An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

By George Hutchinson and Robert Collins

Mr. President,

April 25th was “Military Foundation Day” in North Korea. Experts from the U.S. to China believe there is a strong likelihood we’ll see another nuclear or ballistic missile test, or possibly both, soon. Bad news for all, since the North Korean threat no longer only pertains to South Korea, but now includes neighboring countries where U.S. forces are stationed. Soon, even the U.S. mainland will be threatened due to the regime’s ICBM development.

On May 9th, the Republic of Korea (ROK) will hold a snap presidential election to fill the void left by the impeached Park Geun-hye. Simply put, the next two weeks are not only critical for achieving a successful deal regarding North Korea, but decisions made and policies formulated during this window will dramatically impact the fate of the Korean Peninsula.

Over the past 20-plus years, previous administrations have tried just about every possible tactic, short of war, to coerce North Korea to cease its illegal nuclear and missile programs—none have worked. The only constant among these failed policies is North Korea’s commitment to not give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

To be sure, the national security of the American people and that of our allies is incredibly important and certainly your number one responsibility. However, human rights for the North Korean people are important as well.

In the Art of the Deal, your closing words include, “In my life, there are two things I’ve found I’m very good at: overcoming obstacles and motivating good people to do their best work.” You have also demonstrated a mastery of highly effective and spontaneous communications. Your unconventional communication and problem-solving talents are sorely needed, now.

Much like you have reduced the influence of the conventional news media by communicating with the American people directly through your Twitter account, an approach to North Korea’s problem sets is needed to blast through the traditional conventions that have not worked.

So beyond thumbing through the playbook of failed engagement and negotiation strategies, or placing over-reliance on an unreliable China, do what you do best—communicate directly to the people through Twitter. Use this venue to talk directly to the 25 million North Koreans who suffer under a brutal, multi-layered system of repression. Yes, North Koreans do not have access to your Tweets, but nearly everybody else does and numerous human rights groups have ways of sending those tweets into North Korea through surreptitious means.

Through your Twitter account, lead the world in a campaign that tells the North Korean people, “We have no beef with you, the people of North Korea—it’s the repressive system that imprisons you that we despise.” Call out those who disingenuously ignore the repressive Kim family regime’s abhorrent crimes against humanity (China). Call out North Korea for what it is—a human rights uncaring, despotic regime set up entirely for the benefit of its elites who ruthlessly prevent the North Korean people from realizing any potential.

You face numerous challenges as you approach completion of your first 100 days in office this week. The North Korea problem may be chief among them. No administration has succeeded yet. But you’ve spent a life successfully overcoming obstacles and motivating people. You’re up to the task.


George Hutchinson and Robert Collins

George Hutchinson is a board member of the International Council of Korean Studies (ICKS). A U.S. Air Force veteran and former advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Hutchinson served as the Joint Duty Officer for the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission. Hutchinson is a Korean linguist trained at Yonsei University and the Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California.

Robert Collins is the author of HRNK’s reports “Songbun” and “Pyongyang Republic” and numerous articles in publications including the International Journal of Korean Studies and HRNK Insider. A 37-year veteran of the U.S. Department of the Army, he completed his career as Chief of Strategy, ROK-US Combined Forces Command.

ISC Trilateral Conference Panel #1

Editor: Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
Original Transcription: Hanmin Sohn, HRNK Legal Research Intern

ISC Trilateral Conference Panel #1 with HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu (center).


In today’s day and age, there are surely very few countries that have a perfect human rights record. That said, in 2017, there is only one country on the face of the planet that’s running a system of political prison camps: five detention facilities where 120,000 men, women, and children are being held. In today’s day and age, there is only one country on the face of the planet that has a system of social discrimination based on its citizens’ perceived degree of loyalty to the regime, and degree of loyalty to the regime of their parents and grandparents. And we surely know, based on the findings of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights, that this is a regime that’s committing crimes against humanity against its own people. This is also a regime that is threatening its neighbors, regional and international peace and security with long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

What North Korea is not though is irrational. This regime is actually very rational. This regime, as terrible as it is, very rationally executes its strategic objectives. Those fundamental strategic objectives are its survival and the establishment of hegemony over the entire Korean peninsula. Because, from the regime’s viewpoint, only unification of the entire Korean peninsula under its hegemony ensures its long-term survival. So, while we have a whole toolkit available to address North Korea, one very important aspect one has to keep in mind is that this is not a status-quo regime. This is a revisionist regime and I think that we have to keep that in mind as we come up with possible solutions.

