American Peace Worker Honored in Seoul

Suzanne Scholte Wins Seoul Peace Prize

September 10, 2008

North Korean human-rights abuses often go unnoticed, especially by South Korea, where past governments have preferred to ignore the brutal nature of the Pyongyang regime to the north. The awarding of the Seoul Peace Prize to American Suzanne Scholte last week therefore marks a welcome change.

Mrs. Scholte, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Defense Forum Foundation, has been publicizing North Korea’s rights abuses for over a decade. She brought North Korean defectors to Washington, D.C. in 1999 to testify at the first-ever Congressional hearing on North Korea’s political-prisoner camps. Her efforts also led to the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, which increased U.S. support for North Korean defectors and for radio broadcasting targeting North Korea.

Her work stands in contrast to the positions of past South Korean administrations over the same period. Former President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” put human rights permanently on the back burner and tried to improve inter-Korean relations by showering the North with unconditional aid. His successor, former President Roh Moo-hyun, only entrenched those policies.

Current President Lee Myung-bak has started to reverse this dismal track record. Shortly after he took office in March, Mr. Lee’s government expressed support for the United Nations special rapporteur monitoring rights in North Korea. He tried to disassemble the Reunification Ministry, which generally favors greater accommodation for the North, although those efforts have so far stalled. Mr. Lee has also said that South Korea will no longer give unconditional, unrequested food aid to the North — although that resolve is being tested as reports of famine in the North multiply.

Mr. Lee’s courage is starting to have an impact. The number of North Korean refugees arriving safely in South Korea was up 42% in the first half of this year, compared to the previous year.

Mrs. Scholte’s receipt of the Seoul Peace Prize testifies to the importance of this cause. As the prize committee noted, “At a time when countries are purposely neglecting the human rights conditions in North Korea for their political interests, Ms. Scholte has taken the lead in raising awareness of the miserable plight of North Korean refugees and encouraged the refugees who are seeking freedom.”

Here’s hoping that this award will inspire others to follow her example.