Auschwitz in North Korea

Excerpts from a commentary on a cover story in Jewish Journal, by Rob Eshman:

auschwitz_north korea

Left: Children at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II
Right: Children in an orphanage in North Korea during the 1997 famine.

On Jan. 27, we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day in 1945 when the Soviet army entered the Auschwitz concentration camp complex in Poland and freed the 7,000 remaining prisoners. The rescue came too late. About 1.3 million Jewish men, women and children were deported to Auschwitz and its satellite camps between 1940 and 1945. An estimated 1.1 million of them were murdered.

Auschwitz revealed the human capacity for unimaginable evil. It continues to teach us the consequences of looking away, of choosing not to know, or of knowing — as the Allied leaders did, as the neighboring Poles did, as many American Jews did — but deciding not to act.

Tens of thousands, or, by some estimates, as many as 200,000 men, women and children today live and die inside North Korean prison camps. Some from birth. They are subject to torture, rape and inevitable death.

Is it a stretch to compare what the North Korean regime is doing to its own people to what the Nazis did to the Jews? I don’t think so.

In Auschwitz and the other camps, one could argue, the ultimate purpose was annihilation, not imprisonment. But, as an eyewitness to the horror told our reporter, there is good reason to believe the North Korean regime fully intends to ultimately exterminate its prisoners.

The definition of “holocaust” is destruction or slaughter on a mass scale. Replace the label “Jew” with “dissident” or “undesirable” — does that make it better?

“The camps are a gruesome and powerful tool at the heart of a vast network of repression,” Rajiv Narayan, Amnesty International’s North Korea researcher, told the PBS series Frontline. “People are sent to the political prison camps without charge, let alone a trial, many of them simply for knowing someone who has fallen out of favor. Conditions are dire. Torture is rampant; there are reports that women are raped, and we know that public execution is commonplace. Many of the prisoners die of malnutrition and overwork in dangerous conditions.”

So, let’s be clear: “Never Again!” is happening right now. Read full article

Kenneth Bae urges U.S. to help secure his release

Kenneth Bae said in a statement Monday that he had committed a “serious crime” against North Korea, and that the nation does “not abuse human rights,” according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua.

“I would like to plead with the U.S. government, press and my family to stop worsening my situation by making vile rumors against North Korea and releasing materials related to me, which are not based on the facts,” he said before video cameras.

“I want to be pardoned by the North as soon as possible and return to my beloved family. For that, I ask the U.S. government, press and my family to make more active efforts and pay more attention.”

Any statement made by Bae in captivity would be sanctioned by the North Korean government, whose widespread human rights abuses are known to the world. The country has a long history of exacting false “confessions.”

Bae was arrested in November 2012 in Rason along North Korea’s northeastern coast. The devout Christian and father of three operated a China-based company specializing in tours of North Korea, according to his family and, a website friends set up to promote his release.

“Several years ago, Kenneth saw an opportunity that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian,” the site said. “He believed in showing compassion to the North Korean people by contributing to their economy in the form of tourism.”


Read more

North Korea press conference called by American missionary Kenneth Bae

American missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appeared before reporters Monday and appealed to the U.S. government to do its best to secure his release.

Wearing a gray cap and inmate’s uniform with the number 103 on his chest, Bae spoke in Korean during the brief appearance, which was attended by The Associated Press and a few other foreign media in Pyongyang. He made an apology and said he had committed anti-government acts.

Bae called the press conference held at his own request. He was under guard during the appearance. It is not unusual for prisoners in North Korea to say after their release that they spoke in similar situations under duress.

Bae, the longest-serving American detainee in North Korea in recent years, expressed hope that the U.S. government will do its best to win his release. He said he had not been treated badly in confinement. “I believe that my problem can be solved by close cooperation and agreement between the American government and the government of this country,” he said.

Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour group and accused of crimes against the state before being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was moved to a hospital last summer in poor health.

Bae said a comment last month by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had made his situation more difficult. “The vice president of United States said that I was detained here without any reason,” Bae said. “And even my younger sister recently told the press that I had not committed any crime and I know that the media reported it.

“I think these comments infuriated the people here enormously. And for this reason, I am in a difficult situation now. As a result, although I was in medical treatment in the hospital for five months until now, it seems I should return to prison. And moreover there is greater difficulty in discussions about my amnesty.”

North Korea freed an elderly American veteran of the Korean War, 85-year-old Merrill Newman, who had been held for weeks for alleged crimes during the 1950-53 conflict. North Korean state media said he was released because he apologized for his wrongdoing and that authorities also considered his age and medical condition.

“We shouldn’t take Kenneth Bae’s comments merely as his own,” said Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “The reason why North Korea had Kenneth Bae make this statement … is that they want Washington to reach out to them.”