Where do we stand in terms of human rights under the Kim Jong-un regime? Our organization is tasked to investigate the North Korean human rights situation through witness testimony coming from North Korean defectors, and through some testimony coming from inside North Korea; now it is possible to have some sources inside the country contacted through a combination of Chinese cell phone and official North Korean cell phone. This information also comes from satellite imagery analysis that enables us to monitor North Korea’s detention facilities and compare these findings with testimony coming from witnesses.

As many of you know, I’m sure, ever since Kim Jong-un took power, there has been an aggressive crackdown on attempted defections. The number of defectors arriving in South Korea declined by about 50% from 2011 to 2012, from 2,800 to about 1,500. We have stayed at the same lower levels. We have seen an aggressive purging of senior officials. In December 2016, the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul published a report stating that 340 senior North Korean officials had been purged or executed since Kim Jong-un assumed power. The preferred method of execution is execution by ZPU-4 anti-aircraft machine gun. You’re talking about a 50 caliber machine gun, four barrels, automatic fire, 14.5 mm for those accustomed to the metric system. Our organization actually managed to secure a satellite image acquired just minutes prior to such an execution by ZPU-4 anti-aircraft machine gun. Remember, it’s not only those officials who go away. The country applies a system of guilt-by-association called yeon-jwa-je. This is a system of feudal extraction. Up to three generations of the same family are punished. Men, women, and children, the young and the old are held in North Korea’s political prison camps. When one official is purged, it’s also all of the associates, their family and friends that are threatened and punished. These purges are massive. They have surely been happening ever since the early days of the Kim Il-Sung regime, but nevertheless, on Kim Jong-un’s watch, they’ve been extraordinarily intense because, of course, he only had 3 years to prepare for hereditary transmission of power while his father had 20. He was only 28 years old when he took over. His father was 53. Thus, the intensity of the purges. Of course, there are other trends. Political prison camps near the border with China have been shut down. It was bad PR and of course the last thing that the North Korean regime wanted was for more former prisoners to escape across the border into China and subsequently into the free world to tell their stories. Prisoners have been located to other detention facilities that have expanded in the meantime. Camp 14 and Camp 25 expanded by above 100%. Thousands of prisoners disappeared in the process.

We have also documented excessive repression of women. Remember, there has been a marketization process, an informal marketization process building in North Korea since the days of Great Famine. The ones who are most active at the markets are women, in particular, married women. Thus, those who are most often arrested for perceived misconduct at these markets are women. Also, women are those who attempt to illegally cross the border into China without the Kim regime’s approval. They’re the ones who get arrested and forcibly repatriated by China to conditions of danger. Actually, contrary to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which China is a party, at one re-education forced labor camp, Camp No. 12 in Jongo-ri, 80% of the 1,000 women prisoners are women who are forcible repatriated from China. We were able to document this through both satellite imagery and defector testimony. Actually, a new annex has been built at this detention facility to house those women. Of course, North Korea today is different from North Korea 20 or 10 years ago and we are all aware of factors that are slowly, but surely, eroding the regime’s grip on power. More information is entering the country although this continues to be the world’s most reclusive regime. There has been this process of informal marketization and, of course, information also travels along the informal supply lines established from China all the way to the capital city of Pyongyang. And, of course, this regime has been very resilient. This regime has been in power for almost 69 years. The Soviet Union lasted for 74 years. How has this regime managed to survive its Soviet and Eastern European peers by over a quarter century? Through relentless coercion, control, surveillance, and punishment of its people. For a population of 25 million people, North Korea has 270,000 agents: 50,000 of the State Security Department, the North Korean “Gestapo.”

