Where there’s a will to help North Koreans, there’s a way

Starving children in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea are the focus of a complex undertaking by Rotarians.

“A small group of Rotarians and Rotoractors (young Rotarians) decided to establish a network that might facilitate the Rotary goals that we were trying achieve,” Rotarian Tom Wilkinson said. “The Rotary goal is to promote international understanding, good will and world peace. … If we’re really going to promote international understanding, and really believe that that is what we’re about, as Rotarians, then we have to explore those possibilities, always in that effort to bring about understanding.”

They established the Korean Friendship Network, a volunteer umbrella group of Rotarians from Shanghai, Hong Kong, the U.S., Italy and from Canada, networking with Rotary Clubs and Rotarians interested in humanitarian and educational projects in North Korea.

“It is needed to determine and develop relationships, not only with the people of North Korea but also with the few NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) to give them support as well as government officials and agencies which will help ensure that projects and material, especially such as food and medicine and equipment, get through the maze of bureaucracy, and, in fact, reach our intended recipients and not end up feeding the military,” Wilkinson said.

“ …The need was for starving children. … 75 per cent of the food production was lost in the floods.”

The group located and negotiated with an organization in the U.S. called, Feed My Starving Children. While Feed My Starving Children had the ability to prepare the food packages, it lacked ability to ship a container into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  … We found the shipping company. “

With all the obstacles in front of them, the group did manage to get the food packages into North Korea.

Rotaractors Gary Permenter and Michael Zhang travelled to North Korea at their own expense confirming that the food had in fact reached the children for whom it was intended.  The project has provided 273,000 meals to disabled and orphaned children.

Escaping North Korea via the Underground Railroad

More than 150 years ago, in antebellum America, the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, allowed slaves to escape to freedom. Today a similar network has been created by humanitarian groups and Christian missionaries, as well as by unscrupulous smugglers and brokers, to help North Koreans escape their modern-day slave state—a place where freedom of speech, religion and movement are all forbidden and where some 200,000 inmates are held in Stalinist gulags.

The escapees include North Korean women who have been sold to brothels as prostitutes or to Chinese farmers as brides against their will; defectors carrying state secrets; and ordinary men, women and children fleeing in search of food and a better life.

To trace the harrowing journey that refugees must undergo: first making their way across the border with China (which means traversing a major river and getting past numerous checkpoints and guards) and then making a long and risky trek across China to reach another country, usually in Southeast Asia, from which, if they are lucky, they find safe haven in South Korea or the West. The unlucky refugees, caught by the Chinese, are forcibly sent back.

The stories are just as moving for the Korean women who have been sold into prostitution or forced marriages in China. Their “half-and-half children” by Chinese men are unable to attend school or obtain medical care and may be “ripped from their mothers’ arms by Chinese policemen” and then abandoned if their Korean mothers are arrested and repatriated to North Korea. Pregnant women repatriated to the North suffer a special hell: “For the perceived crime of carrying ‘Chinese seed,’ their North Korean jailers force the repatriated women to undergo abortions, even in the final weeks of pregnancy.”

In all, some 24,000 North Koreans have thus far managed to flee to safety, and tens of thousands more are currently hiding in enclaves in northeastern China, under threat of repatriation by the Chinese regime. This new underground railroad is “a rare good-news story that foretells a happier future for that sad country.”

–From Sue Mi Terry’s book review of Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad” 

Read more on the Underground Railroad

North Korea home to at least 15 slave labor camps

North Korea is a country half the size of the State of Oregon, and home to at least 15 slave labor camps comparable to Auschwitz.

Quoting the North Korea Freedom Coalition:

“According to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, there exists a vast network of structured institutions for punishment in North Korea, including forced-labor colonies … along the North Korea-China border.

