The people of reclusive North Korea may not be aware of the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. While the residents of Hong Kong push for full democracy, North Koreans live under a brutal dictatorship. They may be able to vote in elections but the polls are predetermined and all candidates emerge unopposed. These meaningless elections have been held in the Hermit Kingdom every four to five years over the past 70 years.
Changsop Pyon of RFA’S Korean Service recently interviewed Roberta Cohen, a human rights expert with the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, about the potential implications of the Hong Kong protests for North Korea's repressive regime and its people. Cohen, who is also co-chair of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, previously served as Senior Adviser to the Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons. Before that, she served as Deputy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights.
Q: Protesters in Hong Kong have been demanding that free elections be held for their leader in 2017. If there is a message to the North Korean people regarding the situation in Hong Kong, what would it be?
A: First of all, I wonder to what extent the people in North Korea really know about the events going on in Hong Kong and the demonstrations. Of course, North Korean government officials will know, and probably some of the elites will learn, and probably more. My hope is that a great number of North Koreans will get to know about this, because in China they have sought to curb knowledge of these events by interfering with the Internet, Instagram, and other social media. North Korea will do the same. So my first hope is that North Koreans will really get to see what’s going on in Hong Kong.
Q: You have just expressed hope that more North Koreans will come to know about the events in Hong Kong. Specifically, what would you want them to know?
A: Well, first of all, I think they should know that hundreds of thousands of students and residents in Hong Kong have made a statement that they want free elections, and that they have a desire for self-government and more direct control of their own affairs. And this in itself should be of interest to the people in North Korea who don’t have free elections. In Hong Kong, all the people will be given the right to vote for the Chief Executive in 2017. But universal suffrage, which North Korea may say its people [already] have, is not enough. It doesn’t mean much without the right to put forward the candidates that will be voted on.
Those in Hong Kong are making that clear—that they need to have the right to have fully free elections of candidates [who are] not being imposed on them. North Koreans might gain from knowing that leaders in Hong Kong and even in China must have some accountability to their population. Whether or not protesters succeed in their demands, the leaders have to listen and hear what the demands of the protesters are, and that accountability of a government to its own people is something that is essential in order for it to move forward in a constructive way.
Q: As you said, what the Hong Kong people want is not just universal suffrage, but the genuine right to vote for the candidate they want. North Koreans face this same issue because even if they can vote, they are forced to vote for the candidates who have already been hand-picked by the state. Is this right?
A: Yes, that’s right. In North Korea, they don’t have free elections. The people there, as you just said, may be able to vote in elections, but they play no role in deciding who will be elected and who the candidates should be. So what’s going on in Hong Kong might make North Koreans look at their own society and question whether they, too, should have the right to play a role in deciding which candidates are going to be elected. The right to vote means more than just voting for a candidate somebody else selects. The vote also has to mean that those you’re voting for are the persons that the population would like to choose from to have as their leader. They don’t want leaders imposed upon them.
Q: In that respect, what kind of lessons can the North Korean leadership take away from the Hong Kong events?
A: If the North Korean leadership wants to ignore the Hong Kong events and believe the only way to rule is through oppression, then they are shutting themselves off from seeing that democratic countries are far more stable under free elections and under accountability of the government to the population. True, revolts in countries, especially if they turn violent, may be destabilizing and lead to more repression, but the results of the Arab Spring in Tunisia are different from what occurred in Egypt.
There can be different outcomes, and probably the strongest outcome in the long term will come from countries where the people feel they are part of the political dialogue. They then feel they are part of the country, that their role has some place in how the country is run and they can make their views known. North Korean leaders would do well to look at that kind of development in other countries if they want to have long-term stability in theirs.
Q: One of the problems in North Korea is that there is no organized resistance to challenge the regime’s repressive policy.
A: A repressive, dictatorial government like North Korea can control many things in its society, but they can not entirely control how the people think, and that can begin to change. And that is what one hopes for. Once people begin to think differently, this can lead to an expectation of change. Of course, the North Korean government has been trying very hard to control the thought processes of its citizens, but they just can’t control how thinking evolves. People have independent thought processes, and the more they become aware of news in different places and what might be of interest to them and what might be a lesson for them, they might begin to think differently.
Even officials in North Korea who look at Hong Kong—some of them may begin to think differently. Even though they can’t express themselves, and just follow the party line and are fearful of retribution, their thought processes may begin to change, and you never can tell when they are coming forward. Hopefully it will come forward in an evolutionary way. Once new thinking begins and thoughts begin to evolve, change becomes possible.
Q: Do you think this kind of pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong could change the way North Koreans have felt about their own government for so long?
A: Yes, that’s right. And if their thinking changes in North Korea, they might feel a sense of solidarity with those [who live] under repressive regimes, solidarity with their desire for self-government and political rights. A sense of connection can develop. It’s very important that solidarity is expressed from the outside world with the people in North Korea, because this can give strength to the people inside.
Q: In that sense, do you think the demonstrations in Hong Kong may have affected North Korean people’s way of thinking about their own government and leader?
A: We don’t know. But it could very well make them think about their own system and make them think, “We should have self-government, we should have the right to vote for candidates we want. Our government should be accountable to the population. We should be able to peacefully protest if we want to make our views known and have no other way. We should expect dialogue with our government.” In that way, one can find positive parts of the Hong Kong experience to identify with.