By Sam Namias
As Kim Jong Un’s hermit kingdom becomes an increasingly closed and dangerous country, I interviewed North Korean human rights activist and two-time defector Timothy Cho (GS’22). We discuss Cho’s inspiring personal story and outlook on life, the importance of the Geneva Summit, and what the international community should do to support those trapped inside the dictatorial regime of North Korea.
You joined the Geneva Summit family in April 2022, when you delivered a passionate speech at the 14th annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. You spoke on behalf of 25 million North Koreans. By the end of your remarks, the whole room was moved by your personal ordeal, and you received a standing ovation. What were your emotions leading up to the Geneva Summit and how did you feel after concluding your speech?
The Geneva Summit is a platform where you can speak freely. Fundamental rights, such as free choice, free speech, and free expression are privileges that all speakers who attended did not have in our home countries. So most of us, including myself, were and still are in exile.
“The Geneva Summit is a platform to speak to the whole world and to try to pass on messages to those people who are still in prison countries, including North Korea.”
There must be hope. And it’s sometimes really difficult to grasp hope. Because it’s something intangible. We often talk about it as something between tangible and intangible, something you can physically touch or not. But when someone is speaking on the stage, the Geneva Summit particularly, this is both tangible and intangible; someone who can speak on behalf of those voiceless people. At the same time, we also talk about that intangible hope for tomorrow. So, the Geneva Summit was a huge platform for me and of course, I am still part of the Geneva Summit family. I would not be able to consider my continuing activities away from the Geneva Summit, and I hope more people will have the opportunity to stand on that stage and speak to the world and say that hope is not lost in their home countries.
Upon participating in the Geneva Summit, your activism has really exploded. You have been extremely busy traveling the world, going to different places, and spreading your message of hope and love. And always bearing in mind your “brothers and sisters,” as you like to say, back in North Korea. I was wondering, how has the Geneva Summit helped you build on your advocacy and, as you said, provide this kind of platform to other venues and other means of communicating your message?
Well, we certainly live in a world of technology these days. In most countries, except for North Korea of course, people have access to these technologies. So, the Geneva Summit gives a platform, as well as opportunities to reach people. In the conference there were just a few hundreds of people, but the role of the social media role here is to expand and give you more opportunities. And it is not about just one person who is able to speak on behalf of millions in their home countries, but it is about the platform giving you a network. Regardless of where someone comes from, there shouldn’t be any suppression and persecution against one another. Whether that is the government, or any specific groups, ethnic groups, or specific nationalities. This is what the Summit does. Network opportunities among activists are built upon the right to speak, the right to express, and claim for justice, in places where there is none.
This is why I am really excited to talk about the Geneva Summit. This platform exists as far as the network can go, because we all agree on what is right to express and claim for our basic rights. This is very simple, actually. No one was born to be suppressed or live in a prison country and society. But as we see what’s happening right now, even in China, Iran, North Korea, and parts of many countries where hundreds of millions of people are in this situation. We all understand and agree that it is not right. This network for me, has extended itself as far as possible. I use Facebook and Twitter and connect with the Geneva Summit and all the activist friends and organizations who stand for justice and fight against persecution. And it’s a globalized movement. At the same time, this path is not that far to extend. It’s very close when we continue to stand together in solidarity.
It’s been almost two years since I attended the Geneva Summit and you are right actually, I have been traveling to a lot of countries since then, particularly after the Geneva Summit. The speech itself was published in newspapers, articles, groups, and organizations and individuals watched and raised questions. They contacted me via social media, emails, or asked other activist friends; this is the advantageous part when you speak at a certain conference or an event where you have other speakers alongside. We all have a connection, and through this environment and opportunities, people can reach out to me via other activist friends. And with this in mind, the Geneva Summit to me is really significant. And I hope they will continue to have enough funding to provide opportunities for those people who still need to speak up more and stand up for human rights.
Following up on that, towards the end of your speech at the Geneva Summit, you shared Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful words: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil; God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” A bit over a year later, what do those words mean in terms of our shared responsibility to speak about fundamental rights in North Korea and all other places, as you mentioned, where people are oppressed?
Well, when we talk about this right, it’s not only just about human rights. I think we all are born with a special gift to contribute to the community, society, and to the world, throughout our lives. And you can use that opportunity and your beautiful gift in a good way to contribute and make a better society and world for our children growing up and the next generations.
However, some people used this gift in a negative way; we know about Xi Jinping, Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Kim Il-sung, and all these dictators who have used that beautiful gift in a very dark way. They oppressed, killed, imprisoned, and kicked out their own people and this is not something right. But there are people who have also used their beautiful gift in a good way to contribute to our humanity and society and helped us become who we are today, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela… There are far more good people who have chosen to stand for good because there is something worth fighting for in this human world.
