Category Archives: Human Rights

Video: N. Korea human rights conference at SAIS, with keynote by Hon. Michael Kirby

On Tuesday, I took a day off from the day job to attend an outstanding conference, organized by the International Bar Association, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the North Korean Freedom Coalition, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Rather than describe it, I’ll just give you a little weekend viewing and post the whole thing.

The first video starts with introductions by Jae Ku of SAIS, and speeches by Sen. Cory Gardner, Amb. Ahn Ho-Young, and Amb. Lee Jong-Hoon. After this, there were five panels:

9:45am-11:15am Panel I: Human Rights in North Korea Today

  • Moderator: Greg Scarlatoiu: Exec. Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK); 
  • Robert Herman: VP for Regional Programs, Freedom House
  • Amb. Lee Jung-Hoon: Ambassador for Human Rights, Republic of Korea
  • Amb. Robert King: Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, State Department
  • John Sifton: Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

11:30am-1:00pm Panel II: Sanctions

  • Moderator: Sung-Yoon Lee: Professor, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
  • Frank Jannuzi: President & CEO, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation
  • Bruce Klingner: Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation, Asian Studies Center
  • William Newcomb: Former Member, UN Security Council Panel of Experts on DPRK Sanctions
  • Joshua Stanton: One Free Korea

1:00pm-2:00pm LUNCHEON AND KEYNOTE SPEECH: Hon. Michael D. Kirby, Chair, U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of North Korea.

Special thanks to Shaquille for taking this photo:


2:00pm-3:30pm Panel III: Accountability for Human Rights Violations

  • Moderator: Roberta Cohen: Non Resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
  • Param-Preet Singh: Senior Counsel, Human Rights Watch, International Justice Program
  • Morse Tan: Associate Professor of Law, Northern Illinois University College of Law
  • David Tolbert: President, International Center for Transitional Justice

3:45pm-5:15pm Panel IV: Indigenous and Cross-Border Activities Aimed at Advancing Human Rights in North Korea

  • Moderator: Suzanne Scholte: President, Defense Forum Foundation
  • Jieun Baek: Fellow, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
  • Scott Busby: Deputy Asst. Secretary, State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
  • Kang Cheol-Hwan: President, North Korea Strategy Center
  • John Fox: Founder, I-Media
  • Kim Seong Min: Founder, Free North Korea Radio

The unsung heroine of the conference was a young woman named Sosseh, who works for the International Bar Association. Sosseh handled the organization, scheduling, and logistics of all of the events, and made it all run like clockwork.

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Ban Ki-Moon on N. Korea: U.N. must “hold perpetrators of crimes accountable” (updated)

The U.S., the EU, South Korea, and other “like-minded” governments are renewing their push for a U.N. Security Council resolution to refer “the highest official responsible” for Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.

South Korea, the U.S., Britain and Japan have launched fresh efforts to adopt a similar resolution this year, the high-level source at the U.N. told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity, adding the countries have been drafting a resolution since last weekend.

The new resolution will include the ICC referral part just like last year’s resolution, the source said.

The countries have also begun collecting views from other U.N. members on what should be included in the new resolution, the source said.

“ICC referral resolutions that the U.N. has adopted so far usually don’t include the names of those responsible,” another source said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “That’s because more people could be found responsible in the course of the ICC’s investigation.” [Yonhap]

The reports — from Yonhap, UPI, and the Voice of America — quote unnamed South Korean diplomatic sources. Although the new resolution dares not speak His name, Yonhap’s source confirms that “highest official” does, indeed, mean His Corpulency.

The new resolution is also expected to include calls for punishment of those responsible for human rights violations, resolution of abductions and kidnappings while voicing concerns about torture, public executions and other types of human rights abuses in the North, according to the sources. [Yonhap]

Yonhap’s source fully expects China and Russia to block the resolution at the Security Council, but the proponents plan to push on, if only to draw more international attention to the issue. This time, however, China and Russia won’t be the only obstacles. The UNSC’s non-permanent members now include Angola, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Venezuela, all of which have close commercial or diplomatic ties to North Korea, and some of which have been implicated in using North Korean slave labor.

These developments follow the recent opening (despite Pyongyang’s threats) of the Seoul Field Office of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, and a very strong new report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur that repeated the Commission of Inquiry’s call to hold North Korean officials accountable. U.N. Member States are clearly under more pressure to answer the U.N.’s calls and lead. (In this case, however, Europe appears be doing most of the leading.)

Pyongyang responded by calling the U.N. reports “nothing more than lies from North Korean defectors, whose testimonies cannot be corroborated,” and threatening to take “the toughest counteraction” to “foil the hostile forces’ reckless ‘human rights’ hysteria.”

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss.

Interestingly enough, however, despite the fact that Seoul’s diplomats are talking up this effort to the international press, Pyongyang still allowed its hostage meetings — the ones Michael Kirby called “barbarous” and “extremely cruel” — to proceed as planned.

There is reason to doubt that all of this talk will amount to anything. After all, back in JulyThe Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported that the Obama Administration would focus “on human rights to further isolate North Korea.” But of course, as the General Accountability Office recently pointed out, at the stroke of a pen, President Obama could have reached the obvious conclusion that His Porcine Majesty and his top minions are officials of the government of North Korea for purposes of Executive Order 13687, and summarily blocked all of their assets, in full accordance with the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations. Just like Obama’s predecessor did to the top leaders of Burma, Sudan, Belarus, and Zimbabwe, and their top minions, years ago.

But if this resolution really does go forward, it would be immensely important. Not only are we having a global debate — at long last — about human rights in North Korea, but that debate is clearly building toward a global consensus that North Korea’s leaders must be held to account for their crimes. And as favorably astonished I am about this, nothing could have prepared me for what Ban Ki-Moon said yesterday:

Frankly, when I first read this Yonhap report of Ban’s words, I simply couldn’t believe that Ban Ki-Moon — the godfather of the Sunshine Policy and patron saint of fence-sitters, who has consistently said as little as possible about human rights in the North — said this. Unwilling to post it without confirmation, I emailed a contact at the U.N., who kindly and promptly did confirm it. Here’s the whole statement.

Just about everyone on Earth missed the seismic importance of Ban’s call, especially in the context of growing calls by U.N. Member States, the Special Rapporteur, and the Commission of Inquiry to hold Kim Jong-Un individually accountable. Yes, they’re just words — a few words buried near the end of a very long report — but they represent an important step toward international consensus. They mean that the price China and Russia will pay to keep covering for Kim Jong-Un will rise. They’re an embarrassment to every government that stands in the way of action or makes itself complicit. Furthermore, I doubt that Ban would have said them if he thought it would diminish his chances in the next South Korean presidential election. Ban’s words are sure to put him strongly at odds with the Democratic Party’s hard left, at a time when the DP’s leaders are already struggling to keep them under the porch.

The mills grind slowly, but they are picking up speed.

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Update, October 25, 2015: Wow:

Navi Pillay told an audience in Seoul that North Korea’s caste system discriminates against its own population and is a new example of apartheid, Voice of America reported. Pillay said North Korea should eliminate its “Songbun,” or caste system, and release the tens of thousands of political prisoners who are serving sentences after receiving unfair trials. [UPI]

Despite what these resorts say, a well-informed friend tells me that for now, the resolution is only headed for the Third Committee for now, but with the Security Council being the eventual destination. It was, indeed, Japan that has joined up with the EU to draft the resolution.

Despite protests from Pyongyang, member states of the European Union said Thursday they plan to present a draft resolution on North Korean human rights to the U.N. General Assembly by the end of October. South Korean outlet Newsis reported the announcement offers a preview of the extensive discussion of North Korea human rights abuses expected to be held before the end of the year.

The Austrian foreign ministry told press that the European Union and Japan submitted a draft resolution in September, during the 70th annual U.N. General Assembly. The ministry said it recommends the referral of the North Korea human rights situation to the International Criminal Court.

There is some question, however, whether the resolution will target Kim Jong-Un individually:

Kim Jong Un, however, would not necessarily be the target of any cases brought before the International Criminal Court. A U.N. source who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity said that the purpose of any court case would not be to pin blame on Kim Jong Un. That would be an “unreasonable interpretation,” the source said.

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Congress to hold hearings on N. Korea & terrorism, human rights, nukes this week

The first hearing, entitled, “The Persistent North Korea Denuclearization and Human Rights Challenge,” will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m., before the full Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The witnesses will be Sung Kim, the State Department’s Special Representative For North Korea Policy And Deputy Assistant Secretary For Korea and Japan, and Robert King, State’s Special Envoy For North Korean Human Rights Issues.

The second hearing will be before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, on October 22nd at 2 p.m. It will be entitled, “North Korea: Back on the State Sponsor of Terrorism List?” 

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 10.00.44 AM

(Coughs, clears throat, looks down at shoes.)

The witnesses will be Sung Kim and Ms. Hilary Batjer Johnson, State’s Deputy Coordinator for Homeland Security, Screening, and Designations. 

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U.N. report demands that N. Korean leaders be held accountable through prosecution, sanctions

marzukiU.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman has issued another report on human rights in North Korea (or more accurately, the lack thereof). The bad news is that the situation hasn’t improved, and North Korea and China are still stonewalling:

Regrettably, the situation remains the same, despite the grave concerns reiterated by the international community in different forums. The Special Rapporteur also reflects on issues around accountability for those human rights violations, which should be addressed at an early stage, and on current efforts by the international community to address the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in general.

3. The Special Rapporteur wishes to highlight from the outset that in March and again in June 2015 he requested meetings with delegates from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to follow up on the discussions that he had with them in October 2014 in New York. He regrets that his requests were declined. He firmly believes in the value of dialogue and hopes that the authorities will answer his future request positively.

The good news is that the report itself is strong — exceptionally so. In clear and strong language, it recounts the reports of North Korea’s recent waves of purges and executions, its failure to make progress on the return of abductees, its refusal let divided families reunite, and evidence that North Korea and China systematically abuse North Korean women, including by forcing them into sexual slavery.

41. The Special Rapporteur notes with great concern from the data provided by the Ministry of Unification on arrivals of defectors in the Republic of Korea that more than 70 per cent of the defectors are women. A striking estimate of 70-90 per cent of those women reportedly become victims of human trafficking and are subjected to, inter alia, forced marriage and sexual exploitation in China and in other Asian countries.14 They are particularly vulnerable to actions by smuggling gangs, whose influence has significantly increased recently owing to the clampdown by Chinese authorities on charities and evangelical groups from the Republic of Korea that used to facilitate their escape through China. 

42. Female overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sent to China have also fallen victim to sexual exploitation. It was reported that, in June 2014, the Government of China deported a group of female workers in a food factory because they were forced into prostitution at night, upon instructions from an executive of the factory and with the complicity of the security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of their surveillance. The latter was also forcibly repatriated.

The report also denounced China’s inhumane repatriation of refugees, including children, to an uncertain fate in North Korea.

36. In that regard, the Special Rapporteur is strongly concerned by reports indicating that a group of 29 citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including a 1-year-old child, were detained by the Chinese authorities in Shandong and Yunnan provinces between 15 and 17 July 2014 and subsequently forcibly returned to their country of origin.12 Their whereabouts were unknown at the time of writing. In addition, in October 2014, the Chinese authorities reportedly arrested 11 individuals (10 adults and 1 child aged 7) from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who were seeking to enter Myanmar in the southern region of Yunnan province.13 Their whereabouts are also unknown.

