A group of North Korean defectors who were being smuggled across the China-Vietnam border have been detained, and are at risk of being repatriated to North Korea.
A South Korean government official who spoke to News 1 on the condition of anonymity said 10 defectors in total were taken into custody in the Mong Cai region of northern Vietnam. All have been sent back to China, and 9 of the 10 are at risk of being repatriated to North Korea, South Korean outlet Newsis reported. [….]
The group includes a captain of the North Korean army, and a family of three that includes a 1-year-old child, the source said. It is likely the group was seeking asylum in South Korea through an embassy in Vietnam. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]
If these people are sent back to North Korea, they’re in grave danger of being executed or sent to a political prison camp. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry has condemned China for sending these refugees back to North Korea, instead of allowing them to travel on to South Korea, which gives them asylum.
43. Despite the gross human rights violations awaiting repatriated persons, China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who cross the border illegally. China does so in pursuance of its view that these persons are economic (and illegal) migrants. However, many such nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should be recognized as refugees fleeing persecution or refugees sur place. They are thereby entitled to international protection. In forcibly returning nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China also violates its obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement under international refugee and human rights law. In some cases, Chinese officials also appear to provide information on those apprehended to their counterparts in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. [UN COI]
The NGO No Chain has announced that it will hold a protest at the Chinese embassy tomorrow, Saturday, November 21st, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. The address is 3505 International Place NW, Washington DC 20008. Bring your own signs, placards, and banners. Details here.
Please share this post as widely as you can on social media.
Our endlessly unrequited vigil for North Korean reform continues:
Hyeonseo Lee is also increasingly worried about her personal security since the July publication of the best-selling memoir about her escape from North Korea, “The Girl with Seven Names”.
Defectors living in South Korea contact relatives in the North through Chinese mobile phones that are smuggled across the border. They communicate through transmission towers on the Chinese side of the border.
It’s all arranged through brokers on the Chinese side, who also help smuggle money from the defectors to their relatives.
North Korea, however, has been cracking down on this lifeline, using phone signal detectors and interference devices, Lee said in an interview on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Readers festival. The signals can reveal the location of the speaker if the conversation lasts much longer than a minute.
Lee arranged for many of her family members to join her in exile after her own escape in 1998, but she still talks to an aunt there.
“Right now the signal is not so good. I can’t hear their voice clearly … And my aunt says after a minute, oh my god, we have to turn off the phone now we’re being monitored.”
The aunt was sent to a labour camp for a few months last year, accused of trying to escape. “She was reported by her best friend. That’s how this regime works,” Lee said. [Reuters, Bill Tarrant]
More about Lee here. This is exactly the kind of behavior a rational person should expect from North Korea. What’s inexplicable is that South Korea — which sends cash to Kim Jong-Un through Kaesong — also prevents North Korean refugees from remitting money back to their relatives.
Sending money across the border – or private communications of any kind with the North – is also illegal in South Korea.
The money from defectors goes into North Korea’s increasingly established rural markets, which sprouted up during the famine years when the state food distribution system broke down. The markets are thriving hot spots of commerce, where people can buy or barter for things, including smuggled Hollywood and South Korean movies.
Despite the occasional crackdown, the government has been unable to shut down the markets and now basically tolerates them, Lee said, despite the fact they have become the thin edge of the wedge for Western influences.
That is to say, Seoul continues to push direct economic engagement with Pyongyang years after the failure of that policy became objectively undeniable, and despite legitimate concerns about how Pyongyang is using that money, yet shuts down forms of economic engagement that could be feeding the hungry, catalyzing the growth of a market economy, subverting the state’s propaganda, and loosening the dependence of the people on the regime.
Via Singapore’s Straits Times comes one of the saddest, most hopeful, things I’ve read for a long time. South Korean plastic surgeons are volunteering to help repair the abused, broken, and scarred bodies of North Korean refugees.
Since news of the free surgery programme spread, dozens of defectors have signed up, including a man who cannot breathe through his nose after it was smashed in a logging camp accident.
One woman who lost a breast to cancer hoped that reconstructive surgery would make her more comfortable with using a public bathhouse and dating again.
“I often thought of killing myself and my five-year-old son to end my misery,” said Mrs Kim Seon Ah.
The 37-year-old wants to erase the cigarette-burn marks on her head and chest inflicted by a Chinese man, the father of her son. [….]
Superintendent Kim Kyeong Suk of Yongsan police station, who helps link defectors to plastic surgeons, came up with the idea for the programme after hearing many people from North Korea say they could not find work because of their scars.
She said: “Surprisingly often, you find defectors carrying big ugly scars, like crude stitches crawling like giant centipedes on their stomach, patches of hair missing from their scalp and other signs of torture, or they wear ideological slogans tattooed on their skin.” [Straits Times]
From NKinUSA, a new organization of North Korean refugees in America:
This invitation below is for the 4th Performing Arts Fundraiser Festival Benefiting North Korean Refugees organized by the NKinUSA. Please forward to folks you know in the DC/VA/MD area — this will be a wonderful evening that will help save more lives of North Koreans trying to escape. The concert will be 7 pm on Saturday, October 24, 2015 at Gyung Hyang Garden Presbyterian Church, 8665 Old Annapolis Rd, Columbia, MD 21045.
The concert will include a variety of performances by first and second generation Korean youth. Tickets are free but donations in any amount are greatly appreciated and can be made through the website www.nkinusa.org or at the concert. Even if you cannot attend the concert, you can donate to support this great cause.
It’s wonderful to see Korean-Americans so obviously embracing these refugees and lending their talents for the betterment of their brothers and sisters from the North. As the proud father of two Korean-Americans myself, as one who has taught them to embrace that part of their heritage, I see great things coming from Korean-Americans. I see what is best about both cultures in so many of them.
North Korean refugees have often had a hard time adjusting here. Their educations were often useless for the outside world, and they have the additional burdens of learning to speak English, to drive, and to learn every life skill we take for granted. They often work long, hard hours for little pay, in circumstances in which one accident can be the difference between raising the money to smuggle a loved one out of the North, or becoming an invalid. Helping North Korean refugees succeed here is one way to “engage” with North Koreans right here in your own country. Korea’s future Angela Merkel just might be among the 30,000 refugees who’ve escaped the country.
What reporters should not overlook, however, is the section of the report on slave labor in North Korea’s prison camp system. Within that section is a long list of witness accounts of rampant sexual violence they saw or experienced there.
