by Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Speaking on Feb. 14 in Washington, D.C., along with North Korean refugee Cherie Yang, I noted parallels between the “men stealers and women whippers” of American slavery yesteryear and North Korea today (the event was co-hosted by the Atlas Network and the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association).
The American South violated basic human rights; allowed people to be enslaved, tortured and killed at will; broke up families; and kept slaves isolated and ignorant. The main difference with North Korea is the American South imported its victims.
The North Korean regime is even worse than the slave-holding South. Slavery defenders could argue then they weren’t doing anything out of the norm of history; North Korea has no such defense, it would be like the Ku Klux Klan taking over a country today.
One person who helped change it so that slavery was no longer the norm was Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery sometime around 1818 (births of slaves weren’t recorded), he was destined to be a “slave for life.” Instead, he became a leading abolitionist. After failing in his first bid for freedom, Douglass escaped from “a den of lions” in 1838. He still had to worry about black spies reporting him and white slave hunters kidnapping him.
Likewise, even after escaping, North Korean refugees get hounded by North Korean agents and Chinese police to repatriate them. Rescuers on the Underground Railroad who help North Koreans flee through China get jailed, beaten, and in some cases, allegedly murdered for breaking the law to help runaways, as all happened in the Old South.
Despite the threats, Douglass began speaking out, saying at an 1842 gathering of the American Anti-Slavery Society, “I appear this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master, and ran off with them.” He traveled around the world arguing against slavery, as some North Korean refugees bravely do today about North Korea (I’m pleased to have introduced some refugees to opportunities). As refugee speakers sometimes get criticized by other refugees, Douglass was criticized by other blacks “who thought very badly of my wisdom in thus exposing and degrading myself.”
Refugees today have every aspect of their lives questioned by word-parsers and investigative reporters; the pro-slavery press regularly denounced Douglass (in modern times, they slaveholders would be rabid bloggers posting YouTube “expose” videos and polluting Wikipedia). Douglass silenced many critics who are now deservedly forgotten by history with his 1845 book, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave.” Abolitionist Wendell Phillips, reading the proposed manuscript, said he would “throw it into the fire” if he were Douglass. Other abolitionists warned the book “would turn (Douglass) over to the tormentors.”
Douglass fled to England to evade those tormentors. North Koreans outside of North Korea are considered to be “traitors” to the Kim regime, which is one reason reporters and researchers need to use common sense when challenging refugees who have ongoing privacy concerns and security threats from a psychotic regime. Douglass rightly withheld many details well until after slavery ended.
Friends purchased Douglass’ freedom in 1846. On the 10th anniversary of his escape from slavery, he published an open letter to his former slaveowner, saying: “In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.” He concluded the letter: “I’m your fellow man, but not your slave.”
Critics denounced Douglass as an “abolition agitator” and “intermeddler” who was “petted and flattered and used and paid by certain abolitionists.” Today, refugee speakers, NGOs and the “human rights racket” are blamed for “provoking” North Korea and get denounced as “puppets” who are seeking “fame and profit.” (Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was charged with trying to line her own pockets off the issue of slavery and there were more than 20 books, many by Southern women, quickly published as rebuttals).
Free states were denounced along with slave states, much as defenders of North Korea today highlight problems in the United States. Human rights advocates get criticized by professional talkers for not doing more to help North Koreans still in North Korea.
Douglass, the former slave who later became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, wrote: “True, as a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon, but the thought that there was one less slave, and one more freeman ― having myself been a slave, and a fugitive slave ― brought to my heart unspeakable joy.”
A few weeks before his death in 1895, when asked by a young man for advice, Douglass replied simply: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Yet another parallel ― my colleagues pushing for human rights in North Korea would agree.
The writer is the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu