Friday, 11 October 2013

North Korea; Still One of the World's Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)

North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)
On September 27-28, 2013 I attended a conference in Toronto organized by the non-governmental group, The Council for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK Canada). This is a group of Korean-Canadians and others who have been trying to bring the plight of people living in North Korea—both ordinary North Koreans and political prisoners—to the attention of the wider Canadian public. So far they have managed to get several members of Parliament interested in this problem, and indeed, received a statement by Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney during the conference proclaiming September 28 “North Korean Human Rights Day.”
North Korean prison in Pyongyang- Wiki Commons
For me, the most powerful part of this conference was listening (in translation) to the testimony of Ahn Myong-Chol, a former prison guard who escaped from North Korea and has been working with other defectors to expose the terrible conditions in the gulag there. He has written a book which is unfortunately not yet in English. He did not apply for the job of prison guard: he was assigned to it because his father was a member of the Korean Workers’ Party, so Ahn himself was “entitled” to a Party job.
When Ahn first arrived at the camp, he was encouraged to kill prisoners if he felt like it. He was ashamed to tell us that he took part in a custom of using prisoners as human punching bags when practicing martial arts; prisoners would be tied to a post and guards would kick and punch them.  Once he heard prisoners crying and screaming, and rushed over to find prison dogs attacking small children, three of whom died. Children are sent to prison camps in North Korea along with their parents, when their parents are accused of crimes: some children are even born there (see Blaine Harden’s 2012 book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, about Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born in a prison camp and escaped).  Dogs are trained to recognize the distinctive smell of starving, maltreated prisoners, so that they can find anyone who tries to escape.
Ahn also witnessed several public executions, as one of his jobs was to drive the prisoners to the execution grounds. Prisoners were gagged so that they could not shout out any criticisms of the regime at the last moment. Family members were forced to witness the executions and were tortured or killed if they showed any emotion.
After eight years on the job Ahn was given his first vacation. When he arrived home, he discovered his family had disappeared. Asking around, he learned that his father had got drunk one night and blamed the North Korean leadership (probably Kim Jong-il, the second of the three Kims in the hereditary dynasty) for starving his people. The next day, knowing he would be arrested and imprisoned for criticizing Kim, he took his own life. But suicide in North Korea is a crime, so Ahn’s mother and two younger siblings were arrested and imprisoned: Ahn never saw them again.
The Tumen River at the Chinese-North Korean border- Wiki Commons
Some participants at the conference asked why someone--the UN, the West?—didn’t just invade North Korea and overturn the regime. There are all sort of geopolitical reasons why this won’t happen.  The route to changing North Korea’s horrible system is to put pressure on China. There are good reasons why China should no longer support North Korea: China’s prestige suffers when it supports such a brutal regime, and the North Koreans are a security threat to China, conducting nuclear tests close to the Chinese border. Also, so long as people continue to suffer from starvation and near-starvation in North Korea, they will flee to China. So it’s in China’s interests to stem that refugee flow by forcing North Korea to change the policies that permit it to starve its people to death.
Another way to change the North Korean political system is through information: it seems that the more North Koreans learn about the outside world, the better. A couple of years ago, through HRNK,  I listened to a defector who sent balloons from South to North Korea with DVDs in them: each balloon was also covered with writing explaining the real conditions of life in South Korea and the outside world. This defector had himself decided to leave North Korea when he read a pamphlet that had been dropped by activists; when I heard him, the North Koreans had already sent agents south to try to murder him.
Recently, activists have been able to put enough pressure on the United Nations and its member states that the UN Human Rights Council has now established a Commission of Inquiry into North Korea.  This is an important step in getting the UN as a whole to pay attention to the atrocities there. Departing from the usual practice of Commissions of Inquiry, this Commission is holding public hearings. Its report may pressure to UN to adopt further actions.  The best action would be to refer North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and some of his cronies to the International Criminal Court, where they could be tried for crimes against humanity including murder, slavery, and deprivation of food.  However, that would probably be blocked at the UN Security Council by China and Russia, although it appears China is getting increasing fed up with North Korea.
If you want to help North Koreans, I suggest (if you are Canadian) writing to your local Member of Parliament to show your support for measures to investigate North Korea’s appalling crimes and to indict its leaders for crimes against humanity. Also, whether you are Canadian or not, write to the Chinese Ambassador to your country, asking them to pressure North Korea to change and to stop supporting it with arms, money, or luxury goods for its leaders.  
And there’s one piece of good news in all this: international pressure does make a difference.  Ahn said that around 1992 he was told that he was no longer permitted to kill prisoners just because he felt like it. The reason was that Amnesty International had become interested in the prison camps, and the regime was afraid of an international inquiry. Ahn encouraged us all to keep up the pressure on this absolutely monstrous government.
For more on North Korea, see my blogs “Cannibalism in North Korea” March 20, 2013, and “North Korean Slave Labour, September 11, 2012, as well as my article *2012. “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, no. 2/3, pp. 147-65.

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