Garry Kasparov is chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Thor Halvorssen is its president and CEO.
If you’ve been following coverage of the Winter Olympic Games on major international news outlets such as CNN, BBC and ABC, you might think that Kim Jong Un’s sister is kind and charming, that North Korean athletes are happy and liberated, or that Pyongyang is suddenly a peaceful, “normal” government interested in giving up power through diplomacy.
Don’t be fooled. The Olympics has been a PR dream come true for the murderous Kim dictatorship. South Korea’s Moon administration claims to be using the games to foster goodwill, but the reality is that the Hermit Kingdom has taken this opportunity to stage one of history’s great whitewashing operations, where the breathless focus is on the fashion style of the Dear Leader’s sister instead of his forced labor camps and police state.
North Korea is the worst human rights violator on our planet. Its leaders — including the smiling Kim Yo Jong — are active participants in a totalitarian state that starves, abuses and brainwashes millions of people. The Kim regime keeps tight control over its population through outright violent oppression, but also relies heavily on an elaborate system of censorship, propaganda and indoctrination. North Koreans grow up hearing creation myths about their godlike rulers alongside a warped version of history that places North Korea as both the strongest and most noble nation in the world, and as a victim of “American bastards.” According to Jieun Baek, author of “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution,” “children learn to add and subtract by counting dead American soldiers” and learn to use rifles “in case the ‘Yankee imperialists’ attack.”
The brainwashing works. As defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park explains, before she decided to defect, she “was not aware, like a fish is not aware of water. North Koreans are abducted at birth, so they do not know the concept of freedom or human rights. They do not know that they are slaves.”
For decades, the regime has tried to maintain a strict censorship of all foreign news, books, movies, TV shows and more, and imposes severe punishments on anyone found consuming forbidden media. Individuals found consuming outside media can face long stints in the country’s reeducation centers, where they are worked nearly to death, tortured and abused by guards and underfed to the point of eating locusts and rats found on prison floors. In some cases, those caught with prohibited media are executed and, typically, such events are done in broad daylight with the local population forced to attend.
North Korea’s regime is also constantly campaigning in the West to position its leaders as victims of an international conspiracy to undermine them. Pro-North news sites and fake nongovernmental organizations produce a constant stream of propaganda claiming that South Korea started the Korean War, blaming the United States for prolonged tensions and asserting that Kim Jong Un is a peaceful and egalitarian ruler. The regime’s sympathizers gloss over its human rights violations, rewrite history, arrange paid tours to celebrate the founding of the Kim dynasty and even organize orchestral performances to celebrate the regime in the heart of New York.
If South Korea and the rest of the free world want to win the information war against the North Korean tyranny, and prevent the regime from winning any more propaganda gold, we need to do more than just expose the regime’s crimes.
First, the International Olympic Committee should bar North Korea from participating in future Games. History has shown how effective such a strategy can be, and we can learn much from the example of how the world alienated the apartheid regime to make a moral statement about its appalling policies. It is unacceptable for the North Korean dictatorship to be able to freely compete alongside free nations such as South Korea and Japan.
Second, the free world needs to step up its response to North Korea’s propaganda war. The best way to do this is to invest in increasing the amount of information flowing into the Hermit Kingdom’s borders.
In the past decade, North Korean defectors have sent DVDs and USB sticks packed with outside information into the country, and this information is already causing a psychological revolution. A Gallup survey of 250 defectors suggested that between 80 percent and 90 percent of respondents had watched foreign films or TV shows in North Korea, and many defectors tell us that learning about the wider world through Hollywood blockbusters and South Korean pop songs compelled them to search for freedom. According to the Human Rights Foundation and Forum 280’s Flash Drives for Freedom project, at least 1.1 million North Koreans have viewed content from the outside world on recently smuggled flash drives, including approximately 48 million hours of reading material and 2 million hours of footage.
Campaigns such as these, coupled with the expanding power of black markets, are contributing to a growing number of defections from North Korea. Just as outside information helped bring about the fall of the Soviet Union, truth and outside information are transforming North Korea.
North Koreans risk hard labor and torture just to access content that we take for granted in the free world. If we really want to help the North Korean people — if we truly care about them — then we must focus on helping them win the information war. You can play a key role by opposing Pyongyang’s participation in the Olympics, and by sending your flash drives to the address at the Flash Drives for Freedom website to open more windows to our world.