HRNK Latin America Travelogue: São Paulo, Brazil

Greg Scarlatoiu
Executive Director, HRNK


From April 17 to 19, I visited São Paulo, Brazil, the first of three South American destinations in a week-long speaking tour organized by South Korea’s National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC) aimed at informing ethnic Koreans about the human rights situation in North Korea. The event in São Paulo brought together about 100 participants, ranging from young second-generation ethnic Koreans in their 20s to Korean War veterans.

Upon arriving in Brazil, I was warmly greeted and looked after by a Korean community that has preserved its traditional values while also embracing the local culture. As a naturalized American who grew up in Romania and spent a decade in South Korea, I decidedly felt at home. The streets and the people reminded me of Romania. Having dinner and a great conversation about soccer, gymnastics, the Cold War, history, Romania, Brazilian politics and the two Koreas over wine until midnight reminded me more of Bucharest than Seoul.

Although my gracious hosts were extraordinarily knowledgeable guides, I barely needed any explanation. I was very much aware of what was going on, regardless of whatever I saw. For example, there is no “inheritance tax” in Brazil. The children inherit one hundred percent of the parents’ fortune. Many of the rich stay rich, and many of the poor stay poor. On the other hand, taxation is harsh and it is the fewer haves who must bear the brunt of it, supporting the many have-nots. But progress is also surely possible in Brazil. The Korean community here is testament to the possibility of fulfilling one's dreams here. The first Korean immigrants arrived in Brazil almost empty-handed in 1965, but through entrepreneurship and hard work they have prospered.. And yet, the happiness index is through the roof! There is a truly unique lifestyle and approach towards life and happiness. People seem content with whatever amount they have in their pockets, rather than despairing over the opportunities they will never have. Korean Brazilians told me about the good and the bad, but there was absolutely no sign of any grievances in their description of their adoptive home. Rather, they think that shortcomings in Brazilian society have created great opportunities for them and their employees. After my presentation, I read an excerpt from the Portuguese language monthly magazine of the Korean community here. Then, I read the Romanian translation. Everybody understood!


The 50,000-strong Korean community in Brazil is resilient and prosperous. Around 95 percent live in São Paulo, the business center of Brazil. (Brasilia is its political center, and Rio de Janeiro is the focus of tourist activities.) The first Korean immigrants arrived in Brazil before the 1905 annexation of Korea by Imperial Japan, and Koreans began to arrive in significant numbers in the mid-1960s. The immigrants had a rough start, but they made the best of their opportunities. This is a familiar story: Korean immigrants, arriving in an unfamiliar land, thrived and succeeded as natural-born entrepreneurs. The only place where Koreans are not allowed to fulfill their extraordinary potential is North Korea, and this will eventually change.

Interestingly, some of the earlier immigrants were former colonels in the South Korean military, and some of them attended my lecture. Farmers who joined the first significant wave of Korean immigrants did not know which land was fertile, and many of them failed. In the 1960s, during the days of the Park Chung-Hee administration in South Korea, hard currency was scarce. The South Koreans who immigrated to Brazil could only bring limited amounts of cash in U.S. dollars, but they brought a lot of clothes. Finding themselves in dire straits, they began selling the only asset they had—clothes—door to door, and were wildly successful. They told others planning on coming to Brazil to forget about everything else and bring clothes instead. Eventually, Korean immigrants established their own textile factories and became major suppliers of textiles in Brazil. Textiles continue to be their main specialty to this day. Although many young Korean Brazilians seek college degrees overseas, especially in the United States and in South Korea, I was told that Korean Brazilians are here to stay. Koreans in other South American countries may always dream of returning to Korea, but most Korean Brazilians do not; they are extraordinarily fond of their home.

Brazil is the only country in South America that has diplomatic relations with both Koreas. I am told that North Korean diplomats found themselves in trouble in a recent incident that was covered by the Brazilian press. The North Korean regime conducts illicit activities to raise the hard currency necessary to sustain itself, and these activities include the sale of arms, illegal drugs, cigarettes, and medicine as well as the use of counterfeit currency. In South America, Pyongyang’s activities are centered on Cuban cigars. In the fall of 2015, North Korean diplomats were caught trying to smuggle 3,800 Cuban cigars worth at least $100,000 in their diplomatic pouches. The merchandise was confiscated, but they were allowed to walk free, protected by their diplomatic immunity.

Since the release of the UN Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report in 2014, Brazil has voted in favor of each and every UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolution addressing North Korean human rights. However, young Brazilian activists attending my lecture worried that ill-informed college students are not getting North Korea right, and may even be influenced by propaganda agents of the Kim regime. Despite Brazil’s voting record at the UN, they fear that the Brazilian government may move closer to North Korea under the guise of “neutrality.” They are disenchanted to know that Brazil, a country of 200 million that seeks to play a major role and even join an expanded UN Security Council one day, often acts as an “irrelevant minor power” on the international scene. They hope that Brazil can play a role in the process of reunifying South and North Korea. They hope that, just like the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea, Brazil could also consider passing a North Korean Human Rights Act. However, only one day after Brazil’s lower house voted to impeach the president, they told me they have to get their own house in order first. I told them that the two objectives are not mutually exclusive. Brazil can surely work on getting its own house in order while also seeking to play an active role on Korean peninsula issues.

But it was evident that not everyone in the audience was convinced by the findings of the UN COI or its determination that crimes against humanity are being committed in North Korea pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state. I heard the usual questions from those trying to challenge the findings of human rights investigators, which are firmly grounded in satellite imagery analysis and North Korean defector testimony: “How many times have you been to North Korea? I watched a TV program that spoke about numerous, numerous foreigners living in North Korea, especially British citizens…”

And what is the answer to those questions? The North Korean regime does not allow human rights organizations to conduct site visits inside the country. It is deeply ironic that senior North Korean officials, including some of those directly responsible for provocations and attacks against South Korea as well as crimes against humanity and other egregious human rights violations, have actually visited South Korea! That was the case with Kim Yang-gon, the recently deceased head of the United Front Department, the agency in charge of operating intelligence assets in South Korea. That was surely the case with Kim Il-nam, the chief of the internal security agency in charge of running the political prison camps, the State Security Department (SSD), in North Korea’s South Hamgyong Province. Even Ri Sol-ju, the North Korean leader’s wife, appears to have visited South Korea as a cheerleader during the 2005 Asia Athletics Championships! However, North Korea has not allowed the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in North Korea or the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct on-site investigations. If presented with the opportunity to do that, my colleagues and I would be on our way to North Korea as soon as we could! While we wait for that miracle to happen, I must continue to rely on satellite imagery, defector testimony, the knowledge I acquired during the decade I spent in South Korea, and the bitter memories of growing up in communist Romania—the one Eastern European country that was most similar to Kim Il-sung’s North Korea.

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