Daily NK recently conducted an interview with soon-to-be-retiring National Endowment for Democracy (NED) President Carl Gershman. NED is a long-time sponsor of Daily NK’s work. 

Daily NK: Since its founding in 1983 by the US Congress, NED has long supported democracy organizations all over the world. You have been its chairman ever since its founding, so I was wondering what was the most memorable experience you had while working to promote democracy globally over the past 40 or so years?

Gershman: That’s a hard question since the world has changed dramatically and repeatedly since I started at NED in April 1984, as has the NED itself. The NED was a very controversial idea in the beginning since it was private and independent organization funded by the Congress, and it was also working on the sensitive issue of supporting democratic change in foreign countries. Members of Congress on both the left and the right worried that that we might become ideological and veer off to one side or the other. The left didn’t want us to be too anti-communist, and the right feared that we might become an instrument for opposing authoritarian governments allied with the US – what were called at the time “friendly tyrants.” We had to prove our bona fides, and slowly but surely we won over friends on both sides.  Liberals applauded the role we played in supporting the transitions in Chile, South Africa, Taiwan, and South Korea, too. And conservatives liked our support for dissidents in Cuba and other communist countries. Everyone welcomed the very significant support we gave to Solidarity in Poland, where the victory for democracy helped bring the Cold War to an end. Probably the most memorable experience back then was the victory in Nicaragua of the democratic opposition under the leadership of Violeta Chamorro, which brought a democratic end to the Central America conflict that was the most divisive foreign-policy issue in American politics in the 1980s. 

Of course there have been many other memorable and important struggles and experiences over the decades. For me the most satisfying experience was supporting and getting to know some of the very heroic fighters for freedom and democracy – from luminaries like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Czech dissident, writer and president Vaclav Havel, to courageous heroes like Martin Lee in Hong Kong, the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and Elena Bonner who was the widow of the Nobel Laureate Dr. Andrei Sakharov. I never had the honor of meeting the Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, but I feel like I knew him since I’ve quoted him so frequently and met his widow Liu Xia when she was allowed to leave China after her husband’s death in prison, one of the CCP’s many human-rights crimes. I feel incredibly privileged to have known these and hundreds and even thousands of other brave people who are fighting for freedom and the defense of human dignity. 

Daily NK: While NED has worked to promote human rights in Africa, Southeast Asia and other places throughout the globe, the organization has spent considerable effort on improving the human rights situation in North Korea. I wanted to ask why NED chose to place so much focus on the North Korean human rights issue.

Gershman: That’s a good question. In the 1990s, after the great democratic gains of the late 1980s, we were looking for new challenges. Two members of the NED Board insisted that we try to find a way to get involved in North Korea, which was the most closed country in the world. One of them was Dr. Fred Ikle, a former under-secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration and one of America’s leading strategic thinkers. The other was Stephen Solarz, a former Democratic Congressman who had made several visits to North Korea to meet with Kim Il Sung and who was also Kim Dae Jung’s best friend and most fervent supporter in the US Congress. Both of them have now passed away and I remember them with gratitude and affection.

In response to this Board pressure, we were looking for a way to get started on North Korea. But NED is a grant-making institution, and since we couldn’t find a group working on this issue that could carry out a good project, we were stymied. Then one day in 1996 we received a publication called “Life and Human Rights in North Korea.” It was published by a new organization – the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. All of a sudden we had a potential grantee, a place to begin.  Before long we were talking with the group’s founder, Rev. Benjamin Yoon, about a project that turned out to be the first International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees.

I attended that first conference, where I gave a talk called “Ending the Silence.” I said that there were three reasons for the silence: The closed nature of the North Korean system, which made it hard for human rights groups to gather and verify information about human rights abuses; the fear some had that raising the issue would provoke a conflict with North Korea; and finally the difficulty of separating the issue of human rights from what I called “the complex politics of the divided peninsula,” by which I meant the tendency of both right and left in South Korea to use the issue politically.