Add to that 210,000 agents of the Ministry of Public Security, and 10,000 agents of the Military Security Command. The regime has also stayed in power through indoctrination of its people. Indoctrination begins at a very early stage. While babies are still in the cradle, they are taught to point fingers to the pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il on the wall. This indoctrination continues throughout one’s lifetime. People participate in weekly ideological training sessions, where they have to confess to the others, talk about their trespasses, and about how they would strengthen their ideological awareness. They’re subjected to this type of indoctrination day in and day out. And then there is the old pervasive fear of repression, fear of secret agents of the regime, fear of the informers. Each and every person has to be an informant by participating in a neighborhood watch system called in-min-ban, where everybody watches everybody else: family members, friends, and neighbors.

So, where do we stand right now? What are some of the options that we have? Now surely we have a tool kit. And there’s no one single, excuse the cliché, silver bullet. Sanctions have been mentioned today. It is way too soon to assess the effectiveness of sanctions. It is very important that we include human rights in the type of behavior that is subjected to sanctions. This is not done so far in sanctions pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions. It’s all about nukes and missiles. However, human rights has finally been included in the type of the behavior subjected to sanctions in our own U.S. North Korea Policy and Sanctions Enforcement Act. Moreover, in order to address North Korea’s illicit activities, one doesn’t even need sanctions. All that’s needed is the application of domestic and international law, in the countries where the Kim regime is running such activities. All that’s needed is information exchange with the U.S. intelligence community, with the U.S. law enforcement community, that might have knowledge of such operations and those running them.

There is pressure at the UN—pressure based on the human rights campaign that has been ongoing for almost two decades now. Why is it important that we have three strong General Assembly resolutions, three strong Human Rights Council resolutions, that three times the UN Security Council placed North Korean human rights on its agenda? It’s very important because first of all, it is the right thing to do, legally, morally, ethically, and politically. These are universal values. And secondly, because this undermines and erodes the very legitimacy of the North Korean regime. They care about their pocket book, the sanctions. They care about legitimacy, of course, the human rights campaign has a lot to do with eroding whatever semblance of legitimacy they might have left.

Of course, this regime has stayed in power through international deception, as mentioned earlier in relation to its nuclear and missile program. The Kim regime executes a policy of human rights denial established at the highest levels of state, resulting in those crimes against humanity that happen in particular at North Korea’s political prison camps.

A solution that is often mentioned is information. In a worldview centered on liberal IR theory, the solution would be changing the social order. And that makes perfect sense. Presumably, the best tool available is information because after all, the only ones who can affect change are the very people of North Korea. It’s very important to tell them three basic stories: the story of the corruption of their leadership , especially the corruption of the inner core of the Kim family; the story of their own human rights situation, which they do not understand living under such an oppressive regime; and of course, the story of the outside world, especially the story of successful South Korea, not only a prosperous country, but a successful democracy. And what we have been witnessing South Korea over the past few months, surely, clearly proves that South Korea is a very healthy and sound democracy.

Of course, there is the question about diplomacy. Diplomacy of course must never stop. Track 1.5 or track 2, whatever that is. One can never speak against diplomacy. But of course, diplomacy that’s grounded in a very firm understanding of the Kim regime, of how the Kim regime operates, of what the fundamental strategic objectives of the Kim regime are because those are not going to change for as long as the status-quo is maintained in North Korea. Thank you very much.

Control of the Kim Regime’s Political Prison Camps

By Robert Collins 

Following the July 6, 2016 release of the U.S. State Department’s “Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea,”[1] the U.S. Department of Treasury commendably followed up on July 7, 2016 by naming several North Korean organizations and individuals to the Specially Designated Nationals List, which correlates to sanctions on those entities.[2]

Most of the North Korean organizations and individuals named[3] have a direct impact on the Kim Regime’s political prison camps, which incarcerate up to 120,000 individuals and their families. Control of these camps is frequently presumed to be a function of the North Korean state—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—but that would be a narrow understanding of how and why the camps operate the way they do, and more pointedly, why they exist in the first place.

