Monthly Archives: September 2013

A horrific decade in a North Korean gulag

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In his frightening decade as an inmate of a huge North Korean prison camp, Kang Cheol-hwan could never be sure of exact numbers, but knew the statistics were chilling. Of the 35,000 or more prisoners at Yoduk camp, about 10% died every year, succumbing to malnutrition, mistreatment, overwork or a combination of lethal factors, he estimates.

“I myself almost died three times,” Mr. Kang said.  “And I remember burying with my own hands about 300 prison inmates.”

As one of the first defectors to speak openly on the topic, Mr. Kang helped draw the curtain on the Stalinist network of political prisons, designed to tamp down any hint of opposition. His 2001 memoir about the years in Yoduk, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, is now a standard text on the gulag.

The network of half a dozen camps, he said, is comparable to the gulags of Stalinist Russia and Mao Zedong’s China, but probably most similar to Hitler’s concentration camps, he argued, given the number of North Koreans who die behind their fences.The Nazi analogy would undoubtedly be debated by some, but testimony by Mr. Kang and others has provided mounting evidence of the camps’ brutality.

He was sent to Yoduk in 1977 at age nine, one of several relatives imprisoned after his grandfather was accused of being an agent of Japan, where the family had lived earlier.

The camp was divided into the total-control zone and the less-severe zone, where he was held. It was still “very harsh,” with forced labor from early morning to nine at night, torture rooms and “massive malnutrition,” Mr. Kang said.

“It actually depended on the prisoner themselves and how much effort they put into trying to survive — if they made an effort to catch insects or rats or snakes to supplement whatever food they were getting.”

Read full National Post article


A brief history of nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula, as viewed by North Koreans

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According to declassified and other US government documents, some released on the 60th-anniversary of the Korean War, the United States has repeatedly pondered the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea.

• The United States introduced nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula as early as 1950.

• During the Korean War, US president Harry Truman announced that the use of nuclear weapons was under active consideration; US Air Force bombers flew nuclear rehearsal runs over Pyongyang; and US commander General Douglas MacArthur planned to drop 30 to 50 atomic bombs across the northern neck of the Korean peninsula to block Chinese intervention.

• In the late 1960s, nuclear-armed US warplanes were maintained on 15-minute alert to strike North Korea.

• In 1975, US defense secretary James Schlesinger acknowledged for the first time that US nuclear weapons were deployed in South Korea. Addressing the North Koreans, he warned, “I do not think it would be wise to test (US) reactions.”

• In February 1993, Lee Butler, head of the US Strategic Command, announced the United States was retargeting hydrogen bombs aimed at the old USSR on North Korea (and other targets.) One month later, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

• On July 22, 1993, US president Bill Clinton said if North Korea developed and used nuclear weapons “we would quickly and overwhelmingly retaliate. It would mean the end of their country as we know it.”

• In 1995, Colin Powell, who had served as chairman of the US joints chiefs of staff and would later serve as US secretary of state, warned the North Koreans that the United States had the means to turn their country into “a charcoal briquette.”

• Following North Korea’s first nuclear test on October 9, 2006, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice reminded North Korea that “the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range—and I underscore full range of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.”

• In April 2010, then US defense secretary Leon Panetta refused to rule out a US nuclear attack on North Korea, saying, “all options are on the table.”

• On February 13, 2013, Panetta described North Korea as “a threat to the United States, to regional stability, and to global security.” He added: “Make no mistake. The US military will take all necessary steps to meet our security commitments to the Republic of Korea and to our regional allies.”

As the North Koreans put it, “no nation in the world has been exposed to the nuclear threat so directly and for so long as the Koreans. … For over half a century since early in the 1950s, the US has turned South Korea into the biggest nuclear arsenal in the Far East, gravely threatening the DPRK through ceaseless maneuvers for a nuclear war. It has worked hard to deprive the DPRK of its sovereignty and its right to exist and develop….thereby doing tremendous damage to its socialist economic construction and the improvement of the standard of people’s living.”

[Excerpt of article by Stephen Gowans]

North Korea testing more rocket engines?

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China’s foreign minister is pushing for the restart of international talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, saying that Pyongyang is ready to recommit to the goal of denuclearization.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Friday North Korea has recently said it is ready to come back to a 2005 commitment on giving up nuclear weapons and to an agreement it reached with the United States in February last year on freezing its nuclear programs in exchange for food aid. That agreement fell through soon after it was hatched because North Korea tested a long-range rocket.

