The only way to change North Korea’s destiny is to change its leader, says Thae Yong Ho the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect in almost 20 years.
“As long as Kim Jong Un is in power, there’ll be no chance for the world to improve the human rights issue” or cancel “the nuclear program,” he says.
Thae’s initial hopes that Kim’s youth and overseas studies would make him a reformer were soon destroyed as he saw more and more of his fellow high-ranking officials being executed, almost, he says, on a whim.
“If Kim Jong Un decides to kill someone, if he thinks that he is a threat or he scared him, he just wants to get rid of him, that is the present reality of North Korea,” he says, adding that he knows more elites will defect.
A South Korean think-tank affiliated with the country’s intelligence agency (INSS) assesses at least 340 people have been ordered to be executed since Kim took power in December 2011.
Hyeonseo Lee grew up in the closed and regimented society of North Korea, and at 17 she escaped into China, living there illegally for a decade, always under the fear of being reported to the Chinese authorities and being sent back to North Korea. She wrote a book telling her story, and has now started an organization, Tongil, that primarily works towards preventing the rampant trafficking of female North Korean defectors living in China. Following is an excerpt from an interview:
Q: After escaping from North Korea, you lived in China for 10 years constantly under the fear of being discovered. What did that do to you?
A: The title of my book, The Girl With Seven Names, means that I had seven different lives. For a North Korean defector, life in China is difficult. If we are repatriated to North Korea, (we face) torture, imprisonment and sometimes, even public execution. … I did my best to hide by changing my name many times. But I was captured by the Chinese police. But because my Chinese was so good, they thought I was Chinese and released me.
As North Korean defectors, once we cross the border, we don’t know where to go, and we don’t know how to speak the language. Most women defectors are sold as sex slaves. In China the gender imbalance has driven up the demand for trafficked brides. …That is what I am fighting against. Read more
Q: You recently helped your mother and younger brother escape North Korea. How is their experience of life in South Korea different from yours?
A: At least I experienced some form of capitalism in China for the 10 years I lived there. My family lived under communism their entire lives. When they arrived in South Korea, they didn’t even know how to use the bank system and ATM, or the subway, nothing. It was completely alien. In communism, we never had any freedom, of movement, of speech, of press. We didn’t even make our own decisions for our lives. We were human robots. After we come to South Korea, we have to make own decision about every single thing. For those not used to this society, they are completely lost.
Q: You lived 17 years in North Korea, then a decade in China and now you are in South Korea. What is home to you?
A: If you asked me that question last year, I would consider the world as my home, as vague as that sounds. But more and more, I am accepting South Korea as my home. I had a horrible experience last year in China. I had gone to China to give a public speech at a book fair. As a North Korean defector, the Chinese government will still not accept me as person who has received a South Korean passport. … I had to escape China because of the media attention. The moment I arrived in South Korea, I realized this is my home, where I don’t have to worry about being repatriated to North Korea, I don’t have to worry about the police, or hide every day. I was completely free, the country was embracing me, accepting me.
The US State Department’s report is one of several recent institutional investigations documenting North Korea’s human rights record and prison camp system.
Last November, the Washington-based Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) released satellite images that show the reclusive nation’s prison camp system, where detainees are subjected to forced labor, torture, starvation, rape and death, may be expanding. The images are of Camp No. 25, a camp near Chongjin, on North Korea’s northeast coast.
According to the United Nations, up to 120,000 men, women and children are imprisoned in the gulags, known as “kwanliso” in Korean. A 2014 report from the international organization estimated that “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners” have died in the North Korean gulags over the past 50 years amid “unspeakable atrocities.”
“The inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights,” the report said, drawing a parallel between the camps and those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
“These camps constitute the cornerstone of the country’s large infrastructure dedicated to political repression and social control that enables widespread and systematic human rights abuses,” rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.
There’s been little public word about what has happened to an American college student detained in North Korea, which announced last Jan. 22 it had detained Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, earlier that month for alleged anti-state crime.
Warmbier, 21, who had visited North Korea with a tour group, was sentenced in March to 15 years in prison at hard labor after a televised tearful public confession to trying to steal a propaganda banner.
Diplomats inquiring about Warmbier and a Korean-American also being held have been told they were being treated under “wartime law.” It’s not clear what that means, although it could imply tougher treatment. The United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Warmbier’s parents said after his public confession last February that they hadn’t been able to communicate with him, and his father, Fred, expressed hope his son’s “sincere apology” would persuade North Korea to allow him to come home. The statement was released through the University of Virginia.
Although there has been scant news on Warmbier since his sentencing, his situation could re-emerge as Donald Trump’s administration begins dealing with North Korea. He has said he will push China to exert its influence on North Korea to bring it into line, but Trump also said during his presidential campaign that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un.
There’s little doubt North Korea would like to use Warmbier to get a U.S. president to travel to “kowtow and ask for him back,” said Boston University Professor Emeritus Walter Clemens, whose extensive writings on North Korea include two books. But there’s always the hope that such a meeting could open a way to improving current tensions, he said.
Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London who defected to South Korea in July, says clashing with Pyongyang over its nuclear program has strengthened Kim Jong Un’s leadership, but continued human rights criticism and increased information from the outside world will over time lead to the downfall of the authoritarian and repressive regime.
Thae says the leadership in Pyongyang is unwilling to give up its nuclear program, and its defiance in the face of U.S.-led pressure has helped solidify internal popular support and earned the leadership a degree of international respect. “Some countries are interested in following North Korea’s path to become nuclear powers themselves. Therefore, North Korean diplomats retain their dignity despite the criticisms of the international community,” Thae said.
He says, however, international criticism about human rights abuses in North Korea undermines Kim’s standing in the world and with his own people.
Thae says North Korean diplomats have faced denunciations from allies and adversaries alike over Pyongyang’s human rights record, but the leadership is more concerned about how this kind of criticism could damage the carefully nurtured public image of Kim as a near-infallible leader.
“It is not easy for North Koreans to understand the concepts of the ICC or human rights. But they will be greatly interested if they hear that Kim Jong Un will be tried at the international court. It will be a direct sign that Kim Jong Un is a criminal and his regime has no future,” he said.
North Korean defectors have successfully shipped in “several thousand” USB sticks containing banned content like South Korean soaps, Hollywood films, and global news. The goal is to spread information about the outside world to North Koreans, who have limited access to the open internet and telecommunications.
The project is the result of the “Flash Drives for Freedom” campaign by the Human Rights Foundation, a non-profit organization. Chief strategy officer, Alex Gladstein, said the foundation has received more than 10,000 drives in the last 12 months, and is in the process of handing them to groups of North Korean defectors operating out of South Korea.
“Several thousand have been delivered into the DPRK [North Korea] so far,” Goldstein told Business Insider. “We’d like to send 50,000 this year.”
The groups decide what content to put on the sticks, which might hold up to 20GB, then smuggle them in by drone and by foot. They are then picked up by dealers who copy the information onto smaller drives and sell those on to locals for a profit.
North Koreans can then watch the files on common, portable DVD players called Notels and cheap Chinese smartphones with USB ports. PC ownership is rare.
Gladstein estimates it will take around one million USB sticks to educate a significant chunk of the North Korean population. There are around 25 million people living in the country, and Gladstein believes about 30% have any idea that the outside world is better off.
There’s a new kind of social media star in South Korea: North Korean defectors, whose videos get tens of millions of views.
The South Korean capital city of Seoul lies only 30 miles from the North Korean border, but South Koreans, like everyone else, don’t know much about their neighbors to the north. Now, some defectors are becoming internet famous by shedding light on the most mysterious country in the world.
There is no internet in North Korea, but many young defectors learn to use social media within a few months.
“If I appeared in ordinary media outlets, I’d be edited,” said North Korean defector Eunhee Park, who wants to teach South Koreans about North Korea with the hope of reunifying the countries one day. “So what I needed was a platform that would allow me to talk freely.”
Watch VICE News video clip
In North Korea’s “utopian society”, the very words “human rights” do not need to exist — because it’s so perfect, the regime maintains!
The concept is not even taught. I had never even heard of the term “human rights” when I was in North Korea.
It also strongly denies the existence of the political prison camp system throughout the country.
It maintains this position even though I was born in the most infamous, political prison camp in North Korea: Camp 14.
Only recently did North Korea concede that “labor detention centers” exist, but solely for the incarcerated to have their lives improved.
North Korea also denies committing human rights violations, threatens and intimidates defector activists working to raise awareness of human rights issues, and attacking and criticizing those who have testified during the United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s investigation, calling these defectors “human scum.”
The dictatorship in North Korea has never been honest or truthful for more than six decades it has been in existence.
[Excerpt of CNN article by North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk]
More high-level North Korean diplomats are waiting to defect to South Korea from their overseas posts in Europe, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to London said on Tuesday, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
Thae Yong Ho defected to South Korea in August last year and since December 2016 has been speaking to local media and appearing on variety television shows to discuss his defection to Seoul and his life as a North Korean envoy.
“A significant number of North Korean diplomats came to South Korea recently,” Thae said, according to Yonhap. “I am not the only one from Europe. There are more waiting to come,” Thae said, speaking at an event held in South Korea’s parliamentary building.
Thae, 54, has said publicly that dissatisfaction with the rule of young leader Kim Jong Un had led him to flee his post, but he also had two university-age sons living with him and his wife in London who were due to return to isolated North Korea.
He is the highest-ranking official to have fled North Korea for the South since the 1997 defection of Hwang Jang Yop, the brains behind North Korea’s governing ideology, “Juche”, which combines Marxism with extreme nationalism.
“Of all the recent high-level defectors, I am the only one to have gone public,” said Thae.