These political prison camps started with the early Kim Il-sung regime’s concept of banishment of those deemed enemies of the party and state—religious persons, landowners, businessmen, those that cooperated with the Japanese colonial government in Korea, and even those deemed too popular locally—to North Korea’s mountainous northeast. These banishments developed into the current form of actual political prisons[4] concurrently with the development of the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology (TPMI).[5]

Loyalty to the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, is the supreme principle of the TPMI. Developed in the late 1960s and promulgated for instruction to all in the early 1970s, every North Korean must demonstrate his or her loyalty based on TPMI principles. Violation of these principles is the number one justification for the regime to incarcerate individuals in these camps. Not only does the TPMI serve as the guidebook for all party members, security services, government leaders, and action personnel with regards to violations of loyalty and political ideology, it is also used as a standard to which every leader, manager, and department director is held in the performance of their respective duties. This applies as well to those who run the political prison camps and who provide administrative and/or logistical support to those camps.

Within the Kim Regime, chains of political control are far more important than chains of command, regardless of organization type, and the internal security services are no different. The following line and block chart lays out how North Korea’s supreme leader of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) politically controls the political prison camps (and all other prisons) through the party apparatus.

Chart 1: Political Control of the Kim Regime’s Political Prison Camps[6]

At the center of the control process is the organization that is responsible for ensuring the TPMI is followed statewide to the proverbial letter—the party’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). The OGD is the “party within the party.”[7] Its mission is to guarantee the continuity of the supreme leader and the KWP. The OGD Party Life Guidance Section evaluates every leader of every organization, regardless of societal role, as to their performance on loyalty to the supreme leader and obeisance of the TPMI. The OGD Cadre Section employs these evaluations to manage leadership careers.[8]

As in every other organization within North Korea, each political prison camp has its own party committee embedded into the camp structure and this committee takes its orders from the KWP OGD. It is the prison’s embedded KWP committee from which the prison takes its overall direction. The orders and direction provided by the camp KWP committee that direct the treatment of prisoners and these orders and directives must ultimately conform to the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee. The most critical position in this camp KWP Committee is the Organizational Secretary. He or she oversees the efficacy of camp management in accordance with OGD orders and directives, as well as its continuity with the TPMI. The orders and directives of the KWP Central Committee are the responsibility of the KWP OGD.

Thus, the actions and tasks of every leadership position within the political prison camp structure are sanctioned politically by the KWP OGD, which reports directly to the supreme leader. Each of those camp leaders, whether shift supervisors, section chiefs, or camp managers, must comply with the spirit of the TPMI and is responsible for the treatment they deliver to punish the camp residents. Sympathy and latitude toward the political prisoners is counter to the TPMI and punishable under the same standards that lead to the imprisonment of the camp prisoners. It is imperative for these personnel to punish political prisoners in accordance with the intent of the TPMI. Not do to so would result in the denial of food security, adequate housing, opportunity for professional advancement and, most importantly, family survival.

Understanding political prison camp leadership behavior is embedded in understanding the TPMI and the control of the KWP OGD over the internal security services. Administrative analysis is totally inadequate in understanding a regime that derives its power from enforcement of a political ideology that controls the regime’s agencies of political power enforcement.

