Remarks by President George W. Bush at "Light Through the Darkness: A Forum on Freedom in North Korea"

Korea Chair Platform



Thank you all. Thank you all for coming. We at the Bush Center think this is an important conversation to have. After all, we are focusing our attention on freedom – freedom for the people of North Korea and South Korea.

First of all, it brings great joy to my heart to be introduced by Joseph Kim. I mean, this guy is one incredibly courageous person. He has seen the full horrors of oppression in North Korea. He was orphaned during the famine; he scrounged for food on the streets of North Korea; he eventually escaped to China; and he came to America. He attends Bard College. He has written a book – if you’re interested, it’s called “Under the Same Sky.” And I am thrilled that Joseph came back to the Bush Center. And I want to thank him for keeping the promise that someday Korea will be whole and free.

You’re about to hear from Grace Jo as well. She, too, is a North Korean refugee. She goes to Montgomery College. She is a sweet soul, and we are honored you’re here, Grace. Thank you for coming.

There are other North Korean refugees here. We thank you for coming. We appreciate your courage, and we look forward to your input about how best the Bush Institute and those who are with us can help you.

I know there are some distinguished people here: Laura. (Laughter.)

Joe Lieberman, the great Senator from Connecticut, who is one courageous person when it comes to doing what is right for freedom in the world. We’re thrilled you’re here, Joe. Retirement isn’t all that bad a deal, is it? (Laughter.) You look refreshed being outside of Washington. (Laughter.)

Somebody who isn’t so refreshed but is doing a fabulous job is the Senator from Colorado, Cory Gardner. Thank you for coming, Senator. We appreciate your service, and I want to thank you for being one of the architects of tougher sanctions on North Korean officials for human rights violations.

Ambassador Robert King, Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, has joined us. Robert, thank you for coming. Appreciate your good work. You’ll hear from Robert and the other two I introduced soon.

We have members of the Korean-American community. So, part of the purpose here is to encourage all Americans, but the best leaders will be Korean-Americans who have benefited from living in America to help those who have sought freedom.

We have some notables with us: the great KJ Choi, golfer, Dallas-area resident, co-captain of the President’s Cup international team that came in second to the Americans. (Laughter.) Anyway, really good guy. As is Chan Ho Park, who had a great major league baseball career, actually pitched for the Rangers for a while. Chan Ho lives with his three young girls in Los Angeles. We thank you for coming. Then my great friend, Roy Ryu. South Korean citizen, cares deeply about the people of North Korea – after all, he married a woman who was born in North Korea. He’s a great friend of mine, and 41’s. And so we appreciate you being here, Roy.


Ken Hersh runs our Center; Ken is a smart guy who has really brought a lot of energy to this building. We appreciate it. Holly Kuzmich, Executive Director, is with us. My friend Tom Bernstein is Chairman of the Human Freedom Advisory Council. Tommy, we thank you for helping, a lot. Thanks for bringing Andi. Amanda Schnetzer, who you heard from. Lindsay Lloyd is the Deputy Director. And then the moderator of today’s conversations is Mike Gerson, columnist, former speechwriter for President Bush, and one of the really strong advocates for human freedom.

So people ask, you know, we can do a lot of things here. And we do. We think they’re very important. And for those of you who don’t know what we do, please look it up, and I think you’ll think it’s important. But people ask, why North Korea? Of all the places, why should the Bush Center be thinking about North Korea? And there are several reasons. One is, North Korea is the remnant of the last century. It is one of the last Cold War conflicts. It’s the last gasp of totalitarianism. It’s the last fortress of a kind of tyranny that is beginning to leave the earth.

One such tyrant who left the earth last week was Fidel Castro. Like the North Korean leaders, he imprisoned his own people. Like the North Korean leaders, he ruined his country’s economy. And like the North Korean people, the Cuban people deserve better.