“The guards called girls into a room and ordered them to take off their clothes. There were girls who were fifteen or sixteen years old and they started to cry. The guards would put on rubber gloves and push their hands inside their vaginas to check if they had money. The girls were still virgins and had not even started their menstrual cycles. They would bleed and cry. The guards kept doing this even though they didn’t find any money… …In the National Security Agency prison, the room was small and had a toilet to the side. The door had a hole through which the guards would send food. There were nine girls in the room. At 22:00, when we were ordered to go to sleep, a guard that stayed outside our room on patrol would call out for this nineteen year old girl to stand up and come close to the door where the hole was. He would tell her to come closer and then he would molest her and touch her breasts. I saw that when I was in the Sinuiju National Security Agency prison” [Kim XX, 40, Saebyul County]
“Sexual assaults are somewhat hidden, but if you find women whose workload has been lessened, that is probably because they have some kind of sexual relationships with the officers” [Suh XX, 43, North Hamgyeong Province]
“From China, when we were being repatriated back to North Korea, the guards from the Ministry of National Security stripped women naked to conduct examinations. They checked their vaginas to make sure there was no money hidden. If there were attractive women or girls, they were quietly taken away by the guards and sexually abused. These girls were unable to speak about what happened, because if they did they would be beaten further” [Park XX, 45, North Hamgyeong Province]
“Younger and more attractive girls are often sexually abused. The guards take them out to the hall [of the detention facility] and sexually molest them. Other guards who are passing by just pretend not to see anything. They do not report what they see to their superiors” [Kim XX, 49, Pyongyang]
As members of the U.N. Security Council consider what new sanctions to impose on Pyongyang if it tests a missile, they should consider clarifying that the financial due diligence measures in UNSCR 2094 apply to these arrangements, which have become an important source of income for Pyongyang. The Security Council should prohibit any use of North Korean labor — including labor within North Korea — that fails to comply with International Labor Organization standards, authorize the ILO to report to the Panel of Experts on any suspected violations, and designate any North Korean entities known to be involved in this slave trade. To assuage Chinese objections, this need not be any more explicitly about human rights than the luxury goods ban in UNSCR 1718 was.
Robert Collins, the author of the famous briefing on the seven phases of regime collapse in North Korea, almost certainly does not recall that, years ago, I was among a small group of Army officers who heard him deliver his briefing at Yongsan Garrison, in Seoul. For those who aren’t familiar with the seven phases, Robert Kaplan reproduced them in The Atlantic:
Phase One: resource depletion;
Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;
Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;
Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;
Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;
Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and
Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.
In 2006, Kaplan wrote that “North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States,” and had since reverted to Phase Three.
Since the coronation of Kim Jong-Un, the regime has re-entered Phase Four (there have also been some isolated outbreaks of Phase Five, including in the military). From the outside, Phase Four looks like the collectivization of capitalism — an erratic effort to pull a spiraling galaxy of corrupt officials and hard currency-earning state enterprises back into Pyongyang’s orbit. For example, the regime had recently relaxed market controls, but has since cracked down again, at least for the time being. A widely-touted joint venture with a foreign firm has shut down. Corruption has even penetrated to North Korea’s supply of gold, requiring the regime to crack down on pilferage and smuggling. The critical leap back to Phase Four, however, was the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.
In a system like North Korea’s, the impact of events like Jang’s purge can remain hidden from us for years, only manifesting themselves years after the fact. These effects are much more manifest now, thanks to a new report by CNN’s Kyung Lah, who reports on the views of a young defector who, until less than a year ago, “worked among the elites in Pyongyang.” Today, he works for the South Korean government as a researcher at a university. Because his family is still in Pyongyang, and because he “fears North Korea could manage to hunt him down in his new life,” CNN took great pains to avoid revealing identifying details about him. Here is what he says about the stability of the regime he fled:
He believes that among North Korea’s dictators, the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, “It is Kim Jong Un’s regime that is the most unstable. And it is going to be the shortest.” [CNN]
It was the execution of Jang Song-Thaek that caused him to flee:
“I can tell you for sure the North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong Un. I was thinking about leaving North Korea for a long time. After seeing the execution of Jang, I thought, ‘I need to hurry up and leave this hell on earth.’ That’s why I defected.”
At the time of Jang’s purge, the Joongang Ilbo, arguably the best and least-read of the major Korean papers, reported that 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, and probably scores of others in China, were called home but refused, and went to ground instead. At the time, I speculated that the loss of these operatives might cause significant short-term financial hardships for the regime, and that if foreign intelligence services could recruit some of them and access their laptops, they might yield a wealth of financial intelligence.
He made a risky, harrowing escape, telling no one he knew that he would attempt to defect. I’ve agreed not to reveal how he escaped, again for his safety. Suffice it to say, the chance of his capture or death was extraordinarily high.
But fear of death trying to escape paled in comparison to remaining under Kim Jong Un’s power, says the defector. After Kim’s purge of his inner circle, the defector says he witnessed a change among Pyongyang’s upper class. “They are terrified. The fear grows more intense every day.” [….]
“I can tell you for sure, the North Korean regime will collapse within 10 years,” he says without hesitation.
“Kim Jong Un is mistaken that he can control his people and maintain his regime by executing his enemies. There’s fear among high officials that at any time, they can be targets. The general public will continue to lose their trust in him as a leader by witnessing him being willing to kill his own uncle.”
Dismiss this as wishful thinking if you will — my own wishfulness is no secret, after all — but this account is consistent with other reports. In January 2014, shortly after Jang’s purge, several reports claimed that people in Pyongyang were terrified. This summer, we saw a spate of reports suggesting rising angst and discontent in the ruling class, and increased internal surveillance to suppress it. I’ve speculated that the point would come when the elites would be more afraid of not challenging Kim Jong-Un than of challenging him. But in a society like North Korea’s, not everyone reaches that state at the same time, and few would dare to express it aloud. No one can act alone, and without some means to communicate and organize with others, a crowd of dissenters is nothing more than a large collection of lonely people.
CNN’s report also addresses this Wall Street Journal report, about an analysis of refugee opinions by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Leave aside, for a moment, whatever biases you might suspect a South Korean university’s Peace Studies department brings to its research. Although the report’s headline claims “solid support” for Kim Jong-Un, the study actually measured what recent defectors speculate that other North Koreans thought about the regime. The most obvious problem with this is the classic problem of “preference cascades,” in which totalitarian regimes successfully alienate and isolate double-thinkers and latent dissenters, who are themselves shocked to learn (after the fact) that others secretly harbored the same views as themselves. If the study can claim to measure anything empirically, it is that perceptions of confidence in Kim Jong-Un have actually declined:
In 2012, just as Kim Jong Un took control of the regime, defectors in the survey perceived support at more than 70%. In 2014, their latest survey of 146 defectors shows that while they perceive support of Kim Jong Un remains high, it has dropped to 58%. [CNN]
Unfortunately, however, the survey doesn’t claim to measure anything empirically. According to the institute’s senior researcher, Chang Yong Seok, “the results should not be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.” That pool consists of just 100 subjects. The study may or may not control for the subjects’ variable circumstances. At best, the study is a useful caution about selection bias — that at least some refugees reckon that they’re unrepresentative of public opinion in North Korea.