[1] See U.S. Department of State, “Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea,” July 6, 2016. URL:
[2] See U.S. Department of Treasury Resource Center, Office of Foreign Assets Control, “North Korea Designations,” July 6, 2016. URL:
[3] Not named are numerous North Korean elites who are responsible for supporting the operation of these camps politically, administratively and logistically.
[4] For an understanding of political prison camp development, see Robert Collins, Marked For Life: Songbun – North Korea’s Social Classification System, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, pp.22-24; for details on the camps themselves see several related reports at; also see several prison camp publications published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea at
[5] For a detailed translation of the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology, see Joanna Hosaniak, Prisoners of Their Own Country: North Korea in the Eyes of Witnesses (Seoul: Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, 2004), 39-44.
[6] Authors rendition.Derived from numerous sources.
[7] National Intelligence Service “Bukhan Nodongdangui haeksim Buseo (North Korea’s Korean Workers’ Party Core Department),”2006. URL: http://,M03180 000&midArr=M03180000&fieldArr=&keyWord=&page =1&startDate=&endDate=&dataNo=23452&hcode= 39077402012879299424981&viewNo=201.
[8] Michael Madden, “Basic Party Organizations,” North Korea Leadership Watch, May 10, 2016. URL:; see also Michael Madden, “’City and County Party Committees,” North Korea Leadership Watch, May 10, 2016. URL:; see also Micheal Madden, “KWP Central Committee Organization and Guidance Department,” NKLeadershipWatch, October 2009.   URL:; see also Ri Myong-hun, “노동당 내부사업 실상과 조직지도부 65 (Status of Korean Workers’ Party Internal Affairs and the Organization and Guidance Department’s Section 65),” Pukhan, August 2014, pp.85-91; see also “Pukhan Chongchiron: Choson Nodongdang Chungangwiwonhoi Chojik Chidobu (North Korean Political Theory: Korea Workers’ Party’s Central Committee’s Organization and Guidance Department),” Report Shop, Augugst 7, 2010. URL:

The Challenge of Giving Thanks in North Korea

By Robert Collins

Recently, Melanie Kirkpatrick wrote an outstanding book on the history of Thanksgiving in America that examines our country’s Thanksgiving experience over the last four centuries. Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience reminds us that those of us in the United States give thanks this holiday for the many things that make our country one of unparalleled freedom, bountiful opportunity, and relative comfort despite challenges all along the way. To enjoy these same blessings that most of us take for granted, about a million people continue to immigrate to America each year with many more waiting in line. In that vein, possession of well-protected human rights is not one of those blessings that we normally acknowledge with any specificity at the Thanksgiving table. However, for many in the world, there is a longing desire to be in a position where they could give thanks. Nowhere is that more true than in North Korea.

Both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) celebrate Thanksgiving where thanks are given in autumn for a bountiful harvest and blessings possessed. For South Koreans, they celebrated the Korean Thanksgiving called “Chuseok,” on September 15th in 2016. The holiday is always on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Therefore, it slightly differs each year from the Gregorian (international standard) calendar. The holiday goes back to the Silla dynasty more than 1200 years ago. Originally called “hangawi” or “the great middle of autumn,” the holiday celebrates the autumn harvest, which is parallel to the American Thanksgiving celebrating harvest. A central tradition of “Chuseok” is the “charye,” where Koreans prepare a table of traditional foods and honor previous generations of their ancestors, frequently visiting their graves. These days, South Koreans increasingly observe a morning celebration in their homes, where traditional foods are laid out as symbolic representation of thanks to their ancestors.

Image of the "Chuseok" table. 
Photo Credit: Namwon030 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Above the DMZ, North Koreans celebrate Korean Thanksgiving in a very different manner and give thanks for blessings possessed in a vastly different dynamic than their South Korean counterparts. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Koreans officially celebrate “Chuseok” by praising and memorializing the Kim Family—Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un, as well as Kim Il-sung’s parents and grandparents. In reality, North Koreans have little for which they can be thankful.

South Koreans have many things for which to count their blessings: being the world’s 15th largest economy and the observance of their civil rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom to elect one’s representatives, and freedom to protest peacefully. South Korea has fully developed democratic institutions that enable celebrations to be as the people wish. In sharp contrast, the 25 million North Koreans’ GDP per capita is ranked 197th at the bottom on the world scale. The national economy is deliberately designed by the Kim regime to not focus on food security for the people, but rather, focus on nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, the military in general, and, most importantly, anything that supports regime survival. On top of that, the Kim Regime prioritizes the nearly 3 million citizens of Pyongyang over all other North Korean population sectors in terms of food security and a host of other privileges. This leaves the remaining 22 million citizens to fend for themselves in an economy where personal food security efforts for all but the ruling class are based in limited, but sanctioned individual market booths, small 10m by 10m agricultural plots, and black market activity. 