Ways North Koreans are beginning to defy their regime

In Secret State of North Korea documentary, FRONTLINE follows several North Koreans who are working to fight back against the regime. Some work outside the country to subvert the state, while others defy authority from inside, even secretly filming what life in North Korea is really like. Some of these acts of resistance include:

1. An increasing willingness to confront authority – Over the past few years, footage smuggled out of the country shows North Koreans protesting rules they think are unfair, for example a ban on women wearing pants (which was recently lifted). People also appear to be pushing the limits of private enterprise: A woman running an illegal bus service confronts an army officer who is trying to stop her.

2. Secretly filming what the government doesn’t want people to see – A network of North Koreans inside the country, equipped with handheld cameras, have been quietly documenting untold stories, like department stores filled with goods no one can buy.

3. Watching foreign television shows and films – It’s strictly prohibited to distribute or watch foreign TV shows and movies in North Korea. Kim Jong-un has reportedly sent security forces house-to-house searching for illicit DVDs and flash drives. But North Koreans — from party officials to teenage girls — keep watching them anyway, curious about the outside world.

4. Appearing on a talk show of defectors – Part current affairs, part talent show and part beauty pageant, On My Way to Meet You is a South Korean television show featuring young North Korean defectors. While it’s illegal to watch in North Korea, many people tune in anyway to see family and friends now living in Seoul.

5. Sending balloons full of cash – Even though the North Korean government officially considers the U.S. to be an enemy, American dollars are still accepted as currency. To help their fellow citizens, defectors now living in South Korea float balloons full of dollars over the border. One dollar can buy two days’ worth of food for a struggling family.

[PBS]  >>> Click to watch the Frontline documentary “Secret State of North Korea” <<<


The present economic situation in North Korea

North Korea is facing severe energy constraints, and its economy has been stagnating since 1990, with annual per capita income, estimated at $1,800, amounting to slightly more than 5% of South Korea’s.

Meanwhile, a food shortage has left 24 million North Koreans suffering from starvation, and more than 25 of every 1,000 infants die each year, compared to four in South Korea. In order to survive, the world’s most centralized and closed economy will have to open up.

A more dynamic and prosperous North Korea – together with peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula – would serve the interests not only of North Korea itself, but also of neighboring countries and the broader international community. After all, North Korea’s sudden collapse or a military conflict on the peninsula would undermine regional security, while burdening neighboring countries with millions of refugees and hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction costs.

This should spur international institutions and North Korea’s neighbors to provide the food aid, technical assistance, and direct investment that the country needs to escape its current predicament and make the transition to a market economy. But there remain significant obstacles to such cooperation – not least the North’s obscure and often-unpredictable politics, exemplified by the recent execution of its leader Kim Jong-un’s once-powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

The good news is that North Korea’s leadership seems to understand that its current troubles stem from its grossly inefficient economic system. In recent speeches, Kim has emphasized the need for economic reform and opening up to develop agriculture and labor-intensive manufacturing industries. [Read full Project Syndicate article]

Read more: Mineral riches a game-changer?

North Korea’s enormous reserves of minerals could be a game-changer

According to a recent geological study, North Korea could hold more than twice the known global deposits of rare earths — minerals used in electronics such as smartphones and high definition televisions.

The country’s unexploited mineral deposits are estimated to be worth trillions. As it released the study results in December, U.K.-based private equity firm SRE Minerals also announced that it had signed a 25-year deal to develop a site in Jongju, northwest of Pyongyang, in a joint venture with state-owned Korea Natural Resources Trading Corporation.

If the deposits open up, they could prove a game-changer for North Korea, breaking up China’s near-monopoly on the market but posing new challenges for the Pyongyang regime.

“The two conditions of [the North Korean government’s] survival, the constant crisis and the isolation which are needed for the maintenance of the regime, would be jeopardized,” said Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies researcher at the Australian National Studies University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, in an interview with Voice of America.


Fighting back inside the Secret State of North Korea

Much of the world sees North Koreans as brainwashed and subservient, bowing down to Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. The Frontline documentary “Secret State of North Korea” from public broadcaster PBS shows that for many people in North Korea, just the opposite is true.

“We teamed up with a Japanese journalist, Jiro Ishimaru, who has this incredible network of ordinary North Koreans across the country,” FRONTLINE director James Jones said. “They film secretly using hidden cameras, and then smuggle that footage out across the China border where Jiro waits for them.”

One of the most dramatic pieces of footage is of a woman, who has set up a private bus service using a pickup truck. “This soldier comes and tells her to stop running this private bus service, which is illegal,” Jones said. “And rather than, as you would expect, saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and apologizing, she stands up for it – I mean, literally chases him off down the street, smacking him on the back, calling him every name under the sun.”

Victor Cha, who as the former Director of Asian Affairs for the U.S. National Security Council is an expert on North Korea, said that it is often women like her who are starting to open up North Korea. “I love that; that was one of my favorite parts of the documentary,” he told CNN. “The irony is that those markets didn’t grow out of economic reform. They grew out of the failure of the North Korean economy to provide for its people.”