“Prisoners are brutally treated in these institutions with testimonies from North Korean defectors describing … torture, hard labor, starvation, forced abortions, infanticide, families of up to three generations imprisoned, detention without judicial process, public executions, chemical and medical experimentation on prisoners, and gas chambers, resulting in thousands of deaths. Comparisons have been frequently made to the Nazi concentration camps.

“For what crimes?… Virtually any state-defined crime such as: being a Christian, making a negative comment about the regime, failing to have a picture of Kim Il-Sung in their house and failure to keep it clean enough, traveling to China to look for food …”

North Korean Prison Camps and Detention Centers

An estimated 150 thousand to 200 thousand persons are believed to be held in detention camps in remote areas [of North Korea], including for political reasons.

NGO, refugee, and press reports indicated that there were several types of camps, and separate camps reportedly existed for political prisoners. Using commercial satellite imagery to bolster their assertions about the existence of the camps and point out their main features, defectors claimed the camps covered areas as large as 200 square miles. The camps contained mass graves, barracks, work sites, and other prison facilities. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

The government considered critics of the regime to be political criminals. Reports from past years described political offenses as including sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sung’s picture, mentioning Kim Il Sung’s limited formal education, or defacing photographs of the Kims.

Collective punishment reportedly was practiced in the past. Entire families, including children, have been imprisoned when one member of the family was accused of a crime.

According to refugees, in some places of detention prisoners were given little or no food and were denied medical care. Sanitation was poor, and refugees who escaped from labor camps continued to report that they were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing, nor were they given changes of clothing during months of incarceration.

— Excerpts from a U.S. State Department’s Human Rights report, on North Korea

North Korean prison camps Total Control Zones

German filmmaker Marc Wiese specializes in films about the atrocities of war and repression. His latest film, Camp 14 – Total Control Zone, is about Shin Don-Huyk, a young man who was born in a North Korean prison camp and who hardly knew anything about the outside world until he escaped and defected.

In painful interviews, Shin describes a life of extreme brutality. Prisoners at the camps are immediately shot for any infraction, sometimes on the whim of the guards. There is no hope of being set free. Most people are there for the merest perceived lack of respect for the government and authority. The recollections are grueling for Shin. He has no interest in seeing the finished doc, Wiese says.

And yet there is, for Shin now, but even for the prisoners in the camp, a strong will to live. “There is no logic. Life in the camp is so horrifying that you’d think as an outsider, like you and me, ‘why the hell would they want to survive?’ ” Wiese says. And yet, in the most inhuman conditions, that’s when the will to live remains primordial and unfailing.

Wiese says one day, he simply clicked on Google Earth, scrolled around North Korea, and immediately he found not only a city near the camp, but the camp itself. “I could see it! And I checked other camps. They are huge with 20,000 or 40,000 people in them. You can really see it on a regular personal computer. I was thinking .. just imagine in the Second World War if you could see, live, the concentration camps? That’s the reality today.”

North Korea accepts then rejects aid from South Korea

It was first reported that North Korea, reeling from a powerful tropical cyclone Bolaven, would accept aid from South Korean government for the first time in two years.

The United Nations World Food Program called for emergency help for North Korea after the cyclone killed at least 48 and left thousands homeless, according to North Korea’s state news agency KCNA.

The storm also destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of crops, according to a report published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). The storm followed widespread flooding in late July from heavy rains, which caused the death of at least 169 people, according to KCNA.

Employees from humanitarian groups that operate inside North Korea have described severe malnourishment on a large scale. A deal earlier this year for the United States to ship food aid to the country fell apart after the authoritarian regime in Pyongyang went ahead with a controversial rocket launch.

South Korea halted aid to the North after it shelled Yeongpyeong Island in November 2010, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. Pyongyang claimed it was retaliating for South Korean artillery landing in their waters during a military drill.

 

Jang Song Taek increased influence

A recent photograph of North Korea’s leader and his military entourage is stirring speculation that Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Taek, may have a new role.

