Defector Park Sang-hak (see photo at left), who launches helium balloons laden with USB sticks and anti-regime leaflets into North Korean airspace, has been called “human scum” by the North Korean regime, who will “pay for his crimes in blood”.
Sometimes these North Korean government threats go beyond mere rhetoric: in 2011, a hitman with a poison-tipped needle was intercepted on his way to kill another North Korean activist, Yeon-mi Park, living in South Korea.
In 1997 the nephew of one of Kim Jong-il’s mistresses was gunned down outside Seoul; he had recently published an expose about the dictator’s family.
But the regime’s most common weapon against its critics is character assassination.
North Korea has tried – unsuccessfully – to discredit a hard-hitting UN reposrt because one of its well-known witnesses, Shin Dong-hyuk, later admitted to changing parts of his biography. “The fundamental building blocks of Shin’s story remain the same,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “He was still a political prisoner and still tortured.” But the controversy highlights a tragic catch-22: sometimes the traumatic firsthand experiences that make defectors such powerful witnesses also make them vulnerable to assaults on their credibility.
“One of the very few growing industries in North Korea is this operation of trying to compromise defectors and witnesses,” says Scarlatoiu. The smears and threats have ramped up in the wake of a UN report documenting crimes against humanity in North Korea and recommending that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court. The UN findings were based on the testimony of more than 300 defectors who painted a picture of institutionalized cruelty within the regime, including mass incarceration in forced labor camps.