Photo Credit: Associated Press/Wong Maye-E

The Kim regime’s highly politicized focus on cult-like worship of the Kim Family leaves little for the North Korean to celebrate. The deliberate denial of Korean traditions accentuates the Kim Regime’s complete denial of human rights. Brutality and Thanksgiving are two words that are normally not associated with each other. Unfortunately, in the case of North Korea and its human rights record, these two words are both regrettably appropriate. North Koreans cannot count sufficient food, competent healthcare, or adequate housing among their blessings. They cannot be thankful for protection under the law, comfort in religion, or freedom of choice. Their lives are filled with restrictions, limitations, and political terror. They can expect nothing from their government or leaders and instead, only rely upon themselves and, on occasion, their families—if the Party-state hasn’t invaded that as well. The attempt by the internal security services to subvert family relations for the sake of ensuring political reliability through reporting is deplorable.

Photo Credit: KCNA

The Kim regime’s oppressive rule and brutal treatment of its own people is unparalleled today. The North Korean regime’s policy of human rights denial suppresses even the freedom to give proper thanks on Chuseok/Thanksgiving. For us and our friends, allies, and partners in South Korea, this is one additional reason to give thanks to our forebears for being blessed to live in a democracy, and for the freedom to vote, assemble, debate, and demonstrate to ensure that our democracies remain vibrant and resilient. Perhaps most importantly, the holiday gives us pause to appreciate family and bountiful sustenance, two of the essential elements of thanks on this holiday.

North Korean Mothers Fight to Be Reunited with Stateless Children Left Behind in China

By Christine Chung

Perhaps you’ve read William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice, or maybe you’ve seen Meryl Streep win the best actress Oscar for her role in the movie adaptation. The story is about a woman who chooses under extreme duress which of her two young children will be allowed to live. We like to think imposing these types of sadistic choices was part of a distant Nazi past. But the Tongil Moms were forced to make heart-wrenching decisions not that long ago.

These North Korean women chose to leave young children behind to make precarious journeys to escape the dangers of residing illegally in China and find asylum in South Korea, either because they couldn’t endure their forced marriages any longer or because every day they risked being captured by Chinese authorities and repatriated to North Korea where they were certain to face beatings, starvation and worse in prison camps. Because in North Korea it’s a crime to leave without permission, even if there’s no food to be found inside the country or you have to go to over the border to find goods to trade in the markets to survive. And asking for permission to leave is tantamount to a crime because it would reveal a lack of faith in the North Korean leadership.

Tongil Mom Delegation and HRNK at the Heritage Foundation on November 2, 2016.
From left to right: Lee Young-hee (Tongil Mom Member), Kim Jeong-ah (Tongil Mom Founder and Executive Director), Rosa Park (HRNK Director of Programs and Editor), and Hwang Hyun-jeong (Tongil Mom Member).

This week, three members of the Tongil Moms, an advocacy group of North Korean women who seek reunification with their children whom they left behind in China, participated at a forum on human trafficking in China at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Three North Korean women (sometimes referred to as “defectors”) who now reside in South Korea are activists demanding their fundamental human rights to family life and privacy. Executive Director of Tongil Moms Kim Jeong-ah said, “Two [other mothers] have been included in this delegation, but the participants have changed multiple times because they could not face the trauma of having to retell their stories.” The two other members were Hwang Hyun-jeong and Lee Young-hee.

Around 30,000 North Koreans have resettled in South Korea, the vast majority of them women. Assessing how many of them were victims of human trafficking is difficult as is estimating the number of North Korean women who remain trafficked in China or languish in prisons back in North Korea after forced repatriation. Kim estimates 60 percent of North Korean women in South Korea were abused in China. She said, “Naturally, women only share their stories with friends they are very close with and trust. This is because women defectors feel shameful about their experiences. It is extremely difficult for me when I share what I have been through. I was sold for 19,000 Chinese yuan (about USD 2,800). Moreover, I have to confess the fact that I abandoned my child, whether it was against my will or not.”

Kim explains that the Chinese government's policy of forced repatriation of North Korean refugees leads to mothers having to abandon their children. Under international law, China is prohibited from returning North Korean refugees to North Korea where they face torture and other reprisals. Instead, China is obliged to offer them protection under several international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention against Torture, as well as customary international law which prohibits forced repatriation (also called refoulement). But the Chinese government doesn’t comply with its international legal obligations and declares North Koreans who flee the country not to be genuine refugees but illegal immigrants coming to China for economic reasons.