This is part of our fundamental rights, not only human rights but in every aspect of rights; what we can choose, what we can talk about, be loved, and be recognized, regardless of whether we come from different nationalities or ethnic groups. Considering this year particularly the 75-year anniversary of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights, I hope that the whole world, every institution and organization, will remember and promote the recognition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a fundamental right we talk about, and to respect and love others. Certainly, there’s injustice and darkness in many parts of the world. However, this is part of our journey; in this spiritual battleground, in this world of humanity, this has been inevitable for thousands of years. At this very moment in 2023 and in the 21st century, we also see another part of this process; justice and fighting for a good cause. But we do not realize that as the biblical scripture says, “if one part of the body hurts, the entire body hurts.” As we know, when tiny parts of our bodies are aching, the rest of the body cannot feel comfortable. It really fits this realization of this world. I think the whole body is not in good condition at the moment.
This is a very interesting analogy. And as you mentioned, there are several people who have worked to maintain and promote human rights. And as we see recent developments, Kim Jong Un has now, reportedly at least, a greater nuclear capability to reach South Korea and other places. At the same time, it appears that North Korea has intensified its relations with Russia.
Recently, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu visited Pyongyang to negotiate the cost of munitions Russia is purchasing to supply their war on Ukraine. As we see this axis between evil countries developing, what do you think about the international community’s response in this regard? What is the role that people of conscience need to play in order to push back against this evil?
I’ve been following North Korea’s strengthening as a form of last resort of the dictator’s need to survive. And it’s not only about strengthening nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction: Over the past 12 months, they launched 39 missiles. At the same time, what’s interesting is that North Korea has broadened, introduced, and implemented internal policies and legislations to suppress and oppress even more. When I was escaping the country, teenagers would watch foreign TV dramas; now they would be executed for doing that, which is what happened in December last year. And of course, there’s the news about a 2-year-old boy who was taken to a concentration camp, because his parents had a copy of the Bible.
When North Korea is strengthening its weapons of mass destruction, this is going alongside its internal policy of suppression and prosecution. And now they even reach out to Russia and China and strengthen their ties of totalitarian policies.
“A lot of people ask me when I express my frustration, is there any hope? This country has been like that for over 70 years. What is going to happen? How is change going to come when no one knows what’s going on inside this totally locked-up country?”
We can also see over the past 20 years how the language of crimes against humanity in North Korea has spread around the world. This common knowledge of human rights crimes in this country has now become known and recognized all around the world, still not far compared to what happened in the Holocaust. And in response to the Holocaust, we all know it happened 70 years ago, we set up the Universal Rights Charters, and North Korea is almost at a similar level according to the UN Commission of Inquiry’s Report concluded 10 years ago. I petition to the NGOs, individual activists, and government sectors and stakeholders that they continue showing support, providing a voice and a platform and strength for people like me, for North Korean defectors, and for the voiceless people inside the country. I think in the next few years we can push them to open these doors. There has been progress, although it has hardly been recognized because crimes have been continuously committed and repatriation still happens by Chinese authorities. But at the same time, we have developed on the other side this very important language. If we didn’t have the global Human Rights Charter 70 years ago, we could not have developed the significance of our fundamental rights which are so important today. At this point, we need to further advocate in the United Nations. Of course, China and Russia are always on the side of North Korea. But we still have the UK, the US, and France and we have still economically and even militarily strong countries on our side. The power of love and democracy, the movement, and the right to free speech; it’s more powerful than even any nuclear power. Despite these dictatorships, we still have many more countries who can stand up and give the resources to people like us to stand against them in this fight.
You mentioned that you recently visited South Korea. Can you share some of your feelings about being so close to your home country? Do you feel even more empowered to continue your important work when you meet with South Koreans and, of course, North Korean defectors and escapees?
Yeah, it was a few weeks ago that I went to South Korea and had the opportunity to visit the military zone. I remember it was six years ago when I visited last time and it was not the same feeling I had in my recent visit. As soon as I stood there, I was in tears and it was so frustrating. North Korea was only a few hundred meters from where I was standing, but I could not go there.
Why does humanity make it so difficult? Why has this demilitarized zone and the border between South and North Korea been there for over 70 years? Why? It doesn’t have to be there. The group I went with, students from Sheffield University, all of them came up to me and they were holding my hand. My deep frustration was guiding me, and I remember thinking, “God, I don’t want to come here again, unless I can cross the border next time.”
It is my determination now: If I want to go back to the border again, that will mean that I would have to cross the border to North Korea and see my birth country. I think I want to approach this more strategically in the next few years and see whether inside the North Korean elite there is any willingness to open the doors, or whether that movement could be aligned between grassroots and elites and from people outside the defectors. South Korea in particular, which is a brotherly country, must feel this pain more than anyone, and their democracy and freedom cannot be guaranteed as long as a totalitarian regime exists next door.
I’m glad that South Korea has recently had more committed involvement at the UN level, at the national level, and they also try to reach out to groups working on inter-Korean or North Korean issues in European countries. I’m actually expecting to meet with the newly appointed Minister from the South Korean unification ministry. He is visiting the UK at the end of this month and I’m helping him meet with some stakeholders in the UK. This is the kind of a good sign that also reminded me of how West Germany was very close cooperating with Western Democratic allies before the unification process with East Germany. South Korea also needs to be wise in this step of war protests. Because it’s not about their available resources, but it’s also a strategical approach by all means; they need international cooperation, because North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, they always behave unilaterally on their own. Because they know that they can arrest or kill their own people at any moment.