Rev. Yoon was very rare since he was interested only in human rights, not partisan politics.  He had chaired Amnesty International in South Korea during the military dictatorship, and he had no hang-ups when he spoke about the terrible human rights situation in North Korea about having to prove his “progressive” credentials on having opposed the old authoritarian government in South Korea. He had a single standard on human rights and was a great person to work with. 

Before long the silence ended. The UN appointed a special rapporteur for North Korea, and eventually there was a UN Commission of Inquiry that produced a landmark report on the crimes committed by the North Korean regime, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

We also supported programs in many other areas – short-wave broadcasting and other ways to break the information blockade imposed by the regime in Pyongyang; reporting from inside North Korea, which Daily NK does so well; helping human-rights groups started by the growing number North Korean defectors in South Korea; and supporting sophisticated human-rights documentation that is laying the foundation for what will eventually be a process of transitional justice following the demise of the totalitarian regime in North Korea, something that I think is inevitable.

Daily NK: Based on your long experience at NED, in what ways do you think that the organization has helped improve the human rights situation in North Korea?

Gershman: The programs I’ve described have definitely helped improve the human-rights situation in North Korea. They’ve given people information and raised their consciousness.  They’ve saved North Korean refugees stranded in China. They’ve put the pressure of international public opinion on the North Korean regime, which has helped open up a small space for an emerging civil society, something that is starting to develop in the private markets or jangmadang. North Korea is not becoming democratic. But the totalitarian system is beginning to erode, and eventually this will bring about the system’s unravelling.  This is a process that has happened before in other communist countries in the Soviet bloc, including the Soviet Union itself. It is a process that is driven not by NED or other external actors but by the internal contradictions of the communist system – the economic inefficiencies, the impossibility of preventing people from learning about the outside world, what Reagan in his Westminster Address called “the instinctive desire for freedom.” All we can do is to help people living in closed and repressive systems to begin to understand democracy and human rights, so that when the system does eventually open up they’re more prepared than they otherwise might have been to build a new system and not descend into chaos.

Carl Gershman / Image: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Daily NK: Many point out that the North Korean government is more resilient than it may have seemed. Do you think it would be difficult to improve the human rights situation in North Korea if Kim Jong Un remains in power?

Gershman: That’s a tough question. I think dictatorships like the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea and the Xi regime in China are very conscious of what happened in the Soviet Union when Gorbachev opened up the system with perestroika and glasnost and the communist regime quickly unraveled and collapsed. They want to hold on to the bitter end, and that means there will be no liberalization under their rule. But such closed systems have their own contradictions, as I’ve said. As the scholar Minxin Pei pointed out in his recent Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture,  a totalitarian regime can slow the process of opening but it can’t prevent it entirely. North Korea has the added problem of having a free and democratic Korean society right across the border in the South. It’s a powerful attraction, and I don’t see how it can resist forever the gravitational pull of the South. As Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Daily NK: We wanted to ask a somewhat personal question about you. We know that you have spent much of your life fighting to spread democracy; we’re wondering, however, how you define democracy. What is your own definition of democracy?

Gershman: Democracy is government by consent – government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln said. That requires institutions and processes – free elections, the rule of law, a free press, an independent judiciary, checks and balances to prevent the concentration of power, the fundamental freedoms of expression and association, and so forth. I think it’s also essential to have a market economy since political freedom, as the Free Enterprise and Democracy Network points out, “depends on freedom in economic life and the limitation of political power over the economy.” A social welfare safety net to protect the poor is also important to make democracy inclusive. It’s really not that complicated, and one has to guard against hyphenated versions of democracy – managed democracy, for example, as Putin has called it, or China’s “socialist” democracy, Iran’s “Islamic” democracy, or the so-called Bolivarian democracy in Venezuela. Such adjectives are really just a way to rationalize the suppression of basic freedoms and democratic processes. The only adjective that one can put in front of democracy without distorting its meaning is the word “liberal” that can be used to distinguish democracy from all authoritarian and Orwellian perversions of the term. Democracy is a very difficult system to build and maintain because it requires finding the proper balance between rivalry and consensus, between the competition for power and the need for compromise, and between partisan differences and the common good. But it is the only system that can secure human freedom.

