The horrors of North Korea’s prison camps

A small and very hungry girl is searched by her teacher who finds five grains of wheat in her pocket. He beats her to death in front of her classmates.

A teenage boy witnesses the public execution of his mother and brother.

A man is made to help load the corpses of prisoners dead from starvation, put them in a pot and burn them.

A mother is forced to drown her baby in a bucket.

Are these the accounts of witnesses to crimes against humanity in a concentration camp or torture chamber of the past? Something from Auschwitz perhaps or acts committed under Stalin or Pol Pot?

No, these acts were committed in the 21st century in the modern-day prison camp ludicrously named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. These horrors are inflicted daily on up to 200,000 prisoners. North Korea’s camps have existed twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and 12 times as long as the Nazi extermination camps. Yet we’ve barely noticed.

Millions have died in these black holes, through imprisonment, forced labor, starvation and torture.

At last, thanks to the first UN commission of inquiry into North Korea’s human darkness, light is being shone on this secretive totalitarian state. Australian former High Court judge Michael Kirby, who is chairing the inquiry, said the testimony of almost 80 witnesses, defectors and experts at public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington in recent months evoked reactions similar to the discovery of concentration camps in Europe during World War II.

[Canberra Times]

The influence of songbun on North Korean society

Associated Press journalist Tim Sullivan explains songbun, the caste system of North Korea, and the role it continues to play in North Korean society:

I find songbun really fascinating. Basically, every person has an ideological purity that is traced through their family, and there’s a deep belief in that your purity is linked to your father’s and to your grandfather’s. And what songbun did is basically turn hierarchy on its head with landowners and aristocrats at the very bottom and peasants at the very top.

Songbun has become an ingrained way for the Korean Workers’ Party to become entrenched because while these people’s grandfathers or great-grandfathers may have been peasants, their children became generals or admirals or top party bureaucrats and they simply handed that power down to their sons and grandsons.

At the same time, if you talk to exiles, people who have fled North Korea because of their miserable lives, many of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were landowners or part of the educated class.

So songbun has become this way of keeping things from not really changing there.

But legally, songbun does not exist. North Koreans insist to me up and down it does not exist. However those outside the country who could speak openly, say it still exists.

And so in North Korea, when you apply for a job, you still list your songbun. You list your father’s job, your grandfather’s job and your great-grandfather’s job, which tells them exactly who you are.

In absolute irony, Ko Young-hee, the mother of present leader Kim Jong-un, was born in Osaka, Japan, which would make her part of songbun’s “hostile class” because of her Korean-Japanese heritage. Furthermore, her grandfather worked in a sewing factory for the Imperial Japanese Army.

There were three attempts made to idolize Ko. The building of a cult of personality around Ko encounters the problem of her bad songbun, as making her identity public would undermine the Kim dynasty’s pure bloodline. Ko’s real name or other personal details have not been publicly revealed (her origins could be figured out, as she worked with Mansudae Art Troupe in Pyongyang). The complications of Ko’s songbun were such that after Kim Jong-il’s death, her personal information, including name, became state secrets.

North Korean infrastructure growth under Kim Jong Un

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has presided over a construction boom since he took office two years ago with the aid of funds from China, the North’s major backer, and Russia, a former Cold War ally.

A stronger focus on the economy is a major change in policy for the third Kim to rule North Korea. The “military first” policy of Kim Jong Il, the young leader’s father, plunged North Korea into famine in the 1990s. But thanks to years of this policy, which prioritized investment in the armed forces, the young Kim can now draw on a 1.2 million strong army to realize his goals. These “soldier-builders” are often seen constructing apartment blocks and laying roads. And much of the land belongs to the state, removing another major cost from projects.

Chinese money paid for a $300 million suspension bridge across a one kilometre-wide stretch of the Yalu River, according to Chinese media reports, linking China’s port city of Dandong and its North Korean equivalent, Sinuiju.

Russia in September reopened a 54-km (34-mile) railway track from its eastern border town of Khasan to the North’s port of Rajin. And satellite imagery shows work is under way on a 100-km (60-mile) highway along North Korea’s east coast linking Hamhung to a tourist zone planned for the port city of Wonsan.

“It appears one goal is to link all the provincial capitals to Pyongyang by paved highway (and) increase road transport integration with the Chinese economy,” said Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who spotted foundations for the Wonsan-Hamhung road using satellite imagery.

Improving roads will also underpin plans to turn North Korea into a tourist attraction – a move with potential economic gains in the short term that avoids restructuring ailing industrial plants that are starved of cash and electricity. One widely publicized public project is the Masik Ski Resort in the mountains to the west of Wonsan. North Korea aims to make $43.75 million in annual profit from the resort.

