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The Bright Lights of Freedom

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The Bright Lights of Freedom

The Bright Lights of Freedom

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(Soundbite of This I Believe Introduction)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Monday's we bring you This I Believe, our revival of the 1950's Edward R. Murrow series soliciting statements of personal conviction from people in all walks of life. Today our essay comes from Harold Hongju Koh. He is Dean of Yale Law School and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Here is our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON reporting:

When people write for our series, they sometimes say it took them months to define a core belief and distill it into a few hundred words. One writer said it was like packing for a long trip in an overnight bag. Not Harold Koh. He said he knew immediately the belief he wanted to write about, as his life has been built around it. Here is Harold Hongju Koh with his essay for This I Believe.

Mr. HAROLD HONGJU KOH (Dean, Yale Law School): I believe that freedom is contagious. My parents were born in South Korea and came here more than 50 years ago. They came for the education and for the freedom. They grew up under Japanese colonial rule, forbidden to speak Korean or even to use their Korean names. When their country was divided after World War II, my mother and her family were trapped in North Korea. In desperation, they hiked for days to the border to be picked up and were brought back to Seoul. But even there, they lived under dictatorship.

For less than a year in the 1960s, Korea enjoyed democracy. My father joined the diplomatic corps. But one day, tanks rolled and a coup d'etat toppled the government, leaving us to grow up in America. My father savored freedom like he savored fresh air. He loved the freedom to follow his passions, for John F. Kennedy, for Fred Astaire, for Ted Williams. Driving down the road, he would turn and exclaim, This is a great, great country. Here we can do what we want.

During the summer that Nixon resigned, I was visiting Seoul. Someone tried to assassinate Korea's president and he declared martial law. I called my father and marveled that Korea had never enjoyed a peaceful transition of government. Meanwhile, the world's most powerful government had just changed hands without anyone firing a shot. He said, Now you see the difference. In a democracy, if you're President, then the troops obey you. In a dictatorship, if the troops obey you, then you are President.

And so I studied law, became a law professor and dean, and eventually a human rights official for the State Department. I traveled to scores of countries. Everywhere I went, Haiti, Indonesia, China, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, I saw in the eyes of thousands the same fire for freedom I had first seen in my father's eyes. Once an Asian dictator told us to stop imposing our Western values on his people. He said, We Asians don't feel the same way as Americans do about human rights. I pointed to my own face and told him he was wrong.

As my time in government ended, I traveled to North Korea. In the eyes of everyone, children, workers, government officials, I saw the lifeless, unfocused stares I had first read about in Orwell's 1984. I saw people whose aspirations had been crushed by a government that would not provide for their most basic needs. As we flew out of a darkened Pyongyang, I looked down to see where my mother had crossed the border so many years ago. As we approached Seoul, suddenly the landscape glowed with millions of lights. I realized that the only differences between the bright futures to the South and the dark futures to the North were the governments that ruled them. That is why I believe in the bright lights of freedom.

ALLISON: Harold Hongju Koh, with his essay for This I Believe. We hope you might write about your personal beliefs. To find out more and to see and hear all the essays in our series, plus many from the 1950's, visit our website, npr.org. You may also call 202-408-0300 for information.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

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