People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty. [Jang Jing Sun, New Focus]
After you read Jang’s essay, read the call by Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for more “[r]adio broadcast[ing], social media, pushing cheap wave transistor radios and low-cost communications, DVDs,” and other ways for North Koreans to hear, speak, and communicate. When communication is free, the regime cannot last. As long as the regime controls communication, it is unlikely to fall.
The Great Famine of the 1990s changed North Korean society so profoundly that we are still trying to understand the breadth and depth of that change. During and after the famine, millions of North Koreans grasped at any survival strategy necessary to feed themselves. Those who did not change, and whom the state did not feed, died. For thousands of North Korean women, prostitution was the survival strategy of last resort to feed themselves, and often, their children.
In Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, the sex trade was invisible to the outside world. That began to change when Chinese traffickers and johns forced thousands of female famine refugees into the sex trade. By the end of the great famine, prostitution had become stealthily ubiquitous inside North Korea. It also became more organized and more predatory, with state officials playing a growing role its patronage and protection.
In Hamheung in 2008, a number of high-ranking party officials were accused of patronizing a tea house that also sold sex, and for protecting it against police interference. In Hyesan in 2009, the manager of a state-run inn frequently patronized by central party officials was arrested for pimping women and girls, some in their mid-teens. North Korea’s 2009 currency “reform” drove more women into the sex trade. By 2010, prostitution in Chongjin had been organized by “couple managers” who matched customers, often soldiers, with sex workers, often female university students, and sometimes women who had become dependent on drugs. Last year, the manager of a North Korean factory in China was accused of pimping out female factory workers.
The reports do not suggest that the state has consciously chosen to tolerate or profit from the sex trade as a matter of policy. The security forces periodically crack down on the sex trade, but inevitably, when corrupt authorities attempt to police a profitable trade, the authorities begin to see that trade as just another way to supplement their pay. More fundamentally, in a society where officials are the law, where enforcement is arbitrary, and where the state profits from trade at least indirectly, it can be hard to tell the difference between corruption and state policy. Today, the Daily NK reports that prostitution is increasingly run by well-connected businessmen and protected by the officials they’re connected with:
The sex industry in North Korea is becoming more systematic in large cities, as the number of pimps who lure in young workers is on the rise, and Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] officials who are tasked with cracking down on sex work are looking the other way, leaving the door open for prostitution around the clock, Daily NK has learned.
This is the first report I’ve seen of organized prostitution in the capital.
“In Pyongyang and other major cities, more professional prostitution rings that use young women to make money are surfacing,” a source in South Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. “People who run these operations bribe everyone from MPS agents to night patrol members under the same unit so they can do business.”
As is the case in South Korea, prostitution in North Korea tends to congregate in neighborhoods near train stations.
“In areas like Hamheung, Chongjin, and other large cities, if you go to train stations and areas around the marketplace, you’ll easily see older women approaching men and asking if they’d like ‘temporary lodging,'” he said. “They usually go up to well-dressed officials who seem to be on business trips or military officials, telling them they have full amenities (code for room and board and women of all ages).”
Although the price differs by region, mostly for women in their early teens and 20s, it costs roughly 40,000 to 50,000 KPW [5-6 USD], while for those in their 30s, it’s about 20,000 to 30,000 KPW [2.5-3.7 USD] The women who direct customers to the facility typically get a 30 percent cut, while the homeowner and sex worker split up the remaining sum. The latter two will for the most part make at least 10,000 KPW [1.2 USD] per case, according to the source.
“These days since sex businesses receive protection from crackdown agents, the industry has been growing, leading to squabbles over customers,” the source said. “With more operations up and running, there are even allotted schedules. During the day, all businesses run together, while at night, the hours are divided into early and late operations.
Yet again, the reports suggest that regime officials both patronize and protect the sex trade:
Party cadres and officials in the judicial system are frequent clients of sex services, and many venture out to places like Pyongyang’s Munsuwon and high-end public bathhouses such as ‘Eundeokwon’ with prostitutes, said the source. In the North, there are baths designated specifically for married couples and can only be used after national IDs are verified.
Some officials also use the sex trade to entrap and extort johns.
Also profiting from the business are safety officials, who not only receive bribes for turning a blind eye, they sometimes use pretty women to draw customers into the ‘temporary lodging’ facility and catch them in the act, he asserted. Then, they blackmail the clients for large sums of money or in some cases, call up for regular bribes. If customers do not comply, the officials report them and use it as an opportunity to add more ‘points’ and get a leg up at work.
North Korean society’s acceptance of prostitution will probably remain until long after unification; after all, prostitution still carries on more-or-less openly in South Korea, under terms that can also be very exploitative. Different societies take different views on whether the sex trade, at least between consenting and unmarried adults, is inherently evil, but the conditions in which North Korean women must sell their bodies is unquestionably evil. Their working conditions are horrible — for the obvious reasons, of course, but also for the general lack of health care available to those who became pregnant, or contract STDs. Some turn to addictive drugs, in the false hope that they can protect them from contracting disease.
The role of state officials in organizing and profiting from the sex trade is repellant, but still not as repellant as the state’s role in creating the conditions that force women into prostitution to begin with. Women who ought to be doctors should not be sex workers. Of North Korea’s many tragedies, there may be none greater than all the human potential destroyed by its unjust and unequal political system.
Many people died because of malnutrition, including my grandparents. In 1997, my father passed away too. My mom sold or bartered everything from our apartment until we had nothing left. So she decided to go to the city to search for food. She left me at home, but took my older sister who’s two-years-older than me. She said she would be back in three days, but if she got food earlier she would be back sooner. She gave me 15 North Korean chon—enough to buy just one piece of tofu—and left.
Three days passed, then four, then five. I was waiting for her to come home but on the sixth day I had no energy left and thought maybe today is my last day. I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time. What made me sad was that I felt my mom didn’t want me. She took my other sister but didn’t come back for me. So I decided to write a will, at 11 years old.
I wanted to say I would miss my mom, that even if she came home after I died, I wanted her to know what I had felt while waiting for her. But on the sixth day she came back. I was happy even though she arrived empty-handed. But she didn’t give up. She didn’t leave me alone. The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.