Daily NK: You have an unusual amount of experience in projects aimed at promoting human rights. What have you found to be the most effective ways to promote improvements in human rights in a particular country?

Gershman: Every country is different, but there are certain things that apply everywhere: strengthening an independent civil society that can be a check on corruption and the abuse of power; supporting a free press that can expose abuse and that enables people to be informed so that they can participate responsibly in the political process. Supporting the rule of law is also essential so that rights are not abused by authoritarian rulers; and obviously defending free elections and the right to vote are fundamental freedoms that are needed to hold governments accountable. Defending human rights is a constant process since, as the American abolitionist Wendall Phillips once said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Daily NK: You and NED have been together since the organization’s founding. Do you believe the organization will change when you leave? What role do you think the organization should take on going forward?

Gershman: It certainly will change in small ways as it adapts to a rapidly changing political and social environment. NED is already becoming much more adept technologically, both in using technology to protect human rights and promote freedom of expression and civic participation; and in defending the NED and its partners from the abuse of technology and surveillance by malign foreign governments. The challenges today are enormous since democracy has been on the defensive for more than a decade. According to the last Freedom House survey, political and civil liberties in the world have declined for 15 consecutive years. That’s terrible, and the NED must try to help reverse this trend. This will involve helping pivotal democratic transitions to succeed in Sudan, Armenia, and other countries; sustaining democracy activists resisting despotic governments; countering authoritarian sharp power in the information space; building greater cooperation and shared learning among groups working to aid democracy; strengthening liberal values against the rising tide of illiberalism and extremism; and helping democrats compete with authoritarians in the arena of technology. The NED can’t do this alone, but it can be a catalyst, a coalition builder, and a source of practical support and moral solidarity.  That’s an enormous job, to say the least.

Daily NK: What plans do you have following your retirement?

Gershman: I hope to write a book about my experience in building and managing the NED over these many years.

Daily NK: Do you have any words of wisdom for the young people of today?

Gershman: Don’t take freedom for granted. The United States and South Korea are both very polarized politically today, and people have a lot of grievances. But we need to keep perspective and remember how fortunate we are to be living in free societies. Of course we need to make our societies better and more just, and to address the problems of the poor and the marginalized. But we also need to feel gratitude for the advantages we have and not to get cynical or negative.

Also, don’t get discouraged. As I reflect on my experiences at NED, I’ve come to understand that obstacles can often be opportunities for innovation. Back in 1987 we were the target of a really nasty attack in the press. It made me realize that we needed to tell our story to Congress and the public, and so we organized our first international conference, which we held in the US Congress. We brought to Washington many of the leading activists we were supporting all over the world, and it put us on the map. This and other such gatherings not only built support for the NED but eventually evolved into what is today the World Movement for Democracy, which is a global network of democracy activists and practitioners. There are a lot of other examples like that. Never give up and always try to see problems as opportunities and turn them into advantages.

Daily NK: Do you have a message you’d like to share with North Korea’s people?

Gershman: I’d like them to know that they’re not alone. I think they were alone back in the 1990s, during the terrible famine, but a lot has changed since then. There are organizations in many countries working to defend human rights in North Korea. There are governments that support human rights in North Korea, and it’s become an issue in the United Nations. There’s a long struggle ahead, and eventually, as the totalitarian system erodes, people in North Korea will become more politically conscious and better organized.  It’s especially important for this message to get to the people in the prison camps, the North Korean Gulag. I know that’s very difficult. But messages of concern and solidarity have penetrated into such dark places before, so it’s not impossible.

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