37. The Special Rapporteur notes that the Committee against Torture included that case in its list of issues in relation to the fifth periodic report of China. It sought information about their fate upon return and enquired, inter alia, whether there were “post-return monitoring arrangements in place to ensure that those returned to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are protected from the danger of being subjected to torture” (CAT/C/CHN/Q/5/Add.1, para. 9). He hopes that the Government of China will clarify the matter during the fifty-sixth session of the Committee, in November 2015.

38. The Special Rapporteur regrets that his requests to meet representatives of the Permanent Missions of China in Geneva and New York in March and May 2015, respectively, were unsuccessful. He remains available to engage in constructive dialogue with the Government of China to find a sustainable solution to that pressing issue.

Some of the report’s best language, however, dealt with North Korea’s exports of forced labor for hard currency. Its choice of words in this context — “forced labor,” “slave labor,” “contemporary forms of slavery” — deserves to draw greater global attention and action. And it names names:

26. According to various studies, it is estimated that more than 50,000 workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea operate abroad. 8 The vast majority are currently employed in China and the Russian Federation. Other countries where workers operate reportedly include Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

27. The overseas workers are employed mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries. Their conditions of work have been documented by civil society organizations that conducted interviews with former overseas workers.

They found that:

    (a) The workers do not know the details of their employment contract;

    (b) Tasks are assigned according to the worker’s State-assigned social class (songbun): the lower classes are reportedly assigned the most dangerous and tedious tasks. Workers with relatives in the country are preferred, to ensure that they will fully comply while abroad;

    (c) Workers earn on average between $120 and $150 per month, while employers in fact pay significantly higher amounts to the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (employers deposit the salaries of the workers in accounts controlled by companies from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea);

    (d) Workers are forced to work sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. In some instances, if they do not fulfil the monthly quota imposed, they reportedly do not get paid;

    (e) Health and safety measures are often inadequate. Safety accidents are reportedly not reported to local authorities but handled by security agents;

    (f) Workers are given insufficient daily food rations;

    (g) Freedom of movement of overseas workers is unduly restricted. Workers are under constant surveillance by security personnel from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in charge of ensuring that they comply with the Government’s rules and regulations. Those agents confiscate the workers’ passports. The workers are also forbidden to return to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during their assignment;

    (h) Workers are threatened with repatriation if they do not perform well enough or commit infractions. Defectors apprehended are sent back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

28. It is alleged that the host authorities never monitor the working conditions of overseas workers.

29. It is worth noting that the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is paying increased attention to the scrutiny by foreign media and organizations on its overseas workers. In April 2015, it issued instructions to overseas workers and supervisors to prevent anyone from reporting human rights abuses in the workplace. Workers and supervisors have reportedly been ordered to destroy any recording equipment, confiscate the memory cards and even assault the person documenting the abuses. Failure to do so would result in the worker or supervisor being punished, although it is not clear what type of punishment would be applied.

30. The Special Rapporteur notes (with satisfaction) the decision in May 2015 of a construction company in Qatar to dismiss 90 employees from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (nearly half of the workforce employed) for alleged repeated violations of domestic labour legislation. According to the company, “supervisors responsible for the well-being of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly”.

10 One of the workers reportedly died as a result of such treatment. The company agreed to keep the remaining workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the condition that they no longer breach any rules. 

31. The Special Rapporteur takes all such reports very seriously. He intends to pay close and sustained attention to the issue in future, with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) office in Seoul. To that end, he calls upon the Member States concerned to grant him, his successor and OHCHR staff access to verify all of the allegations.

32. The Special Rapporteur reminds the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of its obligation under article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights not to engage in forced labour. He stresses that companies hiring overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labour. They should report any abuses to the local authorities, which have the obligation to investigate thoroughly, and end such partnership.

In other places, the Special Rapporteur’s report shows why his office needs investigative support to keep up with the evidence. Paragraph 16, for example, cites unverified reports that Camp 15 was being dismantled, but we’ve since seen reliable reporting, backed by satellite imagery, that refutes this claim. The report also cites reports that nine North Korean children repatriated by the Laotian government might have been executed or sent to Camp 14, but fails to note that Pyongyang, no doubt mindful of the attention they’ve attracted, later showed (at least some of) the children on television. These are distracting errors, but now that the Seoul field office has started its work, we can expect to see the quality, length, and frequency of the Special Rapporteur’s reports improve.

It’s equally apparent that the Seoul field office, which is working under threats of violence by Pyongyang, needs the Special Rapporteur to offer it some protection from those threats. After all, the Reconnaissance General Bureau is both willing and able to carry out assassinations inside South Korea. Marzuki denounced those threats at length:

65. In relation to the third point, the Special Rapporteur notes with deep concern the series of threats issued by the authorities and media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against the Seoul office. On 23 June 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea issued a statement accusing the “hostile forces” in the international community led by the United States of America of using the field presence to plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and “incite confrontation under the pretext of protecting human rights”. On 30 March 2015, the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement threatening an attack against the then forthcoming office and accusing the Republic of Korea and the United States of orchestrating a human rights plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The statement specifically said: “we will never sit back and watch as South Korea hosts the United Nations office on human rights of DPRK in Seoul. As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the first target for our merciless punishment.” In May 2015, the newspaper Minju Joson stated that “[the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will never pardon but mercilessly punish those hell-bent on the anti-DPRK ‘human rights’ racket, whether they are the puppet forces or their masters or those going under the mask of any international body”. 18

66. This is not the first time that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has issued a threat. On 9 June 2014, a spokesperson for the Pyongyang Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea released a statement protesting against the OHCHR field office in the Republic of Korea, threatening punishment and attacks at those involved in the plan, as well as staff in the office, referring to the plan as a scheme led by the United States and the Republic of Korea. 

67. The Special Rapporteur urges the authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to cease issuing such threats. He believes that it is totally unacceptable for the Government of a United Nations Member State to issue a statement that blatantly threatens punishment and attacks on a United Nations office and its staff members. He stresses that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as a member of the United Nations, has a responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations to protect the United Nations, its staff and its assets.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Clearly, then, this Special Rapporteur will not let the world forget what the Commission of Inquiry told us about crimes against humanity in North Korea. He repeated his call to hold the responsible North Korean officials accountable:

49. The Special Rapporteur remains convinced that the accountability track must be pursued urgently, in parallel with sustained efforts to seek engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is an irreversible process that the authorities will have to face sooner or later.

50. In his view, issues around accountability should be addressed at an early stage and with long-term strategies in mind. A process of reflection and discussion on possible accountability mechanisms and processes should start as soon as possible. This should not be done, as in previous instances with other countries, at the last minute of a change process.

Both Pyongyang and Beijing have ignored the Special Rapporteur’s attempts to engage them, and to cooperate with an investigation of the allegations. Beijing still intends to block any attempt by the Security Council to hold Kim Jong-Un accountable. Yet the Special Rapporteur did not yield on the urgency and importance of accountability. In addition to repeating the Commission of Inquiry’s call for a referral to the International Criminal Court, it called for establishing an ad hoc tribunal, and a human rights contact group of member states. Which sounds a lot like what S. 2144, a bill introduced by three Republican U.S. Senators, also called for (see, e.g., sections 302 and 305). The report also called for financial accountability through targeted, bilateral sanctions. 

55. In addition to a possible referral to the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, as encouraged by the General Assembly, should consider the scope for effective targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for acts that the commission deemed to constitute crimes against humanity. While the Council has yet to consider taking action on the matter, the Special Rapporteur welcomes the steps that some Member States have begun to take on a bilateral basis in that direction.

I don’t know what states other than the U.S. the Special Rapporteur might have had in mind. The logic is clear: if the Security Council won’t act, then it’s up to member states to use their national laws, and to mobilize world opinion, to force Pyongyang to change. And thankfully, that’s exactly where things seem to be headed. Indeed, one sees an almost unprecedented convergence here between a U.N. report and a Republican-led Congress. Meanwhile, President Obama sits passively, like the king of an ancient Asian vassal state, deferring to the emperor in the Forbidden City.

The U.N. has not shown itself to be an effective agent for action, but at least reports like these, and the excellent reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions compliance, show that the U.N. can still be an effective fact-finder. Eventually — though too late for far too many North Koreans — better facts will make better policies.

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The U.N. will just go on talking about Kim Jong-Un’s crimes against humanity, and that’s still better than nothing

Since July, when the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights opened its new field office in Seoul, the office has hired a six-person staff and gotten to work. Last week, The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale spoke to the office’s Representative, Ms. Signe Poulsen of Denmark, who clarified that the field office will carry on the work of the UNHCHR’s Commission of Inquiry, investigate new reports of human rights abuses, and keep those reports in the public eye.

“We’re looking to bring more depth to the report. Seoul is the best place to be for that,” Signe Poulsen, representative for the office, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. Ms. Poulsen arrived in South Korea in August and will coordinate information gathering from North Korean refugees, activist groups, academics and other North Korea-related parties. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

Poulsen explained to Yonhap, the official news service of a government that represents South Korea’s largely apathetic people, why the rest of the world cares about this.

“Many of these violations are so systematic and so widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity,” Poulsen said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. “That’s a high threshold. That’s not business as normal. That’s really very serious.” [….]

“The scale of violations against people living in North Korea is so large that it concerns all of us,” she said. [….]

Poulsen said that public executions have continued for a long time as a “pattern” of the North’s serious rights violation.

The office will mainly collect relevant information from North Korean defectors, experts and civic groups. It will later report its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council. [Yonhap]

Poulsen, apparently a person with a predisposition for optimism, also told Gale that Pyongyang’s “strong response” to the opening of the office a sign that “it is taking the issue very seriously.” I suppose that depends on what one means by “seriously.” If she means that the office’s opening has clearly touched a nerve, there’s little doubt about that. But instead of offering a serious and substantive response, Pyongyang has adopted a diplomatic strategy of denial, disruptions, racial slurs, homophobic slurs, threats against both witnesses and the U.N. office itself, and Halloween candy. To be specific:

“Anyone who challenges our dignity and social system and agrees to go ahead with the establishment of the office will be ruthlessly punished,” the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement. [….]

South Korean president Park Geun-hye and others from international human rights organizations would “pay the price”, the statement, carried by the official KCNA news agency, said.

The planned office was a “hideous politically-motivated provocation”, and an “anti-North Korean plot-breeding organization,” led by South Korea and the United States, it added.

North Korea “categorically and totally” rejected the accusations set out in the report, saying they were based on material faked by hostile forces backed by the United States, the European Union and Japan. [Reuters, James Pearson, June 9, 2014]

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008.

The Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK), a state body handling inter-Korean affairs, said late Monday that the office was an “unforgivable provocation” and would become a “first-strike target.” [….]

As soon as the nest for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign is in place in the South, it will immediately become the target for our merciless punishment,” the CPRK said in a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency. [AFP, March 30, 2015]

The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

PoulsenMs. Poulsen, whose photograph does not evoke my stereotype of a neocon conquistadora, nonetheless answers the threats bravely:

Poulsen said she is not afraid of the North’s threat, saying that there are many field workers and rights advocates who are putting their lives at risk every day. [….]