In relation to that, you currently serve as the Co-Secretariat of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. Can you tell us a bit more about your role and how you advocate for your compatriots back in North Korea through that position? And what are your main objectives for the future through your parliamentarian activism?
Thank you for that question. This is a group in the UK Parliament, consisting of parliamentarians from both houses and it’s quite a significant group. If I say that the Geneva Summit is a significant platform to demonstrate the message of hope for the people who cannot speak for themselves, then an All-Party Parliamentary group on North Korea in the UK Parliament is a similar group also trying to empower these defectors and their community, by continuing to advocate for the voiceless people in North Korea. I’m hopeful that the EU Parliament and European countries will advance these platforms, not just for North Korea, but for all dictatorships. As the Co-Secretariat, I am the only one outside of the Parliament serving this community and group. This is an issue that comes from my heart, for my people, and my brothers and sisters in North Korea. So I am engaging with this group very directly and very actively, as I keep updating them on all these issues, particularly on North Korea and on the Korean peninsula.
At the same time, I have a functional diplomatic role. Since the UK is one of the Security Council Members proposing foreign policy directions on North Korea, and sometimes after coordinating with South Korea, I can take an advisory role in this way and also encourage them. As a Security Council member, you have functions and a role to suggest and recommend a human rights dialogue in the United Nations on North Korea and other countries and if we cannot approach countries like North Korea or Iran directly or individually, they cannot avoid the United Nations platform, that’s very significant. This committee group has been there for over 10 years now, and because of this group, 650 members of the UK Parliament are now really aware of North Korean issues. Many of them ask us, “How can we help you and how can we stand with this issue for North Korean people?”
Additionally, there is a North Korean Embassy in London. They are certainly not happy with the Parliamentary group on North Korea, but we maintain this message always: “We love you, but we cannot agree with your government because you are killing, oppressing, and suppressing your own people.” The All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea maintains this work to influence and empower North Korean people’s rights and defectors’ community and activists, people like myself as well. We will need this kind of platform to speak up and stand alongside our democratic allies and friends and in this sense the Geneva Summit has the same function.
This year you were unfortunately unavailable to attend the Geneva Summit due to other engagements. However, the issue of North Korean human rights and the democratic cause for the country was spotlighted at the Summit by another courageous activist, Songmi Han. She shared her own story of perseverance in North Korea and ultimate reunification with her mother in South Korea. Did you see her speech?
I did watch her speech. I was moved as we all have risked our lives and made sacrifices for freedom because we all know how significant freedom is. When I was listening to her story, particularly, how she was separated from her mother for many years… It’s not an ordinary story and I was quite grateful to the Geneva Summit as well for asking her to present and share her story which could represent hundreds of thousands.
My advice to her is that she should finish her education because democratic education is important. This was one of the reasons why I made the decision to study politics. I wanted to understand why I was victimized and why so many millions of people are also victimized. As we see what’s happening around the world – not only in North Korea but the whole world – we need more people who can speak out. I hope that the Geneva Summit will encourage her to continue her advocacy.
Certainly, and this is in fact the purpose of the Geneva Summit; to provide a platform for brave human rights activists to speak about their personal experiences of oppression and persecution and tell the international community and nations of the world about the situation on the ground.
So, concluding our conversation, you are a remarkable person, Timothy. Your radiant optimism, your kindness, and your really stubborn belief in the human spirit are truly an example for us all who have had the great opportunity to meet you. And my final question, which might sound simplistic, is where do you draw this optimism from? Where does your love for humanity come from?
Well, firstly, I am humbled by your kind words. Thank you. I have actually received the same question from so many people, particularly when I speak at universities. Earlier I mentioned where we come from, and who we are; we are born to be loved and recognized, and grow up with our parents, go to school, and laugh as much as we can. When we see that basic human experience of the birth of a beautiful baby, and then the mom holding the child with a big smile, this is hope. I remember my wife’s pain after she gave birth to our children, but then once that pain is gone, there’s that beautiful moment of holding the baby in your arms. I think that beauty is still there.
If we talk about human history, we have endured so much suffering, death, persecution, and discrimination is still going on. But at the same time humanity has developed and progressed. I have seen the broken pieces of my family. It was tragic to see. The other day a journalist asked me, “What are your feelings when you are taking your daughter to school?” And I told her that I feel like crying. If I go back to my early memories, I can still remember my father waiting for me at school on a rainy day. But I don’t have that many memories from my childhood and I will be reminded of that when I’m taking my daughter to school.
I remember reading on the news about the growing population in the world. I understand that we have a massive population problem at the moment, but if we think about what every single human can contribute with their beauty, this world would be far more even and we could live in a world of happiness. But that gift in a spiritual pattern is also tainted. But humanity has never lost because of that beauty and love. As long as that beauty and love remain, we see the hope for tomorrow.
It is always a true privilege to speak with you, Timothy. I am inspired by your words. Thanks so much for this interview and for your words of optimism and love.
Thank you very much.