changed its currency, an effort which failed. Since then, the people have been autonomously participating in marketplace economy, and the government has been hands-off about it. The regime wasn't able to break down the willpower of the people to provide for themselves, independently, without depending on the government. I believe this shows how strong the willpower of these people are, and the strength that their souls carry.
This also explains why there haven't been any serious famines since the late 2000s. During the Arduous March (a great famine that occurred in North Korea in the 1990s) when two to three million people were starving, there were no marketplaces, and no concept of buying and selling. So the people had no choice but to starve to death. But now, the people have decided they will no longer simply sit there and starve, and that they will carry out business, to buy and to sell, and to create these marketplaces. This decision and willpower is what is saving these people. And because they're no longer depending on the government, but depending on each other, famines aren't affecting them as much anymore. They are learning how to survive on their own.
Q: The remark that Sung Min Kim (the president of Free North Korea Radio) made saying that the money spent by the government for one fighter jet could be used to bring about an even more effective change within the people was a poignant one. Do you think that the reason the human rights violations in the country aren't being addressed is the structure of the political system? What's your take?
A: There are several reasons the movement for human rights in North Korea is difficult. One of those is that the South Korean people are so divided on this issue. The U.S. has a bill on the human rights in North Korea, and even Japan passed one as well, but South Korea has yet to pass a bill on it. It just shows how deeply divided the Korean political leaders are on this issue.
Another reason is that South Korean society, and even Koreans outside of South Korea, do not have the right perspective of North Korean refugees. Many of them consider refugees as lower than themselves. That's why when we, the North Korea Freedom Coalition, say that we're working for freedom in North Korea, we focus on respecting the individuals. The Korean people must see the North Korean people and refugees as equals.
And another factor that hinders human rights being restored in North Korea is a spiritual one. There is a fierce spiritual battle going on that we can't see. Many churches turn away and refuse to help the North Korean people saying that the issue is too political, and I think this is a spiritual battle. I would argue that one of the greatest evils is the church being silent on this issue. This year, when I said we should send over Easter sermons to the North Korean people, many of the responses I got were negative, saying that they didn't want to participate in politics, and I was shocked. And similarly, a while back, I remember I planned on having an exhibit of photos of refugees that were forcefully repatriated, but many Korean churches in the U.S. closed their doors on me saying they didn't want to be a part of it. I believe this is Satan's strategy of turning the eyes of the church away from the plight of the North Korean people, and the human rights violations that are happening in this country.
Q: What are some of the moments you felt that God has been helping you during this journey?
A: To be honest, it's always a pretty difficult journey so I can't pinpoint any one instance right now. Even this year, it was so difficult to plan this that I even thought of canceling the event. But I always think upon the providence of God, and the calling that He's given me. It's not that we have a lot of finances, or support, or help, so we have no choice but to depend on Him to move forward.
And when I listen to the stories of the refugees like we did today, God leads me to think that the trials that I go through are nothing compared to what they have had to endure. I was never sold anywhere, and my family wasn't killed, and until now I've been living under His protection, and I had to repent for thinking so much about how weary or tired I am. And I'm glad that I get to work together with these refugees, and to help them to be able to receive healing and work together toward freedom for North Korea.