Poulsen said that she will ramp up efforts to gather information on the North’s rights abuses in a “comprehensive and accurate” manner despite limitations, as she cannot visit the North for her assignments.

“My expectation and my strong hope is that I will be able to fulfill the mandate to the satisfaction of all U.N. member states,” she said. [Yonhap]

Of course, the field office will not satisfy all of the member states, but if it can eventually produce reports as detailed as this new report from the Korea Institute for National Unification (hat tip and thanks to a reader) it will succeed at fulfilling its mandate and keeping the issue in the public eye. Whatever you may think of the U.N. as an institution, reports that carry its imprimatur carry more global credibility. The U.N. almost always fails as an agent of international action, but the U.N. Panel of Experts and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry have shown us that it can be an effective fact finder, and facts change policies.

For the foreseeable future, then, the dying will continue, and the U.N. isn’t about to do anything concrete about that. China has blocked any move toward accountability in the Security Council, although the issue remains on the Security Council’s permanent agenda. Poulson also notes that the General Assembly will take up the issue again this month. That means that for now, all the field office can really do is to “keep the issue of North Korean human rights on the U.N. agenda.”*

Beyond that, as Christine Chung writes at HRNK insider, there is little agreement about what to do next. Japan says it wants its people back, but suggests that it might normalize relations after that. The EU calls on Pyongyang to close the gulag, but threatens no consequences if it doesn’t. France called for an ICC referral, which China and Russia have blocked, and the U.S. won’t push for. China wants a peace treaty, which would amount to de facto recognition of Pyongyang’s nuclear status and crimes against humanity. The usual rogues’ gallery of Pyongyang’s allies criticizes the critics. Other well-meaning observers, including Michael Kirby himself, call for more of the “dialogue” and exchanges that have never gotten us anywhere, and never will, unless they’re backed by tougher policies that persuade Pyongyang that it must change or perish.

Of the incoherence of South Korea’s policy, little more needs to be said, although one can at least hope that the U.N. office will begin to change minds and awaken some level of consciousness — the prerequisite to a more coherent policy. That may be the best we can hope for from the U.N. for the foreseeable future, but if it’s enough to shift public opinion, and enable a coalition of member states to form a consensus for more effective action, it might, in a few years’ time, be just enough.

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* Quote is from Gale’s report, paraphrasing Poulsen’s words.

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Twenty women Senators do what @GloriaSteinem and @WomenCrossDMZ won’t: Stand up for women in N. Korea’s gulag

With the possible exceptions of Mosul and Raqqa, there may be no worse place on earth to be a woman today than inside North Korea’s prison camps. There, according to a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, “the conditions of subjugation of inmates, coupled with the general climate of impunity, creates an environment, in which rape perpetrated by guards and prisoners in privileged positions is common.” The Commission found that “[w]ithout exception, pregnant victims are subject to abortion or their child is killed at birth.” High percentages of female prisoners die of starvation, disease, torture, and arbitrary execution.

One former prisoner, a woman named Kim Hye-sook, told the Commission of Inquiry that “the women who worked in the mines of Political Prison Camp No. 18 feared assignment to the nightshift, because guards and prisoners preyed on them on their way to and from work and rape them.” Another witness “reported that the guards of Camp No. 18 were especially targeting teenage girls.” A former guard told of “how the camp authorities made female inmates available for sexual abuse to a very senior official who regularly visited the camp,” and that “[a]fter the official raped the women, the victims were killed.” One former guard recalled that after the commander of his unit raped a woman, who subsequently gave birth, “[t]he mother and her child were taken to the detention and punishment block, where the baby was thrown in the feeding bowl for the dogs.” (U.N. Commission of Inquiry, Full Report, para. 766) Another former guard at Camp 16 told Amnesty International that “several women inmates disappeared after they had been raped by officials,” and concluded “that they had been executed secretly.” 

Especially beautiful women suffered the most. It has been known that Kim Byeong-Ha, who was the Bowibu director and set up political prison camps in 1972, selected pretty women and slept with them in an inspection visit to the camps. Then those women were transferred to the director of the 3rd Bureau (Pretrial Examination Bureau) of the Bowibu and used as an experiment subject and killed. [….]

There is a “Cadre Guest House” at No. 14 Political Prison Camp. It is a special building where ministers or deputy ministers from Pyeongyang stay. When senior officials come from Pyeongyang, pretty maidens aged 21 to 25 are selected among female inmates, bathed and then sent to them. After the officials make a sexual plaything of those females, they charge the women with fleeing and kill them to keep secrets. [Korean Bar Association, 2008 White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, page 165]

To this evidence, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea adds a new report on the expansion of Camp 12, Chongo-ri (opens in pdf), to include a special women’s section.


According to HRNK:

Sometime after 2008, however, a women’s section was added to Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, reflecting the huge increase of refouled (forcibly repatriated) North Korean women from China. Five additional former prisoners from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri interviewed in Seoul in March 2015 update this enlargement of the Jongo-ri prison. This reflects North Korea’s ongoing policy to wrongfully imprisoned persons for reasons not permitted under contemporary international law. Many of the North Koreans who are deprived of their liberty and subjected to forced labor and inhumane conditions suffer this punishment for having taken actions that are explicitly provided for and protected in international law, including conventions that North Korea has acceded to.

It would be fair to call Chongo-ri a “death camp.”

The first edition of Hidden Gulag (2003) cited the testimony of a former prisoner on the deplorable conditions and high rates of death in detention at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Between December 1998 and July 1999, “Out of twenty-three prisoners who entered on the same day… only two survived. The rest died within eight months of arrival, from hard labor and sub-subsistence food rations–small mixtures of corn and beans, with rice added only on holidays.” A former prisoner interviewed for that report believes that eight hundred prisoners died while he was there; so many, according to what another prisoner told him, that the guards had to burn the corpses.

This former prisoner reported that he weighed 50 kilograms (kg) (110 pounds (lb)) prior to his arrest and only 30 kg (66 lb) upon his release from Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. This was fifteen years ago during North Korea’s “great famine.” Reportedly, not all that much has changed in this regard at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Tudor and Pearson, publishing in 2015, wrote that “it is common for men serving time there to lose 30 kilograms [66 lb] in body weight. Many end up starving to death.”[*] One of the former women prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this present report in March 2015, Ms. Kim Min-ji, reported that during her time in Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 from 2009 to 2011, nearly all people lost weight and many died of malnutrition and related diseases.

Images of Chongo-ri were first published at this site in 2009.


In January 2014, two OFK readers first brought the expansion of the camp to my attention, and I published this image of the expanded camp.

The new women’s section was added sometime between 2009 and 2013. HRNK’s report contains the first accounts of the women who were held there:

Another former female prisoner at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015, Ms. Choi Min-gyang, went from 57 kg (125 lb) to 27 kg (60 lb) during her time at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri (mid-2008 to September 2010). She was put in the ho-yak-ban (severely sick) unit and lost consciousness. Her condition was so severe that prison officials called her family to come get her rather than deal with her death. It took her a year to regain her health, after which she fled to China and on to South Korea.

Another woman prisoner interviewed for the present report stated that she weighed 79 kg (174 lb) while in China, but her weight during pre-trial detention in North Korea dropped to 34 kg (74 lb). She arrived at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12. Jongo-ri in 2010 already so weak that the prison authorities initially did not want to accept her. Nonetheless, even though she was clearly weak and sick, she was assigned to the logging work unit and fed only rotten corn. She never regained her weight until she was released in 2012.

Two male former prisoners at Jongo-ri interviewed for this report in March 2015 indicate that, for men, Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 has operated almost the same for several decades.

The vast majority of the women who live and die at Chongo-ri have been “convicted” in five-minute sham trials of nothing that any other country recognizes as a crime — fleeing across the border to escape starvation and earn a living. The women prisoners of Chongo-ri aren’t even defectors; if they were, they’d end up in far worse places. Many of the women at Chongo-ri were forced to make wigs, presumably for export, to earn hard currency for the regime. Let us not forget the men of Chongo-ri, who worked in an unsafe mine, or a furniture factory, where deadly accidents were common.

What is most maddening about all of this is that it isn’t the cause celebre of Hollywood stars, famous activists, or the big names of the Human Rights Industry, because in terms of numbers and depravity, it deserves to be. That’s why it adds just a drop of hope to a sea of despair when all 20 female U.S. Senators, Republicans and Democrats, take a moment to remember North Korea’s female political prisoners in this resolution.

(16) serving as a composite for prisoners of concern worldwide, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, including men, women, and children, who are detained in the brutal political prison camps of North Korea where starvation, forced labor, executions, rape, sexual violence, forced abortions, and torture are commonplace and whose offenses, according to defectors, include—

(A) burning old currency or criticizing the currency revaluation of the Government;

(B) sitting on newspapers bearing the picture of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il;

(C) mentioning the limited formal education of Kim Il Sung; and (D) defacing photographs of the Kims;

It merits mention that the resolution was in support of the Samantha Power-led #Freethe20 campaign. No, words and hashtags will not free any prisoners. The hard truth is that few of the women in Chongo-ri or the other camps today will ever get out alive. But words can build a consensus toward policies that can free the next generation of prisoners.

And what of the world’s most famous women’s rights activist, Gloria Steinem? A woman who is rightly remembered both for her activism for the rights of women, and for human rights globally? Today, she has cast her lot with the notorious North Korean sympathizer Christine Ahn and Code Pink, opposing the very pressure that can force Pyongyang to end its atrocities against North Korean women. Instead, a woman who was once arrested for blocking the street in front of the South African Embassy, and who supported the sanctions and isolation that forced the end of apartheid, when asked about sanctions to force change in North Korea, answers: “The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven’t worked very well in my experience.”

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The book cited is “North Korea Confidential,” by James Pearson and Daniel Tudor. It’s one of several books I’m reading, as scarce time permits. So far, I’ve found it well researched and interesting.

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Obama Administration plans N. Korea human rights push at U.N., but is it too late?

Had you asked me two months ago how a deal between the Obama Administration and Iran would affect North Korea policy, I’d have answered that it would preoccupy Congress through September, and that after that, things would pick right up where they left off.

How wrong I was. The Iran deal continues to dim the odds of another Agreed Framework with North Korea by drawing so many unflattering comparisons to the 1994 Agreed Framework as to destroy its legacy. Republicans hold up the 1994 deal as a paragon of diplomatic malpractice and say the Iran deal is 1994 all over again. John Kerry, cognizant that the results of the Agreed Framework speak for themselves, is trying to uncouple this analogy by conceding its failure, and insisting that the State Department has learned its lesson. (Support for the Iran deal is dropping anyway.) One can only hope Democrats will remember to throw George W. Bush’s equally disastrous Agreed Framework of 2007 in the face of a future Republican president who tries to repeat it. This history doesn’t give us much confidence in State’s capacity to learn from its errors, but it would take some chutzpah for Kerry to grasp for Agreed Framework 3 anytime soon.