Kim Jong Un also made multiple trips to a new water park that opened on Oct. 15, which covers 110,000 square metres (27 acres) on the bank of the Taedong River that runs through the capital Pyongyang. His frequent appearances at fun parks and equestrian centres have been mocked in foreign media, but they tie into the other development projects by targeting Chinese tourists, for whom the North is a cheap destination.

[Reuters]

Governor Bill Richardson involved with North Korea re: US prisoner negotiations

The United States on Thursday signaled North Korea could improve its strained ties with Washington by releasing U.S. citizens, as former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson became involved in the case of an 85-year-old American held by Pyongyang.

North Korea last month detained Merrill Newman, a veteran of the Korean War and a retiree from Palo Alto, California, taking him off a plane as he was about to leave the reclusive Asian country, which he had been visiting on a tourist visa.

North Korea has also held Korean-American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae since November 2012, sentencing him to 15 years of hard labor. His detention followed a long series of acrimonious exchanges between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s, has revived his role as periodic troubleshooter on North Korean issues, including efforts to free detained Americans. Asked by email whether Richardson was looking into the Newman’s detention, spokeswoman Caitlin Kelleher told Reuters: “Governor Richardson is involved in that he is in touch with his North Korean contacts.”

“North Korea could send a very different signal about its interest in having a different sort of relationship with the United States were it to take that step of releasing our citizens, and it’s a matter of some wonderment to me that they’ve haven’t yet moved on that,” Glyn Davies, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, told reporters in Beijing.

[Reuters]

North Korea detains 85-year-old California man

On October 26, an 85-year-old American man, Merrill Newman, on an organized tour of North Korea was pulled off a plane in Pyongyang just minutes before it was to depart, the man’s son told CNN on Wednesday.

The U.S. State Department is working to resolve the matter with North Korea’s top ally, China.

North Korea has not publicly acknowledged it detained Newman. But the family believes the elder Newman’s military service during the Korean War may be related to his detention, his son said.

Park Syung-je, chairman of the Seoul-based Asia Strategy Institute, says Newman may have been arrested on espionage charges. As a Korean War veteran, Newman might have told his minders he fought against North Korea. They may have reported it, and it resulted in his detention.

In 1999, a South Korean woman named Min Young-mee was detained for six days after apparently saying the wrong thing on a tour to North Korea’s Kumkang Mountains. “I hope the two Koreas reunite soon so we can visit each other,” Min said. “North Korean defectors are living well in the South.”

A North Korean minder for the tour group reported her remarks to North Korean authorities. She wasn’t allowed to return home with her tour group. After a written apology for violating North Korean laws, she safely returned to the South.

Newman is the second American being held in North Korean. Kenneth Bae, an American citizen, was arrested in November 2012 and sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor.

[CNN

UN committee slap at North Korea for rights abuses

A UN General Assembly committee on Tuesday expressed concern about human rights violations in North Korea and 3 other countries.

The North Korean draft resolution expressed “very serious concern at the persistence of continuing reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.”

The draft resolutions were approved by the 193-nation assembly’s Third Committee, which focuses on human rights, and will be put to formal votes next month in the General Assembly. They are expected to pass with similar support.

The resolutions deepen international pressure and further isolate those states but have no legal consequences.

A North Korean U.N. delegate said that Pyongyang totally rejected the resolution and said “there are no human rights violations in my country as mentioned in this draft resolution. …Regrettably we have not seen a single instance called into question when serious human rights violations are committed by Western countries.”

[Reuters]

Mongolian president stuns North Korea with call for freedom

Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj stunned North Korean elite students at Kim Il-sung University when he visited Pyongyang last month by telling them, “No tyranny lasts forever.”

According to a transcript of the speech posted on the Mongolian presidential website on Friday, Elbegdorj told the students, “It is the desire of the people to live free that is the eternal power. … Freedom enables every human to discover and realize his or her opportunities and chances for development. This leads a human society to progress and prosperity.”

Elbegdorj told the students, “Mongolia holds dear the fundamental human rights — freedom of expression, right to assembly and the right to live by his or her own choice… Mongols say, ‘better to live by your own choice however bitter it is, than to live by other’s choice, however sweet.'”

He also hinted that the North Korean regime should abandon its nuclear ambitions. “Twenty-one years ago, Mongolia declared herself a nuclear-weapon-free zone,” he said.

He also pointed out that Mongolia scrapped capital punishment in 2009. North Korea still holds public executions.