Lee spoke in accented, but clear English of the indoctrination she received as a child, of the revelations that broke the hold of the state’s propaganda over her, of her flight from North Korea, and of her resettlement in South Korea. (Later, we learn that Lee also speaks fluent Chinese; from this, and from her answers to questions from the audience, it’s clear that she’s a highly intelligent young woman.)
Perhaps because I’d already seen Lee’s powerful TED talk about her flight from North Korea, the part of her Heritage speech that moved me the most concerned more recent events. At 30:19, Korean-American activist Henry Song asked Lee about her fear that the regime will attack her. Those attacks might well be much more than verbal and rhetorical assaults from Kim Jong-Un’s propagandists, or addlebrained harangues from his noisy little chorus of sympathizers abroad. As I’ve documented in detail, Ms. Lee must also worry about physical violence, including assassination attempts like those directed against Park Sang-Hak, Hwang Jang-Yop, and other dissidents in exile.
Lee spoke of the report — still not carried in any English-language media — that the regime ordered its agents to “punish” 24 dissidents who had spoken at the U.N., and that she understood “punish” to mean “assassinate.” She told of learning that her best friend was arrested for spying for the regime, and of her inability to trust even fellow North Korean refugees, with whom she might make common cause. She told of having moved her residence so that fewer people would know where she lives. She still fears retribution against her family inside North Korea itself. And yet, she speaks out anyway:
On my way home that day, and in the days since, I’ve reflected with shame and sadness on how low we’ve fallen — or perhaps “shrunken” is the word I’m grasping for — from our historical role as the haven for, and champion of, the liberal values of dissent, of heresy, of free thought. You don’t need to see this in strictly moral terms to see what we’re losing. America became a great nation — greater than nations with more land, more people, with far more advanced cultures, and even more resources — because earlier generations of heretics, dissidents, and refugees made America the world’s center of free thought, of innovation of every kind, and of global culture in the modern age. Freedom of expression hasn’t only enriched our lives incalculably, it has enriched our economy and our global power incalculably, too.
Today, the same men who threaten Hyeonseo Lee and her brave compatriots also threaten our own freedom of expression, here in our own country. The Obama Administration has answered with cowardly mendacity, refusing to even acknowledge Pyongyang’s threats against Lee and other dissidents in exile, even lying to the entire world to avoid confronting them. What was so recently the world’s greatest nation cowers. A lucky few of us look to a small woman from North Korea to show us what courage still means.
If you were in Hyeonseo Lee’s place, what message would you derive from the American government’s refusal to acknowledge Pyongyang’s threats against your life, your freedom, and your family? It isn’t so difficult to imagine her sentiments if you begin by asking yourself how you feel, as an American, that your government offers nothing resembling a credible answer to a foreign despot’s threats against your own freedom, in your own town. In doing so, our government ceases to be a champion of the oppressed; it is the oppressed — and by proxy, so are we. It chooses silence over courage and principle, in the false hope that it can trade our liberty for its security, or — to be even more brutally honest — for its own temporary political advantage. But when our government submits to terror, it submits for all of us, and the consequences of this will extend long beyond January 2017. That is the antithesis of statesmanship.
The U.N. has requested Beijing for an explanation of its decision to repatriate 29 North Korean defectors last August, and of their current status in North Korea. [….]
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry is particularly concerned about the status of human-trafficking victims and illegal immigrants in China, and the persecution or torture, as well as the long detentions that await returnees in North Korea, South Korean outlet No Cut News reported.
North Korean women also are vulnerable to forced abortions and sexual assault after repatriation, according to the U.N.
The forced abortions on repatriated women have been performed because Chinese men have impregnated the women, according to the Brookings Institution.
In a follow-up to China’s report, the U.N. said it had received information a 1-year-old child was one of the 29 North Koreans repatriated in August 2014.
The U.N. asked Beijing to confirm this notice and where possible provide any information on the status of the returnees in North Korea.
Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington told Radio Free Asia the defectors should be classified as political refugees, considering the possibility of torture that await returnees forcibly sent back to North Korea. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]
UPI’s report doesn’t specify which U.N. agency asked the impertinent question, but one U.N. agency that’s been outstanding for its cowardice and uselessness is the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which sits passively in Beijing doing nothing of consequence for North Korean refugees. It’s long past time for the UNHCR to demand that China grant it free access to the border regions. The results of quiet acquiescence speak for themselves.
The repatriations are in flagrant violation of the U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which China signed. Background here, here, and here.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a spate of reports about defections from North Korea. Broadly, this is nothing new. The defection, for example, of three crew members of a fishing vessel is life-changing for three men, but is no more likely to rend the fabric of Kim Jong-Un’s regime than 27,000 other defections, almost all of them of people the regime had written off as expendable.
Recently, however, we’ve seen multiple reports suggesting something very different, and vastly more consequential for Kim Jong-Un: a surge of defections from the Inner Party. The defection of the biochemical researcher I wrote about in last Thursday’s post(*) is just one of a series of reports that causes me to wonder whether Kim Jong-Un’s purges—“on a scale not seen since at least the late 1960s,” according to Andrei Lankov—are alienating the ruling class that keeps him in power. I’m not alone in asking this question. No less an authority than Ken Gause opines that, assuming the reports are accurate, “they could reflect … that leaders within North Korea are becoming increasingly anxious about politics around Kim Jong Un.”I’ve held and added to this post for more than a week as enough evidence emerged to suggest the start of a trend.
Recall that in June, shortly after the purge of North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-Chol, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye sat for an interview with The Washington Post and claimed that a growing number of North Korean officials are discontented enough to risk their lives to escape it:
Since [he] took power 3 1/2 years ago, he has executed some 90 officials. Indeed, the reign of terror continues to this day. Although one can say that the reign of terror might work in the short term, in the mid- to long term, it is actually sowing and amplifying the seeds of instability for the regime …. Recently, a senior North Korean defected and confessed to us that because of the ongoing and widespread executions that include even his inner circle, they are afraid for their lives. That is what prompted him to flee. [WaPo]
Last week, Yonhap reported that “[a] number of North Korea’s working-level officials based in foreign nations have sought asylum” abroad, because “[m]any of them feel agitated” by Kim Jong Un’s rule. Some of them “have already defected to the South.” Yonhap also cited a report in the Chosun Ilbo, that “about a dozen senior North Korean officials” have defected for fear of being purged.
The defectors were working in China and Southeast Asia, some charged with earning hard currency for the regime. Several have already arrived in South Korea while others are staying in a third country.