A second unexpected consequence of the Iran deal is the provocation of an unforced (and potentially decisive) error by the Pyongyang regime — a series of public declarations that it doesn’t want a denuclearization deal. The North Koreans may be accomplished and compulsive liars, but they aren’t always sophisticated ones. Smarter tyrants would have milked this administration for more aid and sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze deal, and cheated their way to Inauguration Day. Kim Jong-Un probably doesn’t feel the need to do that, as The Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale explains, because he isn’t feeling much pressure to. My special commendation to Mr. Gale for getting this part right:

Some observers say that the lack of leverage is because sanctions on North Korea are far weaker than those imposed on Iran. Chun Young-woo, a former South Korean negotiator at the six-nation talks process that for several years tried to coax North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions, says there’s plenty of room to tighten the screws, such as further “secondary sanctions” on companies that do business with the country.

“If we are going to try diplomacy again it’s necessary to change North Korea’s strategic calculus with biting sanctions,” he says.

U.S. officials say that they are working on increasing pressure on Pyongyang through a range of measures designed to stem money flows to the regime, such as cracking down on illegal shipping and seeking to tighten controls on North Korea’s exports of laborers that work in near slave-like conditions around the world. North Korea sanctions enforcement bills have also been submitted to the U.S. House and Senate. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

Let’s return to that topic later in this post. First, however, let’s turn to Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, who has published an important story for purposes of the next 18 months. Fifield reports that six years and two nuclear tests after President Obama’s inauguration, the administration has finally had an epiphany — that Kim Jong-Un isn’t interested in negotiating his nuclear disarmament after all. (South Korea may have reached the same epiphany.) This epiphany has caused the administration to consider a new strategy.

The Obama administration is instead focusing on human rights to further isolate North Korea, encouraged by the outbursts this approach has elicited from Kim’s stubbornly recalcitrant regime — apparently because the accusations cast aspersions at the leader and his legitimacy. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Fifield then quotes Andrei Lankov, who characterizes human rights advocacy as “the next political infatuation.” It’s the sort of statement that causes me to wonder, as do more than a few of my friends, what has come over Andrei lately. It’s a statement that offends those of us whose infatuations are anything but transitory, and who’ve done years of hard work to keep this issue in the public’s eye.

This [pressure] is likely to increase as a U.N. committee reports back in October on a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations and seeking to refer its leaders to the International Criminal Court. It comes after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry released a landmark report last year, detailing abuses including torture and imprisonment in labor camps for political crimes, forced abortions and infanticide.

The administration intends to push for a Security Council resolution to “keep the issue alive” and “continue the drumbeat of criticism” despite its expectation that China will veto it.

“I think this focus on human rights is beginning to get their attention,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules imposed by the department. “We’ve been able to push on [the Commission of Inquiry report], and we are continuing to keep these efforts going.”

Unfortunately, however, China and Russia won’t be the only obstacles our diplomats will face this year. The current membership of the Security Council includes Angola, a customer of North Korea’s banned arms exports; Malaysia, which has commercial ties to North Korea and uses its slave labor; Nigeria, which recently signed an economic cooperation agreement with the North; and Venezuela (enough said). Worse, most of these problem states will be members of the Security Council through 2016. Beyond this, there is the awkwardness of pushing for an ICC referral when the U.S. hasn’t signed the Rome Statute itself. These aren’t reasons not to continue to press North Korea at the U.N., but they are substantial enough obstacles to give us pause about the strategy. Had we pressed for a Security Council vote last year, when the membership of the Security Council was more favorable, we would have at least isolated and shamed China and Russia. Today, it’s hardly assured that we’d win an absolute majority of the votes.

On the other hand, Pyongyang does seem genuinely worried about how the Commission of Inquiry’s findings affect its legitimacy.

“That’s what caused them some real concern. For the North Koreans, legitimacy is a big deal. It’s a question about the leader and his dignity,” Kirby said.

Fifield’s report points out that Pyongyang “has been engaging energetically” in the face of criticism of its human rights record, which is a gentle way of putting it. After one meeting, a North Korean diplomat was overheard calling a diplomat from Botswana (which cut its ties to Pyongyang over the COI report) a “black bastard.” At the Council on Foreign Relations, Pyongyang’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il-Hun engaged in a bizarre dialogue with the unctuous Don Gregg, in which Jang denied the COI’s findings and boasted that the regime’s construction of water parks and ski resorts proves how much Kim Jong-Un has done for human rights. And there was this episode:

At a human rights panel in April hosted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, North Korean diplomats mounted a noisy demonstration that led to their microphones being cut off. They were escorted from the hall by security officers.

As Fifield’s report notes, correctly, Pyongyang used to simply ignore criticism of its abuses. Now, it can’t. Hardly a day passes in which the Korean Central News Agency doesn’t publish a denunciation of the U.S. or South Korean “human rights racket.” It may or may not be true that Pyongyang has ordered the assassinations of the North Korean refugees who denounced the regime’s abuses, but Pyongyang is clearly shaken. This causes Bill Newcomb — formerly with the CIA, State, Treasury, and the U.N. Panel of Experts — to recall the last time the U.S. had a strategy that seized Pyongyang’s undivided attention:

Pyongyang’s reactions to the human rights push have been similar to its visceral reaction to American financial sanctions in 2005, said William Newcomb, a former Treasury official who served on a special U.N. panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea.

By sanctioning Banco Delta Asia, a small bank based in Macau that handled North Korean money, the United States effectively cut off North Korea’s access to the international financial system. That brought Pyongyang back to the nuclear negotiating table.

“I perceive their response as being similar to how they reacted once they realized what had been done to them via BDA — and that took a while to sink in,” Newcomb said. “Even then, they really didn’t understand how BDA could be leveraged to have lasting negative consequences on their access to the international finance system.

Those who oppose sanctions for policy reasons often deny that financial pressure worked against Pyongyang. Professor John Park, for example, argues that sanctions have only made Pyongyang more resilient, which is like advocating the use of aromatherapy to treat TB because some strains of TB have become drug-resistant. Of course, some strains of TB have become drug-resistant — either because doctors administer low doses of antibiotics, or because patients don’t finish the doses doctors give them, which allows mycobacterium tuberculosis the opportunity to survive, adapt, and replicate in resistant forms. In the same manner, our current weak sanctions against Pyongyang have allowed it to adapt and resist.

It is time for stronger medicine. History has shown us that when sanctions are concerted and strong, North Korea’s isolation becomes its greatest vulnerability. The regime (unlike its downtrodden subjects) remains dependent on hard currency and imported luxuries. According to those who were inside the Bush Administration at the time, and those who covered the BDA story, the pressure was extremely effective. Newcomb sees comparisons between Pyongyang’s stunned reaction to the actions against BDA and denunciation of its crimes against humanity.

Now, imagine the effect on Pyongyang if financial sanctions were our mechanism for sanctioning its crimes against humanity. There is ample precedent for this. The Treasury Department has blocked the assets of Sudanese officials for human rights violations in Darfur. It has blocked the assets of senior Iranian officials for “perpetrating human rights abuses” and Iranian companies for “activities that limit the freedom of expression or assembly.” It has blocked the assets of the leaders of Belarus for “undermining democratic processes or institutions.” It has blocked the assets of the leaders of Zimbabwe (search “mugabe”) and their third-country enablers and cronies for “undermining Zimbabwe’s democratic processes and institutions or facilitating public corruption.” Following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, it blocked the assets of more than a dozen men simply because they are “officials of the Russian government.” Until recently, it had sanctioned members of Burma’s ruling junta for human rights violations and for “military trade with North Korea,” meaning that the administration had sanctioned senior Burmese officials for (among other reasons) buying arms from North Korea, but no senior North Korean officials for selling them to Burma.

To this day, the U.S. government has not made a serious or sustained effort to block the billions in misspent assets of Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un, or any senior North Korean official — not one. The legal authority to do this, Executive Order 13687, is already in place. It would allow President Obama to sanction every member of the National Defense Committee and the Organization and Guidance Department at the stroke of a pen.

There is no question that sanctions are most effective when we invest diplomatic resources in getting other countries to enforce them. If the U.N. is temporarily hostile and congenitally paralyzed, there is fresh evidence that Europe may be willing to work with us to tighten sanctions against Pyongyang. Viewed in this light, might our limited diplomatic resources be better spent on a campaign of progressive diplomacy that begins with our friends in Europe and Japan, then South Korea, and other wavering states? The combined economic power of these states alone might be sufficient to pressure North Korea to either change or collapse. They could also combine their economic power to force China and Russia, whose economies are both reeling today, to enforce the sanctions they’ve already voted for in the Security Council.

Whatever the strategy, it is important to keep pressing the issue at every U.N. forum where we can continue to publicize Pyongyang’s crimes. It is important that we do this, not because it makes a good bargaining chip for some other purpose, but because it is important to achieve improvements in human rights in North Korea. After 20 years and countless deaths, vague strategies of “engagement” and “dialogue” toward that end will no longer do.

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Can the UNHCR address North Korea’s human rights crisis, despite Ban Ki-Moon?

At long last, the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights has opened its new field office in Seoul. Its mandates will be as follows:

  • Strengthen monitoring and documentation of the situation of human rights as steps towards establishing accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • Enhance engagement and capacity-building with the Governments of all States concerned, civil society and other stakeholders
  • Maintain visibility of the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea including through sustained communications, advocacy and outreach initiatives

The U.N. picks up this work after a lost year, in which China and Russia prevented the Security Council from acting on the February 2014 report of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry, finding the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State.’” Those crimes include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” All of these crimes went unanswered because no one made China and Russia pay a political price for shielding their perpetuation, least of all the nominal of leader of the U.N. itself.

If the UNHCR takes its mandates seriously, it still could do much to attach political, diplomatic, and eventually, financial costs to Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity. UNHCR investigations could help to separate established fact from rumor and disinformation, test the credibility of claims and counterclaims, report on and publicize the facts it establishes, humanize the victims, and keep the rights of the North Korean people in the public eye and on the diplomatic agenda. Ultimately, its findings could build support for an international movement, along the lines of the movements that isolated South Africa and Sudan.

Judging by its reaction, Pyongyang also recognizes this potential. It has called the opening of the field office an “unpardonable hideous politically-motivated provocation and an open declaration of a war,” threatening “revenge” and “harsh punishment,” and written that the field office “will be the first target of its merciless punishment and strike immediately the office is set up in south Korea.”

Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry also threatened Seoul for hosting the field office, calling it a “hideous politically motivated provocation challenging [the North’s] the dignity and social system.” Its counterpart to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, has threatened to “mercilessly punish” South Korea, and threatened “‘catastrophic’ consequences” in relations between the Koreas. But then, Pyongyang says that the human rights issue in the North is “non-existent,” which unwittingly validates the need for the office.

High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein hasn’t escaped Pyongyang’s charm offensive, either. Uriminzokkiri recently called him “a mediocre peddler of cheap goods.”

Hussein responded to at least some of this, calling the “threats from a member state” of the U.N. “deeply regrettable and unbecoming of that member state.” (What’s really unbecoming of the U.N. is that North Korea is still a member at all.) Threats notwithstanding, Hussein promised that “the U.N. will continue to work to highlight the dire human rights situation in North Korea and pressure the Kim Jong Un regime to change.” He added, “The fact that this U.N. human rights office in Seoul is now a reality and will start fully operating in a month or so is a sign that the commission’s work is starting to bear fruit.”

