PEN Journey 13: PEN and the U.N. in a Changing World

PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey might be of interest.


We sat on one side of the dining table at the embassy in Geneva drinking orange Fanta—Sara Whyatt, Coordinator of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), Fawzia Assaad, member of Suisse Romand PEN and liaison for PEN at the UN Human Rights Commission, and myself, Chair of PEN International’s WiPC. On the other side of the table visibly sweating sat three diplomats from North Korea.

The week before, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had visited the same embassy. The United Nations Human Rights Commission was meeting in Geneva, and PEN, which had consultative status at the U.N., had sent us as representatives to the Commission meetings with targeted cases and country reports, including one on North Korea. The year 1994 was a time of potential thawing in relations with North Korea, and the diplomats on the other side of the table were telling us how they would like to have a PEN Center in North Korea.

(l to r) Fawzia and Joanne at UN Human Rights Commission

Fawzia, who was ready to reach out to people, agreed that could be a possible step, but Sara and I gently nudged her under the table and explained that there were certain important criteria in a country for a PEN center to exist. The criteria included some measure of freedom of expression and an acknowledgement of this value though admittedly the extent of freedom varied in countries with PEN Centers. We asked if writers and their families who have been separated since the war might meet on neutral ground. The Counsellor answered, “Why not?” We asked if North Korea would open itself to visits by writers from abroad to discuss freedom of expression. The Counsellor again answered, “Why not?” We agreed that a first step could  include an exchange of writers.

As the dinner and conversation proceeded, we all noticed the visible discomfort and sweat on the brows of the diplomats. We later speculated who might have been listening, perhaps on a device or behind the curtain on the other side of the table. Finally the young daughter of the senior diplomat was introduced to the room and entertained us on a traditional Korean musical instrument which she played as she sang Swiss folksongs.

The meeting was one of the more surreal in my tenure as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. None of our requests came to pass, and it wasn’t until almost two decades later in 2012 that PEN finally welcomed a North Korean PEN Center In Exile, whose members had managed to get out of North Korea with harrowing stories of escape. [Ref. JLA blog Sept. 2012]

Page 1 PEN International’s submission on Detention and Imprisonment of Writers and Journalists to the UN Human Rights Commission

For the past 70 years, PEN International has maintained consultative status at the United Nations. This status has meant that PEN International’s reports and activities are both supported through UNESCO funding and are received and considered in UN forums, particularly at the UN Human Right Commission and in UNESCO.

After World War II UNESCO, whose mission was “building peace in the minds of men and women” through education, science and culture, looked to start organizations in these sectors. For theater and the arts it created the International Theatre Institute which creates platforms for the international exchange and engagement in the performing arts. However, when it came to creating an organization for literature, UNESCO recognized that PEN already existed, and so it has worked with and supported PEN congresses, conferences and programs around the world. These programs have also included the work of PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) which developed the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, also known as the Barcelona Declaration, passed by PEN in 1996 when the current Executive Director of PEN International Carles Torner chaired the TLRC.

Though PEN continues its relationship with the U.N., UNESCO’s budget has declined over the years as has its financial support and PEN’s dependency. PEN officials, including myself, have still visited UNESCO headquarters in Paris and UNESCO representatives still attend PEN conferences and congresses. But the change in both funding and governance for PEN International can be traced back to the years of the fin de siècle when governance around the world was challenged to include wider democratic vistas.

At PEN’s subsequent congress in Perth, Australia in 1995, conversations began regarding a change in governance for PEN, and by PEN’s 75th Anniversary in 1996 at the congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, the momentum for change became inexorable.

But first, meetings in Bled, Slovenia with the Peace Committee and further campaigns on writers threatened around the world.

PEN Writers in Prison Committee Centre to Centre newsletter, Aug/Sept. 1994


Next Installment: PEN Journey 14: Speaking Out: PEN’s Peace Committee and Exile Network

North Korean Writers in a Land of the Rising Sun

I’m flying home from the 78th PEN International Congress in Gyeongju (Kyongju), South Korea, peering out the airplane window under the shade at the floor of clouds. The sun is just beginning to emerge above the horizon, turning the white billowing floor red as if fire were simmering beneath. On the horizon the orange-yellow line of sunlight glows then diffuses into the blue sky. The sun itself suddenly appears, a solid bold globe of fire, and the fire beneath the clouds grows dark.

However many sunrises I watch in however many circumstances—on air planes, on a beach, in a city building, I take pause in wonder, breathe in and watch the larger movement of life.

Returning at 30,000 feet from a conference of writers from 85 PEN Centers around the world, I remember the first time I was in Korea 24 years ago—over 8700 sunrises ago. At PEN’s Congress in Seoul in 1988, a week before the Olympic Games security was high with bomb sniffing dogs and extensive car checks. The political environment was tense. Writers and publishers were in prison in South Korea, and PEN was divided on how to conduct its business in a country where freedom of expression was challenged.  A contingent visited the writers in prison; I visited with the family of one of the writer/publishers. We lobbied inside and outside the official Congress for the freedom of these writers. After the Congress a number were released, including the one whose family I had visited.

Now 24 years later there are no writers or publishers in prison in South Korea. The PEN gathering in the mountainous city of Gyeongju, the ancient capitol of the Shilla Dynasty where the rays of the rising sun first touch the land, focused instead on writers from North Korea, where there is no freedom.

“People in North Korea are deprived of their human rights. It is a living hell,” said one North Korean writer who escaped. “I ask help of writers around the world.”

Myourng-hak Do, a North Korean poet was imprisoned for writing two satiric poems, ‘The Country of Hunchbacks’ and ‘Pass the One-eyed,’ which told the real story of a one-eyed man being conscripted into the Army when North Korea was experiencing severe depopulation. The Army said he could shoot with the remaining eye. These poems were private, never published nor submitted for publication, but were shared with a friend who turned out to be a spy

“The security department instructed the prison guards to treat me especially cruelly. Prisoners in the camp were forced to wake up at 5am and sit motionless until 11pm. The pain was beyond imagination,” he said.

Before his arrest, Myourng-hak Do had been a member of the Joseon Writers Alliance and was supposed “to compose dozens of poems that inspired loyalty to the regime.”

Young-soon Kim, a North Korean dancer turned writer, grew up in a favored position because her brother had been a young army general who had been killed in battle. She had a close friend Seong Hye-rim, who was the second wife of Kim Jong-il and the mother of Kim’s oldest son.  “One day she dropped by my house and told me that she would go to ‘house No. 5’ (the residence of Kim Jong-il) I doubtingly asked her about her [real] husband….She didn’t reply…It was the last time I saw her.  After she went into the house, she got completely disconnected from the outside world. And I had no idea that a horrible fate would soon befall me because of my relation with my friend.”

Young-soon Kim was imprisoned without knowing the reason or the term.  Eight of her family members were also detained. “My aged parents starved to death…To simply express how I spent nine years in the camp, I ate everything that flied or crawled, and I ate every grass on earth…..Prisoners in the camp are treated worse than animals until their death.”

Young-soon Kim managed to escape after nine years and made her way to the South. “I realized anyone among a population of 50 million can freely publish books and that people read and actively talked about books by foreign writers. The saying ‘people make books, and books make people’ is one that deeply touches my heart.

“I came to South Korea in the later years of my life, but I have no regrets. Life has a beginning and an end. And the glow from a sunset is as beautiful as a sunrise.  I will write to let the world know about what I have been through.”

Young-soon Kim and Myoung-ha Do are two of the founding members of the new North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center which was voted in as the 145th center of PEN International on the closing day of its 78th Assembly.