North Korea represents a grave security threat. It shows how the proliferation of deadly technology can allow small leaders – failed, cruel and criminal leaders – to threaten and disrupt the world on a grand scale. With every successful missile test, the reach of a great danger advances – from Seoul, to Tokyo, to across the Pacific.

There are no easy policy solutions. But any serious response must begin by accepting reality. There is no way to detach ourselves from events in East Asia. Our future and the future of that region are closely linked. Eventually, there is no isolation from proliferation, no safety in distance.

North Korea also presents the greatest, sustained humanitarian challenge of our time. The whole country is a prison, run by a sadistic warden. The North Korean people have suffered decades of oppression, and famine, and violence. By controlling access to the broader world, the North Korean government has tried to make this nightmare seem normal to its victims.

Some argue that the spirit of the North Korean people has been beaten into submission so total that opposition is unthinkable. We don’t believe that here. The desire for freedom, like the dignity of the person, is universal. A hope placed in human hearts by God cannot be removed by Kim Jong-un. The regime attempts to control every mind, every tongue, every life. But the refugees with us today demonstrate that no oppressor can control the soul. The North Korean people are pleading in silence for their freedom. And the world needs to listen. And the world needs to respond.

These two elements – the security challenge and the humanitarian challenge – are closely linked. The threat we face arises out of the nature of the North Korean regime itself. The lesson of history is clear: A country that does not respect the rights of its people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.

This is one of the main arguments of an excellent report that Victor Cha and Bob Gallucci have put together. Thank you all for coming. These men are two of the foremost experts on North Korea. One’s a Democrat; one’s a Republican. They make a strong case that security and human rights are inseparable. They make a strong case that the promotion of human dignity is not a distraction from security policy; it is a distinct advantage in pursuing that policy.

That was the theory of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which I was honored to sign. We set out to expand help for North Korean refugees and to expose the horrible conditions faced by their countrymen. Over the years, the tightening of sanctions against specific North Korean officials has complicated the work of what is essentially a criminal enterprise. And the groundbreaking United Nations Commission of Inquiry Report has further isolated the North Korean government by focusing global attention on its brutal and aggressive nature.

Victor and Bob’s report sets out a range of options for a renewed North Korean policy: reassuring important allies in the region, integrating non-proliferation and human rights sanctions, going after slave labor exports that fund weapons development, encouraging information flows into North Korea and expanding diplomatic pressure. They have put together a good roadmap.

This is a timely moment – after all, our country’s about to have a new Administration, which of course has every right to choose its own direction. They can take advice or not. But there is one option that can’t be chosen – the option of drifting, because that current would lead toward disaster. Denial provides only the shallow and temporary illusion of security. And leadership on this matter cannot be delegated to others. A successful response will require unprecedented global cooperation. But it can only be led by one country: the United States.

There is another way to show our commitment to human rights for the North Korean people: by supporting the refugees in our midst. The Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative is issuing a second report today, based on a survey of North Korean refugees in the U.S. It shows a small but highly motivated community of exceptional people. It also reveals real need in the areas of education and employment. This is a set of problems where the private sector, including the Korean-American community – and by the way, we have some young Korean-Americans from New York City who have helped fund the project Laura will announce, who have flown down to be with us. Coming to the aid of men and women who have fled the worst tyranny in the world is in our national interest. It is in the interest of the Korean-American community. It is in the interest of those who have hearts for those who suffer in our country.

The warm welcome of refugees is one of the truest expressions of our national character. It shows the broad reach of American ideals and the good heart the American people. Refugees often risk everything – everything, including their life – to come to America. Whatever their background, they deserve our sympathy, not our contempt.

The threat from North Korea, and the cruel oppression of its people, are urgent and related problems. Free nations cannot accept a future on terms set by this brutal and unstable regime. Technology is bringing closer the threats of a dangerous world. Technology can also carry a message of God-given rights and dignity the other direction. And that is a form of power as well: the untamed power of freedom to reach the darkest corners of our world.