(Similarly, Pyongyang has also threatened the United States last month with “tougher countermeasures” over a new State Department report criticizing its human rights conditions as “among the worst in the world.” The North Korean threat came just a week after another State Department report concluded that North Korea is not known to have supported an act of terrorism since 1987, which is a lie. Also last week, South Korean police stated that a pro-North Korean attacker who slashed the face of U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert—for which North Korea almost immediately expressed its approval—was inspired by North Korean propaganda. Discuss among yourselves.)

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U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon was a no-show for the office’s opening, although just three weeks earlier, he tried to visit Kaesong, North Korea, only to be turned away by the North Koreans. But despite Ban’s absence, the field office has had a modestly good beginning. The office’s publicity, and its bilingual posts and tweets, are finding their way into the newspapers. As such, they will force a younger generation of South Koreans to pay some attention to issues their elders spent the last two decades ignoring.

“Less than 50 miles from here lies another world marked by the utmost deprivation,” Hussein said in a statement to mark the opening, referring to the North.

“The Seoul office will monitor and document human rights issues in (North Korea), building on the landmark work of the commission of inquiry and special rapporteur. We firmly believe this will help the basis for future accountability,” he said.

Many North Koreans have escaped to find a new life in the South, but millions remain “trapped in the grip of a totalitarian system which not only denies their freedom but increasingly their basic survival needs”, he added.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson described the new UN office as a “critical step forward” in the campaign to end North Korea’s “systematic and pervasive human rights abuses”. [AFP]

There is much work for the UNHCR to do. A new report from the Korean Institute for National Unification alleges that North Korea carried out 1,382 known public executions since 2000, the year Kim Jong Il met Kim Dae Jung, although the “actual number of public executions is presumed to be higher.” This figure certainly excludes many more hidden executions, deaths in labor camps, and culpably preventable deaths due to starvation and disease.

Shortly after the field office opened, some of the 27,000 North Korean refugees living in the South presented it with a list of 180 of their countrymen whom they believed were held at Camp 15, one large camp within North Korea’s gulag, as of 2000. Some estimates hold that 20% of the prisoners die from starvation, disease, torture, and arbitrary execution each year. And soon, a defector’s evidence may confirm whether there is a modern-day Mengele at work inside North Korea.

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It’s also worth noting that 20 “activists” of another kind protested against the opening of the office, “saying it would be used to ‘bring down’ the North Korean government”—as if that would be a bad thing—and “aggravate strained inter-Korean relations.”

To be sure, there is a hard core of North Korean sympathizers in South Korea, but many other South Koreans will be ambivalent about the UNHCR’s work, and will eventually be tempted to throttle it. If North Korea’s most successful political strategy has been its appeal to ethnic nationalism, its most successful diplomatic strategy has been to lure governments into commercial ventures that never quite transform the North, and talks that never quite disarm it, but which keep them too conflicted to choose between their principles and their own short-term interests. Consequently, many South Koreans in the squishy center share Pyongyang’s view that any inter-Korean contact is a privilege—for the South, that is.

Pyongyang is already linking the establishment of the field office to inter-Korean contacts, such as a sporting event in Gwangju, to pressure Seoul. Pyongyang’s strategy appears to be to force the South Korean government to choose between abolishing (or more plausibly, muzzling) the field office, or going without the pleasure of its company.

North Korea reiterated its strong opposition against the opening of a U.N. human rights office in Seoul via its state-controlled media, warning that the move has made the possibility of improved bilateral ties “hardly imaginable.”


The Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper of the North’s ruling Communist Party of Korea, slammed the South for establishing the office.

“The puppet forces’ hosting of such ‘office’ for confrontation in Seoul which no country in the world dared do is as a foolish an act as planting a time bomb in their house,” the paper was quoted as saying in the English dispatch of the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

“Dialogue and improved relations between the north and the south can hardly be imaginable,” it said, adding, “It is the steadfast will and determination of the DPRK to mercilessly punish those who are keen to hurt its dignity and social system.” [Yonhap]

That strategy is likely to have some success during Park Geun-Hye’s administration, which has always seemed ambivalent about pressing the human rights issue. It would almost certainly be even more successful under a left-leaning South Korean government, and the law of pendulums suggests we’ll soon see one of those.

It is particularly likely to succeed if the next President of South Korea is the current U.N. General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon. It is one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets that Ban intends to run in South Korea’s 2017 presidential election. As Foreign Minister under Roh Moo Hyun, Ban was the executor of Roh’s appeasement policies. For a more detailed criticism of Ban’s record in office in South Korea, I’ll refer you to this 2006 post.

As Foreign Minister, Ban was architect and executor of a no-questions-asked appeasement policy toward North Korea. During those years, North Korea’s human rights record was the worst on earth, and probably the worst since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Kim Jong Il’s absolutist regime, supported by $7 billion in South Korean aid since 1994, stands accused of racial infanticide, the use of gas chambers for horrific chemical weapons on entire families, and a politically selective famine that “cleansed” North Korea of millions while the regime went on an arms-buying spree. North Korea’s forced labor camps are estimated to hold as many as 250,000 people,* including thousands of children.

Ban and his government had little to say and nothing to ask as these atrocities went on, and go on to this very day. When resolutions condemning these crimes came before the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and later, the General assembly, South Korea’s ambassadors were instructed to either refuse to vote or abstain. Publicly, Ban’s government failed to raise more than one mild, belated, token call to improve human rights in the North, and then, only in the most vague and general sense and in response to withering criticism from abroad.

As General Secretary, Ban validated my worst suspicions by devoting token attention, at best, to the North Korean human rights issue. He continues to prioritize appeasement over human rights.

Consider, for example, Ban’s recent comments about the Kaesong Industrial Park, despite long-standing criticism from human rights groups that it violates the labor rights of the workers, and despite the Treasury Department’s long-standing concerns about how North Korea spends the money it earns from Kaesong. Ban, however, sees no down-side to Kaesong, nor any need to bound it with any principled conditions:

“All parties would benefit from renewed engagement and commitment to genuine dialogue. It is essential for building trust and promoting inter-Korean relations,” Ban said at an education forum in the South Korean city of Incheon, adding he aimed to make the visit on Thursday.

“The Kaesong project is a win-win model for both Koreas,” he said.

“I hope my visit will provide a positive impetus to further develop it and expand to other areas,” he said. [Reuters]

But as I argued here, engagement programs like Kaesong haven’t raised North Korea’s standards; they’ve lowered South Korea’s standards, and diluted the pressure needed to force North Korea to disarm–pressure that is the logical basis of five U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Perhaps I fret too much over the electoral hopes of Narcolepsy Patient Zero. But Ban–and the many other Koreans who share his world view–can still do plenty of damage to the UNHCR’s work. By extension, they can also damage the argument for a world where institutions preempt violence by addressing the humanitarian crises that inevitably lead to war. I would argue that Ban’s failure to speak up for his countrymen in North Korea is an exemplar of his tenure at the U.N. Among the following international crises that occurred during Ban’s tenure, how many have the U.N. or Ban himself addressed effectively: (a) Syria, (b) Ukraine, (c) Ebola, (d) climate change, (e) the South China Sea, or (f) the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS?** Not that there’s anything wrong with that if you’re fundamentally opposed to a strong, activist United Nations. But what a shame if you still think the U.N. might have played a useful role in any of these crises.

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* More current estimates range between 80,000 and 120,000.

** Or, I might have added, Iran’s Green Revolution, Boko Haram, Sudan, Libya, or Yemen.

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N. Korean biowar researcher defects, will testify about human experimentation

[Update, 4 Aug 2015: I inquired with well-connected friends in Europe about when this testimony was likely to take place. Those friends instead questioned the accuracy of Yonhap’s report. Last week, I wrote to a Yonhap correspondent, and asked whether Yonhap stands by the story. Although the correspondent passed my question along to the author of this report, I have not heard back from Yonhap. The lack of a response is further reason to question the accuracy of Yonhap’s story.]

~   original post below   ~

A long-time reader emailed me this afternoon (thank you) to point me to this story in the U.S. edition of the Korea Times, which in turn cites a potentially explosive, game-changing report hiding in Yonhap’s business section. According to the report, a North Korean scientist has defected to Finland with some of his government’s most carefully guarded secrets: a storage device, probably a flash drive, filled with 15 gigabytes of “human experiment results.”

The 47-year-old researcher, identified only by his surname Lee, at a microbiology research center in Ganggye, Chagang Province, bordered by China to the north, fled to the European country on June 6 via the Philippines, said the source from a North Korean human rights group.

“His ostensible reason for defection is that he felt skeptical about his research,” the source told Yonhap News Agency.

Lee held a data storage device with 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments in order to bring North Korea’s inhumane tests to light, according to the source.

The North Korean defector will give testimony before the European parliament later this month. [Yonhap]

Depending on what the researcher’s information is and how credible it is, it could be of incalculable value to our understanding of Pyongyang’s asymmetric warfare capabilities—and also, of other, infinitely more important things about this regime.

For years, newspapers had published defectors’ unconfirmed allegations of chemical and biological experiments in North Korean prison camps (see here, here, here, and here). Of these allegations, the best known are the reports of a gas chamber at the since-closed Camp 22.

The account that Mr. Lee’s disclosure most closely resembles, because it alleges the use of biochemical weapons, is that of Lee Soon-Ok. I’d long harbored doubts about Ms. Lee’s account because of internal inconsistencies I saw in versions of her story I read at long-dead links. The new evidence may call for us to reexamine her story:

North Korea is suspected of having weaponized smallpox and anthrax, which is why your correspondent endured the small discomfort of seven anthrax vaccination injections (it would have been six had I not misplaced my shot record one day) and the low-grade fever that followed each of them.

If this witness presents credible evidence supporting North Korea’s responsibility for additional crimes against humanity, it will strengthen the calls for Kim Jong-Un’s indictment by the International Criminal Court, or failing that—and thanks to China, it will fail—the formation of an ad hoc coalition to raise the financial pressure on Kim Jong-Un and his regime. The revelations will give the UNHCR’s Seoul Field Office an important question to investigate, shortly after its opening. Politically, the EU’s active involvement in publicizing the new evidence would be a welcome departure from the ambivalence European nations have often harbored about holding Pyongyang accountable.

One wonders how much sooner this witness, and others like him, might have emerged from North Korea had Congress enacted the North Korea Freedom Act of 2003, with its informant asylum provisions in Sections 206 and 207. Perhaps that proposal could be revived if, one day, there’s still need for a North Korean Freedom Act of 2016.

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N. Korea calls S. Korea’s president a skirt-lifting, crotch-licking whore, just as Gloria Steinem arrives in Pyongyang

Gloria Steinem must have had her first reservations about “Women Cross DMZ” when the march’s organizer was outed as a North Korean apologist, and reporters began to ask her uncomfortable questions about North Korea’s war on women. Since then, Steinem has had to duck questions about the regime’s rape and murder of female prisoners, the endemic and unpunished rapes of North Korean women by its soldiers, and the infanticides and forced abortions this regime inflicts on North Korean refugee women and their babies. Steinem dismissed calls to speak up for North Korea’s millions of vulnerable women as “a bananas question.”