The U.S. remains skeptical about Pyongyang’s intentions.

Meanwhile,  38 North, a blog run by the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that North Korea more than likely tested a long-range rocket engine late last month, according to analysis of new satellite imagery over the site. From the photos released, indicators of a probable test are seen through the presence of a probable rocket stage, propellant tanks, as well as the appearance of burned vegetation around the launch stand.

“These are not in and of themselves indicators that there is going to be a rocket test six months from now,” Joel Wit, a former North Korea specialist at the State Department who is now with 38 North, told CNN about the photos. The Sohae launch facility, where the latest photos were taken, is the same facility from which North Korea has conducted previous rocket launches, including last December’s test.

In recent months, similar satellite imagery has shown what look to be other instances of rocket-engine tests by North Korea, as well as the resumption of production at a previously closed plutonium production site.

Documentary on Shin Dong-hyuk and North Korean Prison Camp

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A recent documentary will soon shed more light on the horrors that happen inside the extensive network of prison camps in North Korea. “Camp 14: Total Control Zone” will follow the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean who was born inside a camp, and endured torture and total control from sadistic guards inside the wire for 23 years. The UN recently likened conditions in these camps to Nazi war crimes.

In a previous interview with 60 Minutes, Shin said he was once sent to an underground torture center at age 13 when his mother and older brother were accused of attempting an escape. “They hung me by the ankles and they tortured me with fire.”

The Guardian adds: “Shin, who recently gave testimony before a UN commission, would rather not talk about the past, but he cannot be free of it. Physically, in the film, he is in Seoul. Mentally and emotionally, he is still back in camp 14. To date, he is the only known person to have been born in a total control zone camp and escaped, and some have questioned his story. “We made something like 15 lie detector tests with him,” says Wiese, who first read about the young Korean in the Washington Post. By now there can be little doubt of his veracity, or that his experiences weigh heavily on him.

“The producers wanted to shoot him talking in a studio, but that was “impossible”. “I had to build him a setting where he felt comfortable,” says Wiese. Instead, they worked in Shin’s home, in a bare space with bedding on the floor, similar to the way he lived with his mother, as a child, in the camp. Even then, ‘it was complicated for him’ “.

As one would expect, the trailer alone is harrowing. According to the film website, filmmaker Marc Wiese crafted the documentary from interviews with Shin as well as former camp guards and secret police, coupled with animated scenes of life inside.

[Business Insider]

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Unspeakable Atrocities in North Korean Prison Camps

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UN human rights investigators described torture, starvation, and executions in North Korean prison camps as part of UN Human Rights Council’s first report on violations in the country.

Michael Kirby, head of the UN inquiry, told Reuters that the report was compiled from testimony given by former inmates and North Korean exiles at hearings in Seoul and Tokyo.

The stories were chilling. Megumi Yokota was just 13 when she was abducted by North Koreans on her way home from school in Japan in 1977. She was one of 13 Japanese citizens abducted by Kim-Jung-Il in order to help train North Korean spies, and she later died in North Korean custody, her parents testified.

Other former inmates reported being arrested and tortured for infractions like watching Western DVDs and soap operas. One woman testified that she watched as a fellow inmate was forced to drown her own baby in a bucket of water.

North Korean diplomats have declared the report a “political plot.” China, Belarus, and Syria defended North Korea in the 90 minute debate in front of the UN Human Rights Council, denying the allegations as “politicized accusations.”

Japan, South Korea, and Western powers pressured the UN to investigate the long-rumored atrocities in order to prepare a case for criminal prosecution.


North Korean refusal to cooperate with UN rights probe

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Not surprisingly, the head of a U.N. human rights probe says he can’t get answers from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un regarding harrowing testimony from victims of the enigmatic regime, including allegations of being forced to survive on vermin, drown babies and witness the execution of loved ones.

Michael Kirby, who heads the U.N. commission examining North Korea’s human rights record, said Tuesday that his July 16 letter to the leader hasn’t been answered, and the government has offered no evidence to contradict graphic testimony of human rights abuses.

Kirby, a former judge in Australia’s highest court, told the U.N. Human Rights Council that the commission it created in March nonetheless gathered testimony from dozens of victims, including defectors, and experts at public hearings in Seoul and Tokyo last month that has “given a face and voice to great human suffering.”

Overall, the testimony “points to widespread and serious violations in all areas that the Human Rights Council asked the commission to investigate. We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief,” said Kirby.

For example, he said, the commission heard from a young man imprisoned from birth, who said he lived on rodents, lizards and grass and saw his mother and brother executed.