It is not foreign policy “realism” to ignore the deepest aspirations of humanity. Yes, we defend ourselves along a tense demilitarized zone – and we are grateful to American and Republic of Korea troops who stand guard on the last rampart of the Cold War. But we also defend ourselves by taking the side of the North Korean people. They deserve better than brutality and tyranny. They deserve to determine their own future. And that would bring real peace to the Korean peninsula – the only true and lasting peace: A peace founded on human freedom.

Thank you all for coming. God bless.


Thank you, Jensen. Thank you for introducing me. And thank you for sharing the story of your courageous mother and grandmother. Refugee stories, like your family’s, inspire all of us.

Public opinion research conducted by the Bush Institute shows that 70 percent of Americans are aware of the human rights abuses in North Korea. And the same percentage of Americans believe that it is important that we help refugees from North Korea. But what few Americans know is that there already is a small, but growing, community of North Korean refugees living right here in the United States.


In 2004, President Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Act into law. That legislation supported funding for efforts to bring information to North Koreans. Even though North Koreans are at risk of arrest, they are still seeking information, news, and entertainment from foreign radio, television, and other sources, and we believe they deserve the right to receive it.

The North Korea Human Rights Law led to the creation of the office of the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights. Ambassador Bob King has done a terrific job to ensure that American diplomacy would give North Korean rights the attention it deserves. Thank you, Bob, for your service.

Most importantly, the North Korea Human Rights Law created a pathway for North Korean refugees to seek asylum in the United States. To date, approximately 200 men, women, and children have traveled to the United States for the chance at a new life.

Think for a moment about the journey we just witnessed in the video. You are living in the most isolated country on earth, and you make the decision to escape. You know you might be caught, arrested, and executed. You illegally cross into China, where you risk being deported back to North Korea. If you are a woman, you might become a victim of trafficking, or forced into prostitution or marriage against your will. You journey across China, to another country in Southeast Asia. If you’re lucky enough to make it that far, you face a choice.

For most, the only reasonable option is going to South Korea, where the language and culture are more familiar. But a very brave few make the decision to come to America. And as you’ll hear in a moment, they are remarkable men and women.

Like any refugee, though, they face countless challenges. Refugees typically receive about six months of formal support upon arrival in the United States. They are guided as they look for a place to live and a first job, and they are taught some of the basics about how to navigate life in America. But then, refugees are expected to make it on their own.

Over the last two years, the Bush Institute has conducted two studies of North Koreans living in the United States. And what we found was encouraging. Although it’s difficult, most North Koreans are adjusting well. They are working, in some cases multiple jobs, and providing for their families.

When we asked them about their dreams and goals, several spoke of their desire to improve themselves through education. But they find it difficult, given high education costs and their commitments to family and work. At the Bush Center, we want to help these refugees on their path to success.

And so, today, I am pleased to announce the Bush Institute’s scholarship and mentoring program for North Koreans living in the United States.

We worked with people around the country, especially in the Korean-American community, to raise money to kick start the fund. Nearly $300,000 has been raised for the scholarship, surpassing our initial goal. Eligible applicants can seek support to study at accredited four-year universities, community colleges, as well as trade and vocational programs.

Applications can be submitted beginning January 1, 2017, and the first awards will be announced next spring. We look forward to working with our neighbors at the Communities Foundation of Texas, which will house and manage the fund.

The Bush Center is proud to work with leaders in the Korean-American community on this important initiative. As you’ll hear in our next panel, many refugees are already working to educate the public about the realities of North Korea. By standing with them, we can help prepare the refugees to be ambassadors for the North Korean people, and to be voices for those who remain trapped behind Pyongyang’s iron curtain.

Thanks to all of you who have supported this effort. And now, we invite others to join us. The success of these brave men and women brings us closer to the day when all North Koreans will live in freedom.

Thank you.

Photo credit: George W. Bush Institute

President George W. Bush

First Lady Laura Bush