Of course, things could always get worse, and so they did. After this inauspicious start, the “peace” march has been overshadowed by North Korean missile tests and a gruesome purge. Now, a lengthy sexist screed about South Korean President Park Geun Hye, published by North Korea’s official “news” service, has given Steinem a whole new set of questions to duck.

What’s interesting about this particular screed is its selective translation. I’ll give you the English version first. It’s probably one-third as long as the original, and it’s pretty standard fare for North Korea’s inimitable Korean Central News Agency:

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Need a round-trip ticket to Korea? Want to donate to a good cause? Look no further. (updated)

I’m posting this at the request of a friend in the North Korea Freedom Coalition:

As you recall, Ambassador Jung-Hoon Lee, ROK Ambassador for Human Rights, offered contribute the following item to the silent auction on May 1: $1500 for the purchase of a voucher for a roundtrip fare from Washington, DC to Seoul. We did not find a buyer for this item on the night of the auction but Ambassador Lee has generously extended his offer. After speaking with a local travel agency we can purchaser a voucher for $1450 with the following stipulations:



3) This price is weekday fare (departing Monday through Friday)….

If you’re interested, here’s contact information for the NKFC.

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Update: Amb. Lee has generously agreed to donate the cost of the ticket. Thanks to those who tweeted and shared this post.

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N. Korea’s expatriate labor needs ethical and financial limits

N. Korea increasingly relies on expat labor for hard currency

A series of new reports suggests that the export of labor has become a major source of income for Pyongyang. The Financial Times cites an NGO estimate that the regime earns $1.5 to $2.3 billion a year from contract labor, in line with educated estimates of its annual revenue from missile sales ($1.5 billion) or arms deals with Iran ($1.5 billion to $2 billion). (Update: Marcus Noland questions that estimate, and thinks the more likely figure is between $150 million and $200 million, which is still a lot of bling.) Ahn Myeong-Cheol, a former prison camp guard and leader of the NGO NK Watch, says that there are now 100,000 North Koreans working overseas, double the number it had posted overseas in 2012. Ahn believes North Korea is increasing its use of contract labor to compensate for arms revenue lost to U.N. Security Council sanctions. Marzuki Darusman gives the lower estimate of 20,000. In testimony appended to the end of this post, Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea puts the figure at around 53,000. He also offers this very specific breakdown:

Currently, 16 countries reportedly host workers sent by the North Korean regime: Russia (20,000), China (19,000), Mongolia (1,300), Kuwait 5,000), UAE (2,000), Qatar (1,800), Angola (1,000), Poland (400-500), Malaysia (300), Oman (300), Libya (300), Myanmar (200), Nigeria (200), Algeria (200), Equatorial Guinea (200) and Ethiopia (100).4 Although North Korea is not a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), all but two of the 16 states officially hosting North Korean workers are ILO members.

Scarlatiou cites this study by the Asan Institute, which I haven’t read, as the source of these figures.* For years, North Korean workers have been sent to stitch BMW headrests in Europe; build political monuments in Africa (at costs that are suspiciously above market value); mine coal in Malaysia; and cut down trees in the 40-below cold of Siberia without proper winter clothing or safety equipment. Recently, Radio Free Asia reported that North Korean managers were deported for pimping out female textile workers in China. Needless to say, such working conditions fall far short of ILO standards.

Media scrutiny causes Qatar to fire N. Koreans over labor violations

Recently, Qatar became a target for criticism by human rights groups for using North Korean labor to build venues for the 2022 World Cup. Pressure on Qatar has led one construction company to fire 90 North Korean workers, or half of its North Korean work force, for “a series of violations and misconduct by the North Korean workers and their supervisors.” A North Korean company called Genco (not to be confused with that other shady front company of literary infamy) employs the workers.

“The Korean supervisors responsible for the wellbeing of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly,” said one representative of the company, according to the document. [VOA News]

UPI adds that at least one North Korean worker died due to violations of safety standards. A hundred other North Korean workers continue to work at the company’s construction projects in Qatar. The report did not make clear whether the projects were related to the World Cup. The FT found severe conditions at one Gulf State construction project, where North Korean managers forced their workers to keep toiling in the 120-degree heat, when foreign laborers from other Asian countries took shelter.

As a result of this scrutiny, North Korea has tried to impose information blockades around its expatriated workers. In April, Radio Free Asia reported that the regime has directed its workers to physically assault reporters who try to cover them, and smash their cameras. New Focus also reported that the regime had forbidden its workers in China, where dubbed South Korean dramas are broadcast regularly, from watching TV. Workers were previously “allowed some degree of freedom” if they moved in groups of two or three. Now, they’re forbidden from leaving the work area except in groups of 15 or more. Those who break the rules are sent back to North Korea. God only knows what happens to them (and their families) after that.

Workers receive little or none of their “wages”

Whether you define North Korea’s labor arrangements as slave labor may depend on how you define the term, and on the circumstances of each project. How much of their wages North Korean overseas laborers get to keep varies from project to project:

Current and former North Korean overseas workers describe how the vast majority of their nominal wage is lost to management fees and contributions to the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. Their testimonies suggest a common system where managers agree to send a set monthly sum back to North Korea. If funds are short, the workers may be denied their wages or made to contribute to the remittance.

Yet workers can still earn $1,000 for a year’s work — a significant sum in North Korea, where most rely on the black market for sustenance and where bribery can be a crucial means of obtaining professional or other opportunities, such as securing education for their children. “The bribes to get into a good university are expensive — Kim Il Sung University is about $10,000,” says one former overseas worker. [Financial Times]

In some cases, defectors reported that they were left with nothing after party contributions were deducted; their bosses told them to be thankful they got two meals a day. The FT’s sources reported that they received either a small percentage of their nominal wages, or in one case, most of a $4-a-month pittance. One said that the money was enough to buy a decent apartment at home. Another, quoted in The Chosun Ilbo, said he was allowed to keep $100 out of a nominal salary of $750. The fact that North Korean workers in Muslim countries are regularly caught bootlegging alcohol suggests that their take-home earnings are insufficient to feed themselves, and their families. At Kaesong, arguably the most-scrutinized of all these arrangements, it still isn’t clear whether the workers receive any cash wages at all.

Defenders of these labor-export arrangements argue that the North Korean workers there earn more and live better than those who remain behind, but the same justification might also be true of a child prostitute in Cambodia, or other human trafficking victims of any number of nationalities and circumstances. It still doesn’t justify exploitative and dangerous working conditions, which are harmful to the North Korean workers, to workers in the host countries, and ultimately, to those imprisoned inside North Korea by a system perpetuated by exploitation.

Toward a More Ethical Model of Engagement

There are two possible approaches to this problem. One approach is suggested by the conduct of the Qatari firm that fired half its North Korean work force, and warned that the rest would be fired if they failed to comply with labor standards. In this 2014 paper, Marcus Noland argued that Kaesong and other consumers of North Korean labor should agree to a code of ethics, akin to the Sullivan Principles, which were used to pressure South Africa to treat its African work force more fairly. But as Noland notes, the adoption of the Sullivan principles “did not occur in isolation;” companies adopted them under the threat of boycotts, divestment campaigns, shareholder resolutions, and eventually, U.S. sanctions laws. Users of North Korean labor must also comply with the financial transparency requirements of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, which prohibits the provision to North Korea of economic resources that could be used for prohibited weapons programs.

If users of North Korean labor agreed on a similar code of conduct, there would be far fewer objections to these arrangements, and the balance of equities in this debate might shift. That code would have to include basic worker safety protections, and guarantees that the workers would receive, spend, and repatriate a living wage. The regime could receive the remaining proceeds to purchase food, medicine, and other humanitarian needs and services in kind.

Because moral suasion doesn’t work on everyone, standards that conflict with profit motives need hammers. In the case of South Africa, the hammers included the fear of reputational harm, and eventually, sanctions. Under Section 104(a)(1)(F) of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, those who engage in transactions in forced labor or human trafficking would be subject to the blocking of their assets in the dollar-based financial system.

Greg Scarlatoiu’s testimony here: Testimony of Greg Scarlatoiu Final

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* This is my cue to unburden my soul of something. Some months ago, I bruised an Asan scholar and OFK reader by writing (on reflection, unjustly) that Asan “largely” (then changed to “sometimes”) “reflects the views of, and serves the interests of, the South Korean government.” I’ll keep the original basis for that conclusion to myself, but Asan’s work since then has convinced me that it simply isn’t true. I don’t think there’s any question that Asan is the foremost Korean think tank publishing work on North Korea today. I apologize for the slight.

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The North Korean army’s rape problem, “Kangan” Province, and Gloria Steinem

It has been four whole days since I said I was done talking about Women Cross DMZ for a year. How foolish it was of me to write that. For one thing, I did not anticipate having this detailed history of Christine Ahn’s pro-North Korean views, which outdoes my own, to graf for you:

In late April, WomenCrossDMZ held a press conference in New York City. Ahn was not in attendance to respond to our question of why the group omits discussion of human rights. But Steinem was: she responded that this was a “bananas question … there are many sins on every side.” Ahn and Steinem’s co-organizer, theology professor Hyun-Kyung Chung, added that “when you go out on a first date, you don’t talk about all the bad things you did last summer.” Fair enough. Even Charles Manson has suitors. [Thor Halvorssen & Alex Gladstein, Foreign Policy]

For another, a horrible new report from New Focus International describes the “rape culture” that has developed among North Korean soldiers in Kangwon Province, or Kangwon-do, where soldiers rape civilian women so frequently that residents have taken to grimly calling it kangan-do. In Korean, kangan means rape:

The source explains, “Wherever you go in Kangwon Province, there are more soldiers than civilians. Because almost everyone you bump into is a soldier, you notice that as a major group they commit a lot of crimes. Mostly, the crimes are rape and sexual assault. In Kangwon Province, the soldiers move in large groups, and attacks have become so frequent that it isn’t even surprising to us anymore.

Even the police try to avoid them. This is because they try to contain the soldiers, but usually end up being humiliated. The soldiers in Kangwon Province are uncontrollable and virtually lawless. So the civilians of Kangwon Province have resorted to calling their hometown ‘Robbery Province’ or ‘Rape Province’.” [New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]

The problem is impunity: the command and the security forces have made a decision not to prosecute rapes. This is same the impunity the U.N. Commission of Inquiry found, and which I quoted in my recent piece for The Weekly Standard. According to the report, witnesses reported that North Korean authorities don’t treat the rape of an adult woman as a crime at all.

Song Geum-bok, who escaped North Korea in March 2014, testifies: “There are army units everywhere in Kangwon Province. Eight of the ten people that pass you in the streets of Kangwon Province are soldiers. Put simply, there are more soldiers in this province than rocks. So naturally, when bad news circulates among the neighbourhood people, we presume that a soldier is involved in some way.

“The greatest victims of the soldiers are women. These youthful soldiers, who are in their prime both physically and sexually, are forced to serve in the army, and as time passes they become like uncontrollable wolves. When women become the target of a soldier, there is no stopping them. Soldiers usually loiter around dark places at night and jump on women passing by. Some women don’t even fight it – they just obediently adhere to the soldiers’ desires.