Early this year, a mid-ranking official who had been dispatched to Hong Kong from Room 39, a Workers Party office that handles Kim’s slush funds, sought asylum in South Korea with his family.He reportedly told investigators here he was terrified of Kim’s draconian purges, which saw senior officials executed by anti-aircraft gun, and that officials left in North Korea find it almost impossible to flee because of tight controls but those working overseas can find some opportunities to defect. Last year, a senior official of Taesong Bank, who had handled Kim’s slush funds in Siberia, fled to South Korea with millions of dollars. Even a senior official of the State Security Department fled the North and arrived here. According to the National Security Service here, the defection particularly upset Kim. [Chosun Ilbo]
I wrote about that defection in this post at the time (see also this L.A. Times report). An especially tantalizing aspect of the Chosun Ilbo‘s report is that some of these defections could represent invaluable windfalls of financial intelligence about Pyongyang’s offshore assets, income streams, and money laundering methods. That intelligence could boost the Obama Administration’s ability to enforce sanctions against North Korea, should it develop the will to do so at a vulnerable moment for Kim Jong-Un.
(The Chosun Ilbo report also claims that “[a]n army general” who “was involved in the two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007”—so presumably, once a highly trusted cadre—“has been staying in a third country since he fled the North recently.” If the general in question is Park Seung-Won, who was also involved in building the Masikryong Ski Resort, South Korea denies this report.)
Yonhap has since reported that North Koreans laboring abroad are terrified of the purges and “examinations” by security forces cadres posted in China, and that some of them are choosing to defect. The Daily NK reports increased surveillance of well-connected merchants (donju) and officials of state-owned enterprises. Radio Free Asia reports that at Pyongyang’s request, China has forcibly summoned ten of its officials home, as part of its own investigation into the defections:
North Korea’s National Security Agency (NSA) summoned the workers as part of an investigation into a recent flood of high-ranking officials seeking asylum, the source from inside North Korea with knowledge of the country’s affairs in China told RFA’s Korean Service.“Resident employees who work in Shenyang (in northeastern China’s Liaoning province) earning foreign currency were recalled in the last ten days of June by the North Korean government,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.“
It was not their will to go back. They were forcibly returned to their own country.” [RFA]
Invariably, most of these reports cite anonymous sources, but they’re consistent with other reports, and a report that, after the December 2013 purge of Jang Song-Thaek, Jang’s minions in hard currency-earning enterprises in China were called home, but ran the other way. Reports that some North Koreans choose defection over obedience suggests more than simple insubordination. They suggest that Kim Jong-Un is losing his psychological hold over his elites.
The purges are also sowing mutual distrust between Kim Jong-Un and the elites. Some of them now accuse the State Security Department of bugging their homes.
An official in Pyongyang recently told RFA’s Korean Service that “in December 2013, several complaints were lodged by the North Korean Workers’ Party leadership that the State Security Department had even wiretapped departments under the Central Party,” and Kim Jong Un had responded by saying that “if they are clean, why do they fear being wiretapped?”
Soon after, wiretapping and surveillance by the State Security Department became “ubiquitous,” targeting high-ranking officials in their homes and forcing them to rein in conversation with their families, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several officials had gone so far as to send their children to stay with relatives or to live in areas outside of Pyongyang, he said. [RFA]
According to the Daily NK, there have been so many defections from elite families in Pyongyang that the regime has concluded that exiling their entire families, or sending them to prison camps, is no longer a practical deterrent. Instead, some elite families are merely put under enhanced surveillance.
“The number of various cadres defecting is on the rise, but I think it was determined that indiscriminate penalization of family members could worsen public sentiment and hurt the ‘Republic,’” he said.
Empirically, families of defectors in North Korea appear to lead stable lives in Pyongyang, but bubbling under the surface is the stress of constant surveillance and phone taps by the State Security Department (SSD).“
Families of traitors (defectors) are merely used as propaganda for the state, which claims they are able to lead stable lives thanks to the benevolence of the leader, but they never know when they’re going to be executed,” the source explained.
As of late, more officials at North Korea’s missions overseas or trade workers plan group defections with their families due to the cycle of purges, executions, and ensuing anxiety rife within the upper echelons of power in the North. Others feel threatened while carrying out overseas posts and defect rather than return to their homeland, according to the source.
When those with families in Pyongyang or relatives stationed at overseas missions hear of officials’ returns being delayed or that they’ve gone missing, an increasingly common response is, “another one fled,” according to the source. [Daily NK]
It is also possible that corruption plays a role in the state’s leniency, and that the security forces are taking bribes to spare these families.
~ ~ ~
North Korea has survived other high-level defections, of course, most notably that of Hwang Jang-Yop in 1997. Predictions of North Korea’s collapse—and the refutation of them—are necessarily so based on unknowables that they become Rorschach tests of the writer’s broader policy views. For example, Yonhap quotes four scholars, two of whom argue that the recent defections will not cause the collapse of the regime (although the headline attributes that conclusion to “experts”). The article tells us nothing about these academics or their orientations,* and offers little explanation for their conclusions, but strictly speaking, defections will not cause the regime to collapse, any more than hair loss will kill a cancer patient, or any more than a wave of defections in 1989 caused the collapse of East Germany. That wave, however, was a coincident symptom of a metastatic social cancer, of a society so riddled with disillusionment at every level that in the end, even the Stasi feared summary justice, border guards couldn’t wait to cross the wall to buy bananas, and hardened killers like Erich Mielke did not dare to crack down violently.
The more data points there are, the more one can argue that those points represent a trend. There are more of these data points today than at any time during the reign of Kim Jong-Il, a man who couldn’t govern but who could, unquestionably, rule. Kim Jong-Un shows little aptitude for either skill. I’ve never believed that Kim Jong-Un had the temperament, credentials, or gravitas to survive long in power, and nothing I’ve observed since December 2011 disturbs this belief. The short, unhappy history of his rule has mostly been remarkable for its repression, brutality, and purges; the widening of destabilizing social and class divisions; Kim’s flaunting of his bacchanalian, un-socialist lifestyle; and adisregard for the deiocratic cult of a selfless, enlightened, superhuman protector of the people.
If Kim is no master of statecraft, which members of the inner junta does Kim Jong-Un still trust enough to guide him as he shifts the levers of power, or to restrain him from grinding the gears? Which of them trusts him? Kim Yong Nam, an 87 year-old best known for leading delegations to Africa in his autumn years? Chae Ryong-Hae, who is rumored to have “barely escaped” his own one-way trip to the ZPU-4 range—a rumor that finds some support in official North Korean media—just before he suddenly appeared in Seoul, leading an official delegation? Chae was promoted as a contemporary of Hyon Yong-Chol, Ri Pyong-Chol, and Ri Yong-Ho; he’s now the lone survivor of the four. In such a place, not even Hwang Pyong-So can feel confident that he’ll survive long enough to serve on Kim Yong-Nam’s funeral committee.