 >>> Click to watch the full documentary “Secret State of North Korea” <<<

The documentary also shows cracks in the regime’s information barrier, depicting a complicated and daring system whereby DVDs, laptops, and thumb drives are sneaked into the country across the border with China.

A young woman, who grew up in North Korea but defected to South Korea, says that her exposure to free media was critical. “The more I’ve listened to the radio, the more I’ve thought, ‘What we’ve learned isn’t true,’ I’ve been fooled. It has made me want to become free.”

It breaks the “spell of the regime’s propaganda,” Jones said.

“They’re just cracks right now, just small ones,” Cha said. “But like a dam, once you start getting one crack they start to filter out and you start seeing many, many more.”


Another American in North Korea

Besides Dennis Rodman and his basketball buddies, Will Scott is another of the few Americans who can actually say that he’s been to North Korea. A former Google employee and current graduate student at the University of Washington, Will spent last fall teaching courses on Databases and Operating Systems at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Some insightful highlights from an interview Will did:

Business Insider: Could you talk about the “Supreme Leader” with anyone? Is their stereotypical love for him as displayed in the western media real? 

Scott: The leader is certainly loved and revered. People live normal lives for the most part, maybe 5-10% is the stereotype. Like, before meals the students would march to the cafeteria while singing patriotic songs. That’s the stereotype that you’ll see in the media, but then they eat meals and chat normally, and play basketball, and go to class.

Was it possible to discuss politics or other sensitive topics?

Scott: Military stuff did get talked about some, as did some other topics. In the spring the understanding was that they were at war with the US, there were cars driving around with netting to prevent detection from satellites, and the media reported that there was a US intrusion into the country that the army repelled. The students would ask the professors why they were still there when their countries were actively at war.

You mention that bringing up the fact that you’re American was a good way to end a conversation. How often were people able to pick up on that fact before you told them?

Scott: Very rarely. If you were just on the street people would smile and wave at you.

Did you have ‘handlers’ like visitors on organized trips? 

Scott: We called them ‘guides’, but yeah, the campus had a pool of representatives from the ministry of education. Foreigners in our group had to be accompanied by one of those guides when we were off campus.

Could you elaborate on what that news was like in North Korea compared to the US? 

Scott: There are 3 TV stations, newspaper, and radio as primary means of media distribution. Newspapers got delivered to the campus every morning, and were at the reception desk, and the students when they were free would stop by and you would see huddles of them reading the news. Radio didn’t get used much on campus as far as I could tell, but seemed more used elsewhere in the country. You’d hear it sometimes in the car, or in shops.

Sunday evenings there’s a foreign section on TV, where individual segments taken from other countries news media are played. They learn about foreign affairs largely from this – the selection ranges from almost immediate on items that are good news, to up to a 6 month delay on things that are neutral or negative. Things like the economic issues in Greece took a long time to hit the news here (only this fall), while the satellite reaching the edge of the solar system got reported the same week. The rest ends up being a combination of rebroadcasts of sports games, some Chinese dramas, and local news segments.

Did you accidentally say “Just Google it,” and then realise that it wasn’t available to your students?

Scott: Yeah! A lot of CS education really breaks down without access to the Internet.

South Korean activists send more propaganda-filled balloons into North Korea

Activists in South Korea, including some North Korean defectors who were soldiers when they lived in the North, sent propaganda-loaded balloons over the border into North Korea on Wednesday, defying Pyongyang’s past threats of retaliation against the launches.

The helium-filled balloons were stuffed with DVDs and leaflets documenting human rights abuses in the North. They also contained 1,000 U.S. $1 bills and small USB drives loaded with the Korean-language version of Wikipedia.

Thor Halvorssen of the U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation, which helped organize the launch, called the balloons “controversial,” but said it is crucial North Koreans be allowed to access information the rest of the world already enjoys.

North Korea has lashed out at previous balloon launches, threatening to shell South Korea in response to such actions, which it calls deliberate provocation by Seoul that could lead to war. Seoul maintains that it has nothing to do with the launches.

>> Click to watch brief video of propaganda balloons being launched into north korea  <<


Continuing trend of less North Koreans fleeing their country

More than 1 500 North Koreans fled to South Korea last year, maintaining a recent fall in the number of escapees that coincided with a clampdown by new leader Kim Jong-Un.

Five years ago the annual number of escapees was close to 3 000, but the number dropped sharply after Kim came to power in December 2011, following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il.

The number of North Koreans fleeing to the South, most of them via China slumped to 1 502 in 2012, while last year the figure was slightly higher at 1 516, Seoul’s unification ministry said.

Under Kim Jong-Un, the isolated state tightened border security and stepped up diplomatic campaigns to have refugees hiding in China repatriated.

The majority of refugees secretly cross the border to China before travelling to a neighboring Southeast Asian country, where they arrange to fly on to Seoul for resettlement.

China, the North’s sole major ally typically considers them illegal economic migrants and repatriates them despite criticisms from human rights groups. Many face severe punishment including, rights monitors say, torture and a term in a prison camp once they are sent back to the North.