Rigoulot Says, “It is Difficult to Say We Don’t Mind”

[imText1]With the heated debates and discussions on building strategies for North Korean human rights, the second day of the international conference for the North Korean human rights, “Seoul Summit: Promoting Human Rights in North Korea” held in Northern Seoul was very stimulated with the foreign activists. With the most active North Korean human rights activists from all over the world gathered in one place, it was not difficult to recognize one of the few Europeans who had been involved in the North Korean human rights issues. Pierre Rigoulot is a reknowned French historian who had long been interested in human rights issues. The world learned about his interest in the North Korean human rights issues when his name appeared as the second author on Kang Chul Hwan’s famous book, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

The DailyNK was fortunate to meet Pierre Rigoulot, who clearly articulated about how the media could be used as the tool for effectively tackling the problem of North Korean human rights.

Following is the interview with Mr. Pierre Rigoulot in full text.

Q: Please tell us about your feelings about today’s conference.

Concerning the conference, I was invited to the conference by the Citizen’s Alliance. The atmosphere was slightly different maybe because they avoided criticizing the South Korean government. During the conference, the South Korean government and the US government were criticized, and Scholte even criticized Bush. Different political wings represented concerned in human rights in North Korea. Regardless of right or left, you can be in favor of human rights. In France it is the same, we don’t mind political connections, we address human rights and 99% of the people are in support of human rights in North Korea although they may be indifferent. A French communist daily called, “Humanity,” was against North Korean Kim Jong Il.

Q: What do you think must be used to solve the human rights problem in North Korea? Pressure or negotiations?

The word “pressure” came often in the conference, but I do not oppose to both means. We have to pressure, in this point of view, we have to pressure from the militarily, for instance, we have to control satellites, navies, and survey what they are selling and buying such as whether they are smuggle missiles. In this aspect, use pressure in ways of military and ideology.

Financial transactions, for instance, they are controlled of the counterfeiting money, that is another type of pressure. Yet at the same time we must not refuse to discuss with them. I hope that the six-party talks continue. It is important that North Korean diplomats meet diplomats from other countries. I think it is important to some Korean government officials to meet their North Korean counterparts and that they hold discussions about Gaesung Industrial Complex. In French, we say, “We must hold both ends of the chain.” You have to take in both possibilities, you have to pressure and also discuss. North Korea must not be isolated. Discussions must be held in the six-party talks in a military way between Seoul and Pyongyang. I don’t oppose the open door policy, or sunshine policy or other policies to avoid confrontations with western powers. If you don’t pressure, the discussions will be naïve, and North Koreans can take advantage, and without sanctions, they will continue taking advantages, and with sanctions, still, the negotiations can and must go on.

Q: Tell us about the French North Korean Human Rights Committee, current activities and goals. About the NK gulag and Soviet NK, how is the NK gulag different?

First of all, the gulag is gulag everywhere. There are some general characteristics found in the totalitarian state. The main issue of the gulag is to eliminate them, not exterminate them. Extermination is another thing. But it is to eliminate – put them apart from the society. They are prisoners, they are obliged to work in horrible conditions, they can die, but it does not matter as long as they are apart from the society. But in Asian concentration camps, Chinese or North Korean, there was something I didn’t find in others. There is a greater intention of “education” (brainwash), propaganda, to oblige people to change to change their mind, and ultimately to create a new man. Kang Chul Hwan, of Yoduk camp, he had to learn the biography of Kim Jong Il, forced to do self criticism and taught of the state ideology. That was practiced in the Soviet Union too, but not so much as in China, North Korea or Vietnam. Special characteristics of the North Korean gulags are their national characteristics. For instance, you have huge camps such as Yodok. With several tens of thousands of people, in fact, the number of gulags is not that high, only 7 or 8 camps. The camps can be big but not that many. In the North Korean gulag, I found that families were maintained, like Kang Chul Hwan, in a barrack, he lived with his grandmother, his sister, father, and uncle. In other camps, members of the family were separated. For Kang, his family could stay together. But it is not because North Korea is fully respectful of families. His mother was not there, his mother was forced to divorce his father. The difference is not that the government wanted to protect family, but in one way, all the members of the families were together. I have never seen that elsewhere. There is also something funny. American author, Bruce Cummings, wrote a review of the “Aquariums of Pyongyang,” and he said Rigoulot and Kang said North Korea is a totalitarian regime but he disagrees because the whole family was together even inside the gulags. So this regime is not so bad. (laugh)

Q: What were your reasons for engaging in the North Korean human rights problem?
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There are objective and subjective reasons. I am a researcher at a center for studies of the communist world. In my institute, I research about studies of communist, socialist, and trade-unionism. European communism is not so strong, there are no more communist states, but in current affairs, they are no longer concerned about comm. Ideology. So we look at countries where communist still lies such as Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, Cuba, and the last comm. I am working on a book about Cuba, my next interest will be on Cuba. But North Korea is something special. First of all, it looks like the Stalinist communist. You can make some comparison with Soviet Union. For instance, completely mad characteristics it has are similar to that of Stalin’s. One interesting thing for me is in North Korea is the state and the unique party, and the economy centralized by the party, controlled and panned. Ideology in North Korea has been changing since the 70s from the Marxist or Leninist roots. They abandoned it. More nationalist ideology has been replacing the room of Marx or Lenin. During the 70s, I heard that books on Marxism or Leninism were burnt; there are other interesting things also. There are some reference to a magic power by Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung, even describing them as geniuses. In the case of North Korea, it seems to me, it is more exaggerated, more different from classical Leninism.

I heard that one day Kim Jong Il went on an inspection on the border, and thick fog came down as if to hide him from the enemies of South Korea and American soldiers, and he made an inspection of the army unit. After the inspection, when they wanted to take a picture with him, the fog disappeared, so they can take the picture. It is like saying the nature agrees with the importance of Kim Jong Il and his leadership. This is funny. There is a mix of archaism, and current ideology. Some things are derived from nationalism. Simple citizens like me can have compassion. With refugees, starving people, and concentration camps, it is difficult to say we don’t mind. It is difficult to say I don’t want to do anything about it. It is a very special state. In North Korea, so many horrible things are occurring and you want to do something about them. That is why I got interested. I could not help to be interested in North Korea.

There are also subjective reasons. I met a South Korean woman. She told me about the division between South Korea and North Korea, and I wanted to know more about the country. When you know somebody who has a personal relationship with you, but tells you different from the book, you can no longer be an outsider to the matter. She sent me newspapers from South Korea such as The Korea Herald, helped me from Seoul and introduced me to the South Korea and North Korea problem. When you have someone with a relationship – friendship, a friend who tells you about menace of war in the Korean peninsula, poverty in North Korea, economical success of South Korea, you are no longer unfamiliar to the problem, it very much becomes your problem as well.

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