Jang Song Taek North Korea brown uniformIn a country where the smallest details involving public appearances by North Korea’s leader are choreographed, a uniform change for a key insider is drawing notice. The vice chairman of the national defense commission, Jang Song Taek, has switched his military uniform from light to dark brown. (See front row, 2nd from left) All of the other top brass seen during a ceremony Sunday to mark the country’s 64th anniversary were clad in light brown.

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper in South Korea, quoting an intelligence official, says this means Jang, a four-star general who is the uncle of the new, young leader, Kim Jong Un, is now in charge of the most elite bodyguard unit. Analysts say the unit, which is linked to the army but not under its control, has tens of thousands of elite personnel, including intelligence operatives, with control over anti-artillery batteries, missiles, combat tanks and armored limousines. It would also be tasked with fending off any internal coup attempts.

Putting the man in the dark brown uniform in charge would further cement family ties between the elite unit’s leadership and the Kim dynasty. Jang is married to the daughter of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

Sixty-six year-old Kim Kyong Hui herself is also a four-star general – the first woman in North Korea to hold that rank – and seen in recent photographs looking comparatively frail. Elite defectors from the North frequently describe the only sister of the late Kim Jong Il as a powerful influence not only over her husband, but her nephew, as well. They say she has a reputation for being ill-mannered and struggling with alcoholism.

An analyst says based on Jang’s recent meeting with top officials in China and being among those to greet a religious delegation last week from South Korea, he can now be regarded as the second-in-command in Pyongyang controlling affairs of state.

Kim Jong Un, who is not yet 30 years of age, is regarded to have firmly secured his grip on power after succeeding his father who died at the age of 69 last December.

Thousands of North Koreans expected to starve

Information coming in from the grassroots network of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR) indicates that drought and starvation are seriously affecting South Hwanghae Province. The drought is wreaking havoc on the harvest, and threatening widespread starvation.

The Hwanghae region is the rice bowl of North Korea. It is important in providing rice for the military and the capital Pyongyang, but the regional government fears that they will not be able to carry out that function after two consecutive years of natural disasters.

The regional government has issued no official statistics on deaths. According to a Ministry of Agriculture official, however, who was sent to assess the situation, a low estimate would be twelve to thirteen thousand people starved between February and May, just in the Hwanghae region alone. Observers expect to see the number of victims continue rising indefinitely.

In order to address the problem, the government has ordered emergency rations. Although the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, visited Indonesia, Kampuchea, Laos and other countries to request food aid, results are still in question.

The Totalitarianism that is North Korea

Michael Kleen writes: North Korea is recognized as being one of the most oppressive totalitarian states in the world.

Yet in fact, North Korea has a constitution and holds regular elections with three competing political parties—the Workers’ Party of Korea , the Korean Social Democratic Party, and the Chondoist Chongu Party—all united under an organization called the “Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland”.

In April 2009, North Korea even revised its constitution to include Article 8 which reads, “The State respects and protects the human rights of the workers, peasants and working intellectuals …”

But just because a state maintains the structures and language of democracy and continues to have elections does not preclude it from being totalitarian.

Read more

North Korean totalitarianism

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, speaking at an American Enterprise Institute conference, had this to say about North Korean totalitarianism:

In devising a strategy for addressing the issue, it is important to take into account the unique nature of the North Korean regime. This is a regime that has isolated its people, not just from the outside world, but from all knowledge of the outside world.

This dictatorship has tried to deny its people the ability to even imagine an alternative way of life. Probably no totalitarian government in history has succeeded in doing this to the extent that the North Korean government has.

North Korea has been likened to a steel box with a few holes through which light can shine. The strategy must be to punch more holes into the box and let more light through. Until there is more awareness inside North Korea, there is very little the outside world can do in the ways that dictatorships are traditionally pressured to change.

Any dialogue with North Korea needs to have some human rights content. Talks with North Korea about nuclear issues should not preclude other security issues or human rights issues and reform.