“Why? It’s because there is no use in fighting back. The women believe that by being compliant, they will at least be able to avoid suffering too many injuries.  [New Focus, Apr. 29, 2015]

If there are no prosecutions, there is no point in reporting rapes. North Korean women know how little their government values their safety, their health, their bodies. Imagine the circumstances of a low-songbun North Korean woman who becomes pregnant, or who is injured or infected with an STD, after she’s raped.

We came across an interesting anecdote dealing with the consequences of rapes committed by North Korean soldiers. North Korean exile Kim Yoon-seok tells us, “There was an incident where a soldier raped a woman at gunpoint. Obviously, he was never caught. As the father’s identity was unknown, the child that was born nine months later did not have a surname. The woman named the child Cho In-gun (the first letters of Chosun inmin-gun or ‘Korean People’s Army’. It is as if the baby was named ‘KPA’). The story spread like wildfire. That name, Cho In-gun, it is now used to mock the bastard children of the North Korean army.” [New Focus, 2013]

According to that same report, STDs are common in the North Korean military. For North Korea’s lower classes, there’s little or no medical care to be found. In North Korea, a poor woman has no one but herself. That’s why some women are learning to fight back:

A homegrown version of pepper spray has become the latest item carried by female merchants in North Korea, namely to combat sexual harassment and theft. For others, however, it plays an increasingly integral part in the perpetual struggle they face in trying to get by on a daily basis.

In most of the world, pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or OC, is derived from the same chemical that gives chili peppers their heat–but at much higher concentrations. North Korea’s version of pepper spray forgoes any complex chemical processes; in fact, instead of a spray, North Korea’s deterrent consists of pulverized chili peppers tucked into an easily accessible sack, which residents have coined the “chili powder bomb.”

“Women in Chongjin, Hamheung, Pyeongseong, and other cities are carrying around ‘chili powder bombs’ for protection,” a source from Hamkyung North Province told Daily NK on the 28th. “Women merchants as well as travelers are using bags of ground chili pepper as a means of self-protection.” [Daily NK]

North Korean soldiers often have long enlistments, and are not allowed to marry. Those who might already be married or have girlfriends seldom get leave. This doesn’t excuse anything, but it must be seen as another factor contributing to the problem that these young men are denied the option of love, marriage, and family until some of their best years are behind them.

In every station, prostitutes can be seen waiting for military customers. Working alongside security guards, private homes loaned out by their occupants are used as temporary brothels.

According to exile Kim Yoon-seok, “Women have to make a living too, and the best they have to offer is their bodies. Their primary source of income is the soldiers. As their sexual desires must be suppressed during military service, the young men are very bold and open about using prostitutes. The women receive food or cash for sleeping with them.”

To afford prostitutes, soldiers are said to raid civilian homes, from which they steal with impunity. Without even making an effort to hide themselves, they then make their way to stations or other red-light districts. [New Focus, 2013]

For years, guerrilla news services have reported that North Korean soldiers maraud nearby farms and homes to steal food and valuables. Sometimes, that violence even spills over the border, into China. Last year, Chinese media began to report that North Korean army deserters were robbing and murdering Chinese civilians. According to a new Chinese press report, three more deserters crossed into China and killed three more civilians, “a 55-year-old surnamed Chao, his 26-year-old daughter and a 67-year-old Sun.” When the victims of these attacks are Chinese, there is some chance that the crimes will be reported; there may even be a measure of accountability for the commanders. When the victims are North Korean, the state’s culture of secrecy and impunity almost assures that that won’t happen.

Would it be too much for Gloria Steinem to ask North Korea to investigate and prosecute the rapists in its ranks? After all, Steinem’s Feminist Majority has been outspoken on the subject of sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces. The organizer of Women Cross DMZ, Christine Ahn, has denounced “sexual violence by U.S. servicemen” in South Korea, even suggesting that it’s a greater threat to South Korea’s civilian population than North Korea’s nuclear weapons. (This is a hyperbolic falsehood, as I can testify from my four years as an Army prosecutor and defense counsel in Korea. If anything, the U.S. Army’s extreme sensitivity to bad publicity and political pressure causes it to overcharge alleged sexual assaults. Alleged assaults were overwhelmingly soldier-on-soldier; relatively few involved Korean victims.)

For purely demographic reasons, all militaries need to be concerned about sexual assaults, whether among soldiers, or against the civilian population. Every government’s command deserves to be judged by how it balances its responsibility to protect victims with how it protects the rights of the accused to a fair trial. Clearly, Pyongyang has made the decision that women’s bodies are not worth protecting from rapists. That’s a problem that any self-respecting feminist has a duty to speak out about. And if Steinem has the courage to call the North Koreans out on their own soil, she would earn our sincere respect for that. On her way from Pyongyang to the DMZ, Gloria Steinem should not bypass “Kangan” Province.

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Why is North Korea still in the U.N.?

Oh, those wacky North Korean diplomats. If they aren’t shouting death threats in a U.S. congressional office building or making racial slurs against African diplomats, they’re smuggling dope, counterfeit money, or gold, or generally behaving like complete tools at U.N. hearings. You can accuse them of many things, but you can’t deny that they represent their government perfectly. Here is how they represented their government today:

A U.S.-organized event on North Korea’s human rights briefly turned into chaos at the U.N. on Thursday as North Korean diplomats insisted on reading a statement of protest, amid shouts from defectors, and then stormed out. [….]

Defectors stood up and shouted in Korean as Power and others called for calm and a U.N. security team assembled. An observer who speaks Korean said the shouts included “Shut up!” ”Free North Korea!” ”Down with Kim Jong Un!” and “Even animals know to wait their turn.”

“There is no need for a microphone,” Power said as one North Korean diplomat persisted in reading out a statement that referred to “ungrounded allegations” and “hostile policy” toward his country. A microphone was briefly turned on for the diplomats.

Power continued: “Please shut the mike down because this is not an authorized presentation. … Please ensure that the microphone is not live. … We are calling U.N. security.”

As soon as the North Korean diplomat stopped talking and the next featured defector, Jay Jo, started speaking, the North Korean diplomats stood and walked out.

“They’re so rude,” Jo said later, adding that she wished that the diplomats had stayed so she could have spoken with them. The U.S. said North Korea had been informed before the event that it would have a chance to speak. [AP, via New York Times]

It’s another great moment in public relations, North Korean style, and shortly after a U.N. dweeb named Ivan Simonovic said that North Korea had shown “new signs of engagement.” Evidently, Simonovic hadn’t heard that Kim Jong Un bailed on his Moscow trip this morning. For “internal” reasons. Hmm.

Samantha Power serves an administration without an effective North Korea human rights policy, but she conducted herself well today. When the North Koreans began to heckle and interrupt, at first, she told them to wait their turn. Later, she said, “The audience will agree that it’s better to allow the DPRK to speak, since it is a self-discrediting exercise, and we will resume our panel. Conclude your statement, and we will go back to our panel.”

As the event came to a close, Power said the “true weapons of mass destruction” in North Korea was the tyranny of its government against its citizens.

But the best reaction came from my good friend, Daniel Aum:

“What is most striking here is not North Korea’s attempt to chill speech, but that its increasing willingness to export its policies, including the Sony Pictures hack, to the U.S,” said Daniel Aum a fellow with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights who attended the event.

I doubt very much that the AP and the Times would have published their coverage of this event if not for the behavior of these “diplomats,” which is a tragic thought if you watch the video (hat tip: Roberta Cohen).

If you don’t have time to watch this today, bookmark it and watch the whole thing later. The rumble starts at 17:30, but don’t just skip to that. Watch the wonderful Barbara Demick’s introduction, and the heartbreaking story of Joseph Kim (at 6 minutes). At 20 minutes, defector Jinhae Jo (in red) calmly and bravely confronts her former persecutors, telling them to stop spouting ignorant nonsense, and later, to stop lying. Then, the other defectors join in and shout back. At 24 minutes in, when Jo starts speaking and holds up her new American passport, the North Korean diplomats walked out. They did not hear her weep as she described saying goodbye to her dying brothers and sisters, one after another. I dare you to watch it and not weep with her.

At 57:45, another witness reports that she received threatening texts, in an attempt to intimidate her into silence. She also claims that one day, she found a man with a knife in her house.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

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It all causes me to wonder — why is North Korea even in the U.N., an institution whose values, proceedings, and resolutions it holds in such contempt? Under Article 4 of the U.N. Charter, membership is open to “all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.” Under Article 6, “a Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Well? Well?

As a practical matter, expelling a member state is hard. The U.N. never quite managed to expel South Africa (thanks to U.S. and U.K. veto threats), but in 1968, it banned “cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime,” and in 1984, it purported to nullify a “racist” new South African constitution. It did manage to kick Taiwan out in a roundabout way, by giving China’s seat to the Chicoms, and then by denying Taiwan entry.

Kicking North Korea out of the U.N. wouldn’t mean that humanitarian programs couldn’t continue there. Gaza isn’t a U.N. member state, and the U.N. operates there. Of course, whether the U.N. should give North Korea food aid is a different question entirely. At the one-hour mark, the Dutch Permanent Representative asks the defectors whether we should be giving North Korea food aid. They all voted no.

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Update: Ambassador Power’s full closing remarks, below the fold. Another hat tip to Roberta Cohen for forwarding them.

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In The Weekly Standard: North Korea’s war on women

I believe, having written this, that I’ve gotten out of my system everything I’ve ever wanted to write about Christine Ahn and Women Cross DMZ.

For this year.

I just hope Gloria Steinem doesn’t leave her feminism at home when she goes to Pyongyang. Millions of North Korean women need her support, more desperately than she’s willing to see.

On the same topic, see also this op-ed, in The Washington Post, by Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Greg Scarlatoiu.

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Obama Administration hints at sanctioning N. Korean human rights violators

A year after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry found the North Korean government responsible for crimes against humanity whose “gravity, scale and nature … reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” action at the U.N. has effectively stalled in the face of Chinese and Russian veto threats. As I have written before, Congress can impose effective sanctions on those responsible in ways that the U.N. can’t and the Obama Administration won’t. But now, the administration is warning that it is “reviewing options” to hold North Korean officials accountable for their crimes against humanity:

“We’re reviewing options related to accountability for North Korean officials responsible for serious human rights violations, which the Commission of Inquiry concluded in many instances may amount to crimes against humanity,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service, in reference to a United Nations panel report on North Korea’s human rights conditions released in February 2014.

The State Department official said Friday the U.S. will work with the international community to press for North Korea “to stop these serious violations, to close its prison camps, to urge greater freedoms for North Koreans and to seek ways to advance accountability for those most responsible.” [VOA]

According to the VOA report, the spokesman and Sung Kim, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy have both suggested, separately, that the Obama Administration could use the new Executive Order 13,687 to do this. That order would allow the blocking of any property of persons who “have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support  for, or goods or services to or in support of, the Government of North Korea or any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order.” This may be the most important provision in EO 13,687, because what really makes financial sanctions programs work is the in terrorem effect they have on third-country enablers, and their tendency to isolate the target financially.