If it’s true that Pyongyang survived the last two decades without a sudden collapse, it’s equally true that Pyongyang’s control over food, information, and consumer goods has undergone a gradual collapse. The regime is riddled with corruption and inequality; and (as I argue here) falling morale within the party and the security forces. You’d be right to scoff at the empirical pretensions of a Foreign Policy survey that recently ranked North Korea as the world’s 29th most unstable state—up from 26th last year—but the broader conclusion finds support in the historical trends.
Historically, totalitarian regimes either bend under the weight of popular disillusionment or break under it. Despite the mostly unsupported hopes of scholars in Washington and Seoul, Kim Jong-Un has not implemented significant economic reforms, and no one speaks of political reforms. Instead, he has tried to re-impose North Korea’s information blockade and win over the elites with material amenities, even as he terrorizes them. I doubt this will be a winning strategy. If I were to offer a guess as to how the gears of this charnel house will eventually coagulate and clog, it would start with a local disturbance and a bloody crackdown that splits the security forces, then a fatal delay as critical units wait in their barracks to see which will be the winning side.
This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly…. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.
This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference. [Glenn Reynolds]
What we can’t know is when the trickle of defections might also become a preference cascade. Whether these events are followed by some tense days of tanks on street corners and Korean Central Television playing martial music depends on whether the elites believe they and their families are safer with Kim in power, or without him.
~ ~ ~
* But I was curious enough to Google them.
– Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told Yonhap that “[f]or the time being, North Korean officials are likely to continue to flee … or seek asylum,” and that this would weaken Kim Jong-Un’s regime. Chang has previously advocated “curbing” leaflet balloon launches to appease Pyongyang, while opining that Seoul “could not” lift bilateral sanctions.
– Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, told Yonhap that “intermittent” defections were part of “the process of solidifying the Kim Jong-un regime and securing the regime’s stability.” In 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, Kim wrote an op-ed for the Asahi Shimbun arguing that Washington should have responded to the test with (sit down for this) direct talks with Pyongyang.
– When interviewed by Yonhap, Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies “dismissed the view” that the defections were indications of instability. Yang also told NK News that “[d]uring the previous mood of reconciliation,” as he calls it, “information could be checked,” presumably by asking the North Korean government. Yang questions the reports as the products of anonymous sources, and speculates that they “might have been spread by brokers in the border areas.”
– Jung Sang-don, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), hypothesized to Yonhap that Kim Jong-un’s “governing style could bring about an instability” in the North and cause it to “make provocations in a bid to tide over its internal problems.” I found no other published information about Jung’s views.
Ever since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry issued its report last year, North Korea has been particularly sensitive to accusations of human rights violations. It shouldn’t surprise us that this sensitivity is especially keen when the scrutiny threatens to cut off a growing source of hard currency — its export of what amounts to slave labor to places like Russia, Malaysia, and Qatar. Press reports on the working conditions of these workers, and the regime’s spotty history of paying their (paltry) wages, have embarrassed the regime, embarrassed companies and governments that use North Korean labor, and sometimes, disrupted those arrangements.
Now, according to a new report from Radio Free Asia, Pyongyang is reacting to renewed media scrutiny of overseas North Korean laborers about like you’d expect Pyongyang to react to that:
“Particularly, when a foreign reporter or human rights activists tries to take a picture or film you, take the camera, camcorder or cell phone from them and smash it,” the document said, according to Do.
“They [North Korean workers] must physically smash them, but also they must pull out internal memory cards such as SD cards and then return the broken cameras or camcorders to their owners,” he said.
Workers are also directed to physically attack the journalists and investigators:
The action guide also instructs workers not to hesitate to respond with violence and to gang up on those trying to video or photograph them, he said.
“The action guide even includes a series of details: Do not kill, but inflict a blow or fracture until the person’s body is physically damaged,” Do said.
If a person apologizes while a North Korean is beating him, the North Korean must record his words with a video camera or cellphone and give the recording to the supervisor or manager of the work unit to which they belong, Do said.
“If North Korean workers block activities by preventing or beating a South Korean who is reporter or human rights activist, they will be evaluated according to their actions,” he said. “But if they don’t [follow the guidelines] and pictures or videos appear on the Internet or TV, they’ll be punished.” [RFA]
A caution is in order on the sourcing of the story: it’s attributed to an NGO, the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees (CHNK), citing “sources inside North Korea.” Although CHNK itself is a respected NGO, we’re in no position to evaluate the reliability and basis of knowledge of CHNK’s own anonymous sources.
If the report can be confirmed, it could have significant policy implications. It would amount to an order by the North Korean government to subnational groups to commit politically motivated violence against non-combatant citizens of other nations on foreign soil. In this case, Pyongyang’s political motivation is to suppress the work of journalists and NGOs, and to preempt policy discussions among governments. It’s far from the most egregious example of North Korean sponsorship of international terrorism — the direction to refrain from murder may even count as progress — but if these orders are attempted or carried out, they could meet the legal standard for the hate that dare not speak its name (at least in Foggy Bottom).
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.
As a basic rule, it is understood that all workers must move in groups of at least fifteen people. But furthermore, television viewing is strictly prohibited. This is because South Korean dramas play regularly on Chinese broadcasts. If any labourer is caught moving out of bounds, away from the workplace and watching television, they will be sent straight back to North Korea the next day.
Previously, North Korean overseas labourers were allowed some degree of freedom, even being able to leave the workplace, provided that they moved in groups of two or three. However, during the lead up to Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations, the rules have changed and controls have tightened significantly.
To conclude, it can be observed that the North Korean government, in an effort to raise hard currency, is increasing its export labour, and, in addition, tightening its grip on them, especially in light of foreign influences such as Hallyu (the Korean Wave). The North Korean government has clearly shown, once again, its concerns and fears regarding the threat of exposure to Western cultural influences.
Or, I would add, its fears regarding the threat of Western exposure to how North Korea treats its people.
Please pardon me for taking a few days of rest with my family during the holidays. I’ll have much to say about The Interview, Nate Thayer’s intrepid reporting on the AP, and other exigent matters after we’re all played out on Legos and board games. Meanwhile, I have a few posts that I’d written last weekend and had planned to publish when North Korea hit the front pages. Here is the first of them.