It also heard from a young woman who said she saw another female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket, Kirby said, and a man who said he was forced to help collect and burn the corpses of prisoners who died of starvation.

The U.N.’s top rights official, Navi Pillay, reported to the Council that the U.N. had amassed evidence indicating that up to 200,000 people were being held in North Korean political prison camps rife with torture, rape and slave labor, and that some of the abuses may amount to crimes against humanity.

“The commission invited the authorities of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to attend the public hearings in Seoul and make representations, but received no reply,” Kirby said.


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How North Korea describes its defectors and UN human rights probe

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According to Michael Kirby, who heads the U.N. commission examining North Korea’s human rights record, North Korea’s official news agency attacked the testimony of North Korean refugees “as ‘slander’ against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, put forward by ‘human scum.’ ”

In a June 19 dispatch, the KCNA news agency also denounced defectors as “wild dogs in human form” who had become “the main player in the confrontation farce under the patronage of the South Korean puppet group and brigandish U.S. imperialists.”

“An ounce of evidence is worth far more than many pounds of insults and baseless attacks,” Kirby told the 47-nation Council based in Geneva which is the U.N.’s top human rights body. “So far, however, the evidence we have heard has largely pointed in one direction — and evidence to the contrary is lacking.”

Later in the day, Kirby told a news conference that the commission plans to hold more hearings in London, New York and Washington, before giving a final report to the Council next March. He said the commission “is not a judge and is not a prosecutor,” so it remains to be seen whether specific people will be named for alleged crimes against humanity and other abuses.

North Korea’s U.N. envoy in Geneva, Kim Yong Ho, told the Council on Tuesday that his government will not cooperate with a probe and “totally rejects” its latest report.

The report is based on information “fabricated and invented by the forces hostile to the DPRK, defectors and rebels,” Kim said.


South Korean killed attempting to cross into North Korea

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South Korean soldiers on Monday shot and killed a man they believed was trying to cross into North Korea at the heavily armed border, officials said.

A man dressed in civilian clothes ignored guards’ warnings to return to South Korea and was shot after he jumped into the Imjin River, which runs through the border. The incident occurred near the western portion of the border in Paju, north of Seoul.

The man was first seen near a wire fence near the river. Border guards told him to turn back, but he ignored them and went into a part of the river where there was no wire fence, the officials said. It was later found that he had tied buoys around himself and was carrying cookies, officials said.

The man’s South Korean passport identified him as Nam Young-ho,  born in 1966, and deported from Japan in June.

South Koreans have previously tried to defect to the impoverished, authoritarian country, but it is rare. North Korea’s state media made no immediate comment about the shooting.

Abducted South Korean escapes North Korea after 41 years

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A South Korean man abducted by North Korea has escaped and returned home after 41 years.

Choi Sung-yung of the Abductees’ Family Union said Friday that 68-year-old Jeon Wook-pyo escaped last month and returned to South Korea in early September.

Choi said Jeon was one of 25 crewmen on board two boats captured by North Korea in the Yellow Sea in 1972. Jeon was the only one of the crewmen to have successfully escaped.

South Korea estimates that more than 500 South Koreans have been kidnapped and detained by North Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War that ended with an armistice.

Why North Korea feels they must have nuclear weapons

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Satellite images of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility have again raised questions about whether the country has restarted its plutonium production reactor — regarded by western experts as a key component in the development of a nuclear weapon.

To try and get inside the heads of  the North Korean leadership, consider this excerpt of an opinion piece by Stephen Gowans as to why North Korea believes that the best chance they have for preserving their sovereignty is to build nuclear weapons to deter a US military conquest.

“One might lament Pyongyang’s nuclear testing for running counter to nuclear non-proliferation, invoking the fear that growth in the number of countries with nuclear weapons increases the risk of war. But this view crumbles under scrutiny.
• The elimination of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq didn’t reduce the chances of US military intervention in that country—it increased them.
• Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s voluntary elimination of his WMD didn’t prevent a NATO assault on Libya—it cleared the way for it.

“Among the questions North Korea may have:
• How credible could any security guarantee be, in light of the reality that since 1945 Washington has invested significant blood and treasure in eliminating all expressions of communism and anti-imperialism on the Korean peninsula.
• Why is it incumbent on North Korea alone to disarm?

“The disarming of countries that deny the US access to markets, natural resources, and investment opportunities, in order to use these for their own development, doesn’t reduce the risk of wars of conquest—it makes them all the more certain.”