The prerequisite to designating a third-country enabler, however, is to first block some agency, entity, subsidiary, or official of the North Korean government or its ruling party that the enabler materially assists. And here, the Obama Administration has shown a degree of restraint that borders on the farcical — it has yet to determine that Kim Jong Un is an official of the government of North Korea for purposes of this executive order. (As my Uncle Irving might have asked at such a moment, “Is the Pope Catholic?”) So far, the administration has used EO 13,687 to re-designate just three previously designated North Korean government agencies, and just ten mid-to-low-level arms dealers who were probably all replaced by other mid-to-low-level arms dealers months ago.

Not one North Korean entity or foreign enabler has yet been sanctioned specifically for human rights violations. In comparison, the administration maintains and enforces robust human rights-based sanctions against Iran, Burma, and Sudan, to name a few examples. If the administration wants to demonstrate some seriousness here, it might start by designating the German company that’s reportedly selling Pyongyang its advanced detection equipment to track down North Koreans who use illegal cell phones.

The likely stimulus for these latest statements is a strong denunciation of Kim Jong Un’s crimes by Rep. Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the leading proponent of sanctions legislation against North Korea (full disclosure: I assisted with the drafting of that legislation). Both the administration and the North Koreans seem worried about the legislation, for different reasons. Pyongyang knows that in the financial weapon, the “Americans have finally have found a way to hurt us.”* An administration that has stayed its hand for six years, and whose political influence on foreign policy is ebbing, may now be fearful that Congress will seize the initiative, and with it, the President’s relevance during his final years in office.

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* Grammatical error in original.

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North Korea makes more homophobic slurs against Michael Kirby

Once again, North Korea is responding to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s exhaustively documented evidence of crimes against humanity … by making an issue of Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation:

The editorial also singled out the chair of the COI, Michael Kirby, and leveled homophobic abuse at the former judge, something it has done previously to discredit his work.

“As far as the former chairman of the ‘Inquiry Commission’ Kirby is concerned, he is an old sexual maniac who earned an ill-fame for his decades-long homosexuality,” the article read. [NK News]

The last time North Korea attacked Chairman Kirby’s sexual orientation, it also denied the very existence of homosexuality in North Korea. An interesting new report, however, also via NK News, informs us that this is not the case, and that homosexuality is common in the isolated and otherwise sexless North Korean Army. According to the report, “senior officers have been known take charge of ‘pretty boy privates.’” That is to say, officers rape their soldiers, which can’t be good for morale or unit cohesion.

The story isn’t just an interesting one about North Korea and the mendacity of its media, but about the irrepressibility of human nature. Next time someone tells you there are no gay people in North Korea, answer them in the most fabulous way you can: “That’s not what I’ve heard, sister!”

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Ten questions Gloria Steinem should ask the N. Koreans about women’s rights (but probably won’t dare to)

This week, I read that North Korea has granted permission for a group of women, including Gloria Steinem, and led by outspoken North Korean regime sympathizer Christine Ahn, to do a “peace march” across the DMZ. The group also intends to “hold international peace symposiums in Pyongyang and Seoul,” where Ahn will probably repeat one of her favorite falsehoods, that “crippling sanctions against the government make it difficult for ordinary people to access the basics needed for survival.” It’s a statement that could only have been written by a legal illiterate who has never read the actual sanctions, or by a hack who has spent at least a decade overlooking the real causes of hardship and starvation in North Korea.

Steinem, on the other hand, is known for her accomplishments fighting for the rights of women, so rather than rehash old arguments with Ahn, I’d prefer to focus on a point of potential agreement with Steinem — that the women of North Korea could really use the support of a fearless feminist. In that spirit, I decided to suggest a few questions that Steinem should ask her hosts in Pyongyang if she’s truly concerned about the status of women in North Korea:

1. Why do you impose idiotic, despotic, and harmful rules on women, like not allowing them to ride bicycles, or wear pants?

An acquaintance of mine, a North Korean refugee currently living in South Korea, told me how, in the early 2000s, she broke a bone. The incident happened one afternoon when she was on the way home. A few streets away from her house she encountered a patrol of regular police and militia, and she instantly knew she was in trouble because she had done something seriously improper. She had no choice but to run, and while trying to get away from her pursuers she broke a bone in her feet. But she still escaped the hand of law.

What was the crime she had committed? She was wearing trousers while walking the streets of a major North Korean city.

2. Was it really necessary for you to call the female President of South Korea a “whore,” a “political prostitute,” a “crazy bitch,” and a “comfort woman?

What Park did before Obama this time reminds one of an indiscreet girl who earnestly begs a gangster to beat someone or a capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to other person while providing sex to him. [….]

She fully met the demands of her master for aggression, keeping mum about the nukes of the U.S. and desperately finding fault with fellow countrymen in the north over their nukes. She thus laid bare her despicable true colors as a wicked sycophant and traitor, a dirty comfort woman for the U.S. and despicable prostitute selling off the nation. [KCNA]

3. Is your government forcing women to work as prostitutes in China?

A group of female North Korean workers has been forcefully repatriated from China after it was learned that they had been asked to work as prostitutes on the sly by their overseer while officially hired at a food factory, according to a local source.

The women, believed to number about half a dozen, were among North Korean workers sent across the border to gain precious foreign exchange revenue and had been placed under strict living conditions, including being barred from traveling outside their lodging alone, a source from China’s Liaoning province bordering North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service.

However, the women, who worked at a food production factory in Liaoning’s Donggang city, had been leaving their compound at night to engage in illegal activities—including prostitution—at the behest of their handler, infuriating the local community, the source said. [….]

“As a result, some of the workers and their North Korean handler were deported by the Chinese public security personnel.”

4. Why are so many North Korean women trafficked in China, and what kind of society is so insufferable that it forces women to risk that fate?

My parents died of starvation and my two younger brothers were killed by robbers in North Korea. After I lost all my family members, I was left wandering in the countryside, all by myself. One day, I met a North Korean couple who looked little bit younger than me. In November 1999, they suggested I go to China with them. As soon as we arrived in Helong and went into the house where they took me, I was taken to Longjing and then to Yanji by the ethnic Koreans. From Yanji I was taken to Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang Province by train. When we arrived in Mudanjiang, the brother of my current father-in-law was waiting for us. I was then taken to Jidong in Heilongjiang where I live with an ethnic Korean man. I have been told that my current husband paid 10,000 yuan for me.

5. Why have so many North Korean women turned to prostitution to survive?

Current estimates by South Korean and U.S. analysts place the number of fulltime prostitutes throughout North Korea at around 25,000 in the state of 24.5 million people – a figure that Young agreed with. That would mean one full-time prostitute was working per 1,000 people.

The high estimate does not include the far larger number of women who supplement their meager income by occasional freelance participation in prostitution activities. [….]

The age range of women involved in prostitution in North Korea is broad, stretching from 17 to 45, according to Young. The large percentage of women engaging in the practice again reflects the widespread and growing destitution and hunger pervading North Korean society.

A North Korean defector said there are about 500 prostitutes in a city which has a population of 400,000, Young noted. “If [we] depend on the simple arithmetic calculation and put North Korean population as 20 million, we can assume that there should be about 25,000 prostitutes in North Korea.”

A few years ago, that estimate would have been widely rejected as too high. The history of poor harvests, food shortages and the desperate demand for short-term extra income has made its mark. The hard drug pandemic may well have put those numbers too low.

In any case, the boast North Korean spokesmen made until recent years that there was no prostitution in their country rings hollow.

6. If women have to prostitute themselves, can’t you at least give them access to decent birth control and health care? (see also)

“[T]he women have their own ways to deal with STDs,” she adds. “Opium is supposed to prevent STDs.”

“Opium is not considered illegal in North Korea,” she explains. “It is cheap and typically goes for 5,000 won per gram. There is also contraceptive medicine available, but because they are much more expensive than opium, prostitutes don’t consider using them.”

“Contraceptives may prevent pregnancy, but women believe opium prevents and even treats almost all forms of disease. People think of it as a cure-all drug.”

She describes how North Korean prostitutes regularly use opium to protect their bodies: “Lightly mix some water with the opium, and dab a cotton ball in the mixture. Before placing the cotton ball in the vagina, wrap string around it in a cross shape (+) so it can be pulled out more easily.”

7. Speaking of which, I have some questions about North Korea’s “free,” “universal” health care system ….

North Korea says it provides free medical care to all its citizens. But Amnesty said most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. Doctors often work without pay, have little or no medicine to dispense and reuse scant medical supplies, the report said. “People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment,” a 20-year-old North Korean defector named Rhee was quoted as saying. “If you don’t have money, you die.”

8. Same question about North Korea’s “free,” “universal” education system.

[D]efectors testify with one voice to the fact that in modern North Korea, free education is an oxymoron. Instead, they say that even elementary school students must pay money for firewood, the repairing of school facilities and to make donations to the People’s Army or construction units.

The bribes needed to enter university are substantial, too. To gain entrance to a university in Pyongyang can cost up to $1,000, and for a provincial university between $300 and $500.

Kim Yong Cheol, a 22-year old who joined Hyesan College of Education in 2007 but defected to Seoul in 2009, explained to The Daily NK, “If they offer some money to the relevant university and the Education Department then they can possibly get into the university; students who do not have a good school record want to enter that university even though it requires bribery.”

Cho Hyun Mee, a 26-year old studying at Seoul National University said, “When I joined a university in Chongjin, the city Education Department demanded a computer, so I sold a television set to collect money and bought them a laptop.” Thanks to the laptop, Cho was shown the type and range of the entrance examination.

9. Would it kill you to let North Korean women wear their hair the way they choose?

Sure, you say, a list of 18 state-approved hairstyles certainly seems generous and libertine, but on closer examination, it’s actually more like 18 pictures of three hairstyles — three hideous, man-shriveling hairstyles — one of which (6, 10) is a mullet, and the rest of which appear to have been inspired by the 80s metal band Queensrÿche.

10. Why wouldn’t you let Ban Yon-Mee be a doctor?

“The only way I’m going back to Korea is in a coffin,” she said, a look of defiance flashing across her face. “F*** you, comrade Kim Jong-il.”

Sure, feel free to tone the questions down if you must, as long as you ask them. Being asked hard questions might convince the little gray men in Pyongyang that these things matter to us, and that they should matter to the regime, too. By not asking them, you might lead them — and us — to believe that you’re willing to overlook the rights of North Korean women and be Pyongyang’s tool, for no better reason than to attract media attention to yourself.

~   ~   ~

Update: I can’t believe I forgot to mention those racist forced abortions and infanticides, which must be the most extreme anti-choice position of all:

When they are captured, according to testimonies collected by the Washington-based advocacy group U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, those who are visibly pregnant are ridiculed, separated out, and administered painful forced abortions while detained.

Because, it seems, officials assume that the fathers are Chinese, and thus view the soon-to-be-mothers as women who “brought this on themselves” (see “Witness,” below), the women are tortured in sexualized ways and barred from entering the concentration camp system until any detected fetuses are destroyed. According to interviews conducted by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, methods to abort include targeted beatings, forced abortion, and induced labor followed by infanticide: anything to prevent part-Chinese offspring from becoming part of the population.

The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy “inferior” wombs with “superior” sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of “inferior” groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.

So I guess that’s eleven….


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