The Mongolian presidential office said Elbegdorj offered to take questions after his speech but none were asked, although he received “lengthy applause.”

Elbegdorj is a former journalist who founded Mongolia’s top privately-owned newspaper, Ardchilal, in 1990. That same year he played a pivotal role in democratic protests ending communist rule in his country. He became a lawmaker and, in May 2009, Mongolia’s fifth president.

Contrary to expectations, Elbegdorj did not meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during his trip from Oct. 28 and 31, and the publication of the speech prompts speculation that his remarks sent Kim Jong-Un into a sulk.

[Chosun Ilbo]

North Korean refugees arrested in China

At least 13 refugees from North Korea have been arrested in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming while they were trying to reach South Korea, media reports said on Monday. Dong-A Ilbo newspaper which also reported the arrests put the number at 15.

Chinese police on Friday arrested the North Koreans who were trying to board a bus bound for an unidentified Southeast Asian nation, Yonhap news agency said. It cited South Korean activists promoting human rights for North Korean refugees.

“Most North Korean defectors travel in a group of five at most when crossing the Chinese border to a Southeast Asian nation,” said one activist quoted by Yonhap. “It appears that [the reason this group was larger than normal is] they were trying to save money for hiring brokers who could help them cross the border.”

Some 25,000 North Koreans have fled famine or repression at home to settle in the capitalist South over the past six decades. Almost all cross the North’s border into China. Many of them then secretly travel through China to a third nation – often in Southeast Asia – where they arrange to fly on to South Korea for resettlement.

China – the North’s sole major ally – considers the fugitives to be illegal economic migrants instead of refugees and repatriates those whom it catches. Rights groups strongly criticise Beijing’s policy. The fugitives can face severe punishment including a term in a prison camp once they are sent back to North Korea.

[AFP]

S. Korean aid to North Korea up 26 percent in 2013

South Korea has sent 17.8 billion won ($16.7 million) in humanitarian aid to North Korea in 2013, a 26 percent increase from last year, despite the spike in cross-border tensions, the Seoul government said Sunday.

“Despite criticisms that Seoul has not done enough to help the disadvantaged in the North, the incumbent Park Geun-hye administration has sent more aid to Pyongyang than what was shipped last year when President Lee Myung-bak was in office,” a government official said.

Fifteen local charity groups including the Eugene Bell Foundation and Korea Sharing Net provided 4.3 billion won, or a little over 24.1 percent of all aid to the North, with the rest coming from the South Korean government.

Moving forward, the official said South Korea has no plans to provide direct food aid to the North but that it may consider offering matching funds to private charity organizations wanting to help the North.

[Yonhap News]

Preparing for a North Korean collapse

A major crisis scenario that destabilizes the North Korean government and its mechanisms of control, no matter how unlikely, should prompt the international community to consider a multilateral framework for intervention.

The first step toward planning a credible response is to consider the absence of a totalitarian regime previously possessing rigid control over territory, weapons of mass destruction, and the civilian population. Working under the assumption that Chinese and South Korean border issues could be mitigated by their respective militaries, and WMD tracked and secured by American military forces working alongside integrated allies, the pre-eminent question becomes one of human security.

Specifically, how to deal with twenty million physically and psychologically scarred individuals as an operational challenge. Regardless of the ongoing struggle for power and stability, these individuals represent a major hurdle for any external force crossing the 38th parallel and constitute the bulk of human terrain. For many, their day-to-day lives reflect a permanent wartime experience, an existence on the edge that has defined families for more than three generations. Devout loyalty to the North Korean system is arguably so ingrained within many citizens, it is difficult to project how the majority of individuals would behave after the cataclysmic event of totalitarian collapse.

There would likely be a profound absence of the overarching stability that has come to define the norm within Pyongyang’s invasive culture of oppression. Beyond fundamental necessities of food, water, shelter and physical security, what unforeseen conditions might an external group encounter among the civilian population?

The disintegration, or even transformation, of this familiar norm would potentially compound dangerous social, economic and political inadequacies while pushing individuals past an already desperate state of existence. To paraphrase experts, exposure to an event involving potential death or serious injury to the self or others leads to intense states of fear, helplessness or horror. Under this scenario, an outside group would likely encounter upwards of twenty million individuals suffering from the effects of severe grief and incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorder.

These reactions might appear as abnormal reactions to normal stress, but inside the reality of North Korea, it would reflect a normal reaction to abnormal stress. Whether an intervening humanitarian force, or an individual state dealing with refugees fleeing across its border, responsible powers should not overlook such a traumatic moment for geopolitics.

[Read full opinion piece: The Nation