What’s the best way to fight the dictatorships of the world? Look at the activities of the State Department these days and you’d think that sending tweets is an example of furious action. These days a combination of prudence and traditionally excessive bureaucratic caution keeps our Foreign Service officers securely protected in our embassies.
But surely there’s something that can be done to fight the world’s tyrants, as Matt Labash shows in this excellent profile of Thor Halvorssen in the Weekly Standard.
Halvorssen is not yet forty, but he is a particularly dynamic social entrepreneur, having created three useful organizations. He began by co-founding the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which fights for free speech on college campuses. Next came the Moving Picture Institute, which teaches students how to write and direct freedom-oriented films. But his primary effort these days is the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), which Labash profiles.
As Labash notes, there are larger and better-established human rights organizations competing for donors’ dollars. But a report commissioned by HRF shows that these groups (or at least their American branches) spend far more time on the domestic problems of the U.S. than dealing with international tyrants. The American branch of Amnesty International, for example, spent 56.3 percent of its reports on domestic reports and only 4.3 percent on Cuba, which, as of 2014, still had 114 political prisoners in that country’s gulag. Human Rights Watch last year produced a report on “Tobacco’s Hidden Children,” devoted to the allegation that tobacco farms in the U.S. used child labor.
According to Labash, Halvorssen calls himself a “classical liberal,” and his donors include the Templeton and Shelby Cullom Davis foundations. He says that he has been turned down by one major donor, Sweden’s Sigrid Rausing, who Labash says “walked out of a meeting in a huff” because the Human Rights Foundation has gotten money from the Bradley Foundation (which no longer supports the organization).
Halvorssen is the antithesis of an ivory-tower egghead. He “keeps vampire hours” and could be anywhere in the world, fighting tyrants or making deals in Hollywood. (The Internet Movie Database credits Halvorssen with being the producer of nine documentaries. The only one I’ve seen is U.N. Me, which is a funny and informative first-person look by Ami Horwitz at the failures of the United Nations.) Halvorssen also hires people who would probably be rejected by most human resources departments, such as a tech genius known here as “Pink Hair” because, well, he has pink hair.
The HRF has a staff of twelve, and manage to do quite a lot. They hold an annual conference in Oslo, where such surviving victims of communism as Armando Valladares and Vladimir Bukovsky meet other survivors of tyranny. They also have a small but very active unit devoted to denouncing stars such as Jennifer Lopez who get million-dollar paydays entertaining the world’s thugs. This ensures that Howard Stern, Labash writes, “does twenty minutes of material on Turkmenistan, which he couldn’t previously locate on a map.” (Labash quotes Stern impersonating Lopez: “I want to say everybody raise their glasses, let’s hear it for concentration camps! Now I’d like to sing ‘Jenny from the Block.’”)
But the activity Halvorssen seems to enjoy the most is direct action against tyrants. In 2010, the Vietnamese police beat up him and a cameraman after they did an interview with Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam's Thich Quang Do, who had been under house arrest for twenty-eight years because the Vietnamese banned his church.
Most of Labash’s long article consists of Halvorssen and South Korean freedom fighters are uniting to battle the North Koreans. This is a very good call, because North Korea combines classic Marxist dictatorship with a fervent worship of the leader. Not even the most fanatical acolyte of Joseph Stalin would ever claim, as North Korean propagandists contend of Kim Jong Un, that the dictator never defecates (which, Labash says, “would explain a lot” about Kim’s behavior).
Labash travels with Halvorssen to a small village near the North Korean frontier, where he meets Park Sang-hak, who has been declared “Enemy Zero” by the North Koreans because of his fervent efforts to fight the North Korean regime. (After Park defected, the North Koreans had his uncle killed.) They then try to launch the balloons into North Korea. The word comes back that the balloon launch failed, but GPS tracking enables them to do a better job next time.
A dozen defectors tell Labash their stories—how they starved in concentration camps and lost limbs trying to escape. The dissidents’ stories are important, Labash says, because these are the people “to whom freedom means something that those of us who are born free can only play at understanding.”
Halvorssen’s final activity consists of an interview on Channel A, a South Korean news network.
What surprises me [Halvorssen says] is that so many South Koreans are not interested in helping the North Korean people. Some South Koreans don’t care. Some South Koreans are afraid. What are they afraid of? They are afraid of this man, and this man, and this man.
Halvorssen then rips up the portraits of the dynasty of dictators who have ruled North Korea for nearly seven decades: Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kin Jong Un. The North Koreans notice, denouncing Halvorssen and his allies as “human scum” and “the plot-breeders of the U.S.”
You might think what Halvorssen and his colleagues do are stunts. But if you’re a donor interested in fighting tyranny—that’s a job the Human Rights Foundation does every day. Matt Labash shows in his excellent profile is that Thor Halvorssen is very good at what he does.
NOTE: Wired has a very good article by Andy Greenberg about another Korean group that works with the Human Rights Foundation, the North Korea Strategy Center. The center’s director, Kang Chol-hwan, explains that smuggling USB sticks with American TV shows and films is vital for undermining the North Koreans’ faith in communism. “When North Koreans see ‘Desperate Housewives’, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” Kang says. ‘They’re just people having affairs or whatever. They see the leisure, the freedom. They realize that this isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves. It cancels out everything they’ve been told. And it starts a revolution in their mind.”
One day late in 2013, the North Koreans executed eleven people for “possessing illegal media.”