~ ~ ~
A series of possibly conflicting reports from North Korea’s outer provinces claims that North Korea’s mining industry is under unusual strain, due to commodity price disputes with China, or due to drought causing a lack of hydroelectric power to pump water and run hoists. Despite promises of ten-fold wage increases for miners, those increases have failed to materialize, and the payment of baseline wages is unsteady:
“These days, because of a dispute over prices with China, iron ore exports have been halted, and in many cases salaries go unpaid,” the source said. “With operations suspended at the mine due to the extreme power shortage in the country, people are worried that they won’t even receive their 30,000 KPW.” [Daily NK]
Yet copper demand has risen … due to a “recent order for copper to produce bronze statues of the son and father Kims all across the country.” Imagine that.
Separately, the Daily NK reported on November 25th that operations at Musan, North Korea’s largest iron ore mine, had halted due to power shortages caused by low rainfall, and that this had caused “major disruptions” to the Kim Chaek and Songjin steel mills. (The report makes no reference to a price dispute with China. It seems improbable that both stories are true.)
Meanwhile, the regime is trying to raise coal production, perhaps to offset its lost iron ore revenue, by drafting slave labor from prisoners sentenced for “minor” offenses like selling smuggled CDs, and “conducting illegal business operations.”
“Upon orders to produce more coal, the state has been forcing male prisoners, who have been sent to labor training camps for misdemeanors, to coal mines,” a source in South Pyongan Province told the Daily NK on Friday.
Labor training camps refer to correctional facilities under the Ministry of People’s Security that hold criminals who have committed less serious crimes. They are held in these camps from anywhere between one to six months, where they carry out intense labor. Usually prisoners of these camps are mobilized to construction sites or farm areas, and coal mine work is considered an extreme exception,reflecting the serious rate of power deficiency currently facing the North.
The prisoners are worked day and night at coal towns some kilometers away, eating and sleeping on site. [Daily NK]
The article goes on to detail a long list of occupational hazards (collapses, accidents due to lack of lighting) that either kill the miners or drain away their lives (malnutrition, exhaustion, beatings, and respiratory problems due to coal dust and poor ventilation).
She explained once such case, “A few days ago, a prisoner in his 40s fell unconscious from suffocation and then died from the added malnutrition. He then received ‘parole,’” going on to add, “With more residents learning about the conditions at coal mines for those in labor training camps, rumors are spreading that if you land yourself in a training camp, you come out dead.”
“Women who have their husbands in these camps are passing on bribes to security officials and trying everything they can to get them out,” she asserted. “As they get to know of how the inmates are working, not even because of a serious crime, people are saying even during the Japanese colonial period they did exploit people this much.”
Although the drafting of prisoners as unskilled labor suggests a labor shortage, some (other?) part of the North Korean government is exporting (skilled?) mine laborers to Malaysia, where the conditions sound hardly better than inside North Korea itself.
Malaysia has defended the use of North Korean labourers in its mining industry, saying they are particularly good workers because of their dedication, strength and bravery.
After a North Korean was among those killed in a mine explosion at the weekend, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, told reporters that the men had been working legally under a special agreement between Pyongyang and authorities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
“When it comes to industries such as coal mines, the jobs are very dangerous and tough,” Wan Junaidi said. “No local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs — that is why [we] need foreign workers. In the coal-mining sector, only Britain, China and North Korea have highly-skilled workers.” [….]
The minister’s comments come just two days after three men — Tun Tun Win, 36, from Burma; Kardianto, 38, from Indonesia; and Pang Chung-hyok, 29, from North Korea — were killed after a blast ripped through the mine on Saturday morning. Another 29 men were injured, seven of them from North Korea. Forty-nine of the 119 foreign workers at the Sarawak mine were North Koreans. [The Guardian]
Collectively, mineral products constitute North Korea’s largest legal exports. The trend bears watching, not only because of its potential effects on North Korea’s economy and society, but also because the regime may feel tempted to substitute falling mineral exports with illicit exports, or by exporting more food.
As much as I agree that the National Security Law is overbroad and prone to abuse, cases like this show that parts of it remain necessary for the protection of South Korean citizens, including refugees from the North.
A North Korean defector was sentenced to two years behind bars on Friday for trying to pass on information about fellow defectors in South Korea to Pyongyang authorities.
A local court in this southeastern city said it found the 45-year-old woman, identified only by her surname Kim, guilty of gathering information on about 20 defectors in South Korea and attempting to send it to the North.
She was indicted on charges related to South Korea’s strict National Security Law that bans South Koreans, including North Korean defectors, from having contact with the North. [Yonhap]
Miss Kim told the judge that after her defection, she changed her mind, decided to return, contacted the North Korean Embassy Consulate in Shenyang, and volunteered to become a spy to earn the right to return. It seems rather more likely that Miss Kim was sent South by the Reconnaissance Bureau of the Workers’ Party to collect intel on others. It seems unlikely that Miss Kim learned the sources and methods of espionage while already in South Korea.
It all started with a piece of web journalism that printed the demonstrably untrue accusations of two men whose views were never newsworthy, and which would never have been published had they been researched. One is a notorious denier of North Korea’s crimes against humanity who claims to have traveled widely within North Korea, meaning he’s either too blind to read a cuckoo clock at high noon or prevaricating, probably to protect his business interests there. The other is a combustible man (as in, warning: contents under pressure) without any basis for his mean-spirited accusation — an accusation he now both repeats and regrets in one incoherent post that also concedes the broader truth of Pyongyang’s crimes (but only as asserted by numerous other witnesses). Yet last week, their accusations graduated into official KCNA propaganda talking points in Pyongyang’s smear campaign against its accusers:
A journalist of Ireland on Oct. 29, 2014 in an article dedicated to the internet magazine The Diplomat said that Pak Yon Mi, 21-year old girl who defected from north Korea, spoke about “the serious human rights situation” in north Korea in tears at the World Youth Summit held in Dublin early in October and BBC, Al Jazeera, Daily Mail and other media gave wide publicity to it, but not a few critics claimed what she said was contrary to the truth, expressing skepticism about her speech.
Swiss businessman Felix Abt who had worked in north Korea for seven years till 2009 asserted that most of the stories told by those defectors from the north were not confirmed and clearly hyped or they were sheer lies.
Denying the claim mader by Pak Yon Mi, comparing Dublin Canal with a river in the area where she had lived, that she saw dead bodies afloat over the river every morning, Abt refuted her story by saying he had been to north Korea many times but had never seen dead bodies, showing a picture of children in north Korea wading in rivers with joy.
Challenging the assertion of Ri Kwang Chol, defector from the north, who said there is no physically disabled person in north Korea due to infanticide, Abt recalled that Pyongyang dispatched disabled players to the Paralymic Games held in Inchon, south Korea.
Michael Bassett, who served the U.S. forces as an expert for north Korea in the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula for years, said that the story made by Pak Yon Mi, defector from the north, was a shee lie, that Pak described the human rights situation in north Korea as a “massacre”, prompted by her intention to create a great sensation and that such anti-DPRK organizations in south Korea as “Freedom Factory” were behind her. Bassett, referring to the fact that Pak Yon Mi sent him an article refuting his story, ridiculed that her English was too perfect though she was a foreigner. [KCNA]
Congratulations, guys. Your reputations are now secure.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]
In America, we have grown accustomed to a political polarity in which we associate “left” with “liberal.” Whatever the merits of that correlation here, it’s useless to any understanding of politics in South Korea, where very few people on either side of the political spectrum can be described as liberal, and the only realcandidate for that description — at the least the only candidate I can offer — is a member of the “right” Saenuri Party. For the most part, the Korean right has never overcome the authoritarian reputation Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan gave it, and the arrival of democracy did not mean the end of the old right’s use of an overbroad National Security Law to censor nonviolent speech that wiser men would have held up to ridicule and criticism instead.
Meanwhile, the Korean left seems to have dedicated itself to justifying the continued need for the National Security Law, and to making its own criticism of the NSL, however legitimate in isolation, seem hypocritical in the broader context.
In the history of “democratic” South Korea, it is the left that has been responsible for the most pervasive and pernicious censorship. During the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years, the Korean left censored human rights activists, refugees, newspapers, and playwrights, acting as Pyongyang’s thought police in the South. To the extent Minju-dang and Uri governments didn’t directly censor criticism of Kim Jong Il, they effectively practiced vicarious censorship, standing by while left-wing unions and “civic” groups used violence to suppress it. They even subsidized the unions and civic groups that were responsible for the worst of the street violence.
In many cases, the Korean left’s political leanings have been exposed as illiberal or totalitarian. On more occasions than I could ever describe here, members of “left” parties, and the civic groups and labor unions that support them, have been caught propagating Pyongyang’s ideology or acting as its agents for espionage — even violent attacks in support of a putative North Korean invasion.
Thus, what American and European liberals almost always get wrong about the Korean left is how illiberal it is, and how little it has in common with them. The Korean left lacks the liberal passion for protecting the vulnerable. American liberals want to lift restrictions on immigration and spare illegal immigrants from deportation; the South Korean left despises North Korean refugees and heaps abuse on them. It would rather let them die in place than offend Pyongyang by letting them in. Euro-American liberals loathe racism and nationalism; the Korean left propagates and exploits them. Euro-American labor unions fight for decent pay and working conditions globally; the Korean left supports the slavery and exploitation of its fellow Koreans at Kaesong. Traditionally, Euro-American liberals stood for freedom of expression. The Korean left would sacrifice the right of South Koreans to speak nonviolently, and of North Koreans to freedom of information, to appease the totalitarians in Pyongyang:
The main opposition party on Wednesday proposed a bill requiring government approval to send propaganda leaflets to North Korea as part of efforts to help ease simmering inter-Korean tensions.
The move by the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) comes as South Korean activists’ sending of balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border has been a source of inter-Korean rows and tensions.
Pyongyang has urged Seoul to block such activities, while Seoul insists it has no legal ground to regulate their “freedom of speech.”
According to the revision bill to the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act proposed by Rep. Yoon Hu-duk of the NPAD, currencies, leaflets and any printed materials shall be added to the category of goods that need to be approved by the unification ministry before they can be sent across the inter-Korean border.
It also stipulates that the minister must give the go-ahead “to unspecified individuals with mobile equipment, including balloons,” before they can be launched.
The revision bill would also ban the unification minister from giving the green light to sending items into North Korea that “could cause legitimate concerns of hurting inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.”
“The leaflet campaign has hampered the recent thawing inter-Korean mood and posed threats to the safety of the people residing near the border regions,” Rep. Yoon said.
Criticizing the Seoul government for “sitting idle and doing nothing to regulate the activities,” the lawmaker said the revision bill would give the government a legal ground for regulating such activities to help protect residents and improve inter-Korean ties. [Yonhap]
Now take a moment and read about one of the people the NPAD wants to censor. Read about his life’s history, as described by the European liberalism’s newspaper of record:
The food shortage hit my family in 1997. My mother, my wife, and my son died of hunger that winter. The boy was always frail, he died because he could not eat properly.
All my family had died apart from my eldest child. I decided to escape North Korea so that he could live.
I had always lived in obedience to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the death of my family changed that. Once I had dreamt of communism being achieved, listening to the lectures of the Kim family every day – but it was only a delusion.
Rebelling against the country would only lead to death. I decided to leave. [The Guardian]
The man fled to survive, but once outside North Korea, freedom of information showed him that it was also possible to live:
Despite the hardships, I tried to listen to South Korean broadcasts every night and sometimes people who had worked there would tell me stories. There was a programme called “To the People of the Workers’ Party” – the presenters were knowledgeable about the reality of North Korea. This is when I realised South Korea was not what I thought it would be. I decided to try to get there.
Today, he is one of the activists who sends leaflets into North Korea. Freedom of information transformed his life, and today, he wants to exercise his new right to speak freely, to give freedom of information to those he left behind. These are the rights — the universally guaranteed rights — that the NPAD wants to deny its fellow Koreans.
I don’t think most people would call me a liberal, but I suppose it was around the time the angry left started to call itself “progressive” that I stopped using the word “liberal” pejoratively and attached a certain reverence to it. If liberalism still stands for things like tolerance and equality and nonviolence and free expression and free love, then Korea’s left does not deserve to be called liberal. Instead, it has degenerated to little more than authoritarianism in the service of totalitarianism.
“One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have of North Korea is that they are simple and naive,” he said. “But I feel that North Koreans as a group of people have gone through a lot of hardship, and their ability to survive in difficult situations are a lot higher that what people think. People think that unification will be a basketcase for North Koreans, but they will definitely be able to manage. People also think North Koreans will have a hard time adjusting to the market economy, but the black market is also growing under the regime’s nose, and people are used to working in this environment.” [The Atlantic]
Kang is a survivor of Camp 15, which some unconfirmed reports say has been dismantled as part of a hoax to fool the United Nations–reports I’ll believe when I see satellite imagery that proves it. You can buy Kang’s memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, here; his AMA is here.