“Because of the constant threat of being forcibly repatriated to North Korea, I was never able to sleep for more than one hour at a time; I would lay awake every night,” Kim said. “Mothers cannot stay in China and must abandon their children, thinking that they will go back to get them someday, but there is no way to influence what the children are taught. The [Chinese] fathers tell them: “Your mother’s abandoned you.’ They don’t think about the kind of pain that causes a child.”

The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in October 2013 urged China to “cease the arrest and repatriation of citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], especially children, and women who have children with Chinese men, and ensure that children of mothers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have access to fundamental rights, including the right to identity and education.” The CRC made similar recommendations in previous years, as have many other UN committees and human rights bodies like the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice.

Kim said, “The last time I spoke with my daughter in 2013, she said, ‘Mom, you’ve left me haven’t you. You hate me don’t you?’ When a child says that, her mother will be devastated, don’t you think? Have you ever said that to your mother? I bet not. This is not the kind of thing that should be said between a mother and her child. Even so, the daughter I have not seen since she was five years old repeated this to me endlessly. It seemed like my world was collapsing around me.” The Tongil Moms make three demands: that children born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers be given proper identity documents that would entitle them to education and health care—some 20,000 to 30,000 such children are believed to be stateless, that mothers have access to their children and other parental rights, and that these children be given a choice to reunite with their mothers.

“If we continue to ignore these problems, it will continue to be a huge obstacle for these women to adjust to South Korean society. They will pretend as if nothing happened or hide what happened. They will look ‘normal’ during the day, but will then cry at home alone, sobbing because they miss their children in China. However, it is different when their suffering is shared with other people.” 

The Tongil Moms decided they needed to share their stories. “I felt that we needed to come together and tell the world about the situation of these children left behind in China…to raise awareness, generate interest and get your help to work on this situation together,” Lee Young-hee told students at an event at the University of Virginia (UVA).

“Obviously, the Chinese government is not going to stop its policy of repatriation overnight,” Kim told UVA student newspaper The Cavalier Daily. “But I believe if we approach the people with a [conscience], the people who believe in human rights in China and if we approach this using social media then we can definitely try to make a change regarding the situation.”

Kim said, “If I do not share my story, I will be in pain and cannot hold my head up in front of my child one day. I could say nothing if my child asked me that what kind of efforts I made in order to find her.”

The author is grateful to Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor, who conducted the interview with Kim Jeong-ah in Korean and provided translation. The author also wishes to thank HRNK’s Christopher Buchman, Soohyun Chang, and Amanda Won, who helped with the translation. HRNK thanks Henry Song (No Chain) and Bruce Klingner (Heritage Foundation) for facilitating the interview.

Christine Chung is a Senior Advisor to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and the former Political Advisor to the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. As a human rights officer for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she managed the Office's technical cooperation program with China, supported the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, and served desk functions for Northeast and Southeast Asia. Before joining the UN, Ms. Chung established and headed the China field office for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

An Exclusive Interview with Alexa White

First ever beauty pageant contestant to take up the North Korean human rights cause

By Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director, and Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs

Edited by Rosa Park 
Original Transcription by Soohyun Chang and Grace Warwick
Link to Video Interview:

Rosa Park:
Q1) Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What school do you attend? What is your major? Where are you from and what is your ethnic background?

Alexa White:

Well, I’m originally from my hometown that is located in North Canton, Ohio, which is in the Akron Canton area. I attend the Colombus College of Art and Design, which is very wonderful school that I am proud to be a part of. My major is 3D modeling and texturing for game art so it’s a little unexpected for someone from my background to be speaking up about this. My family background is that my mother is Korean. She’s from Ansan, South Korea and my father is from Barberton, Ohio.

Photograph Credit: Annie Noelker (

Rosa Park:
Q2) For our audience who may not be familiar with the Miss Akron Canton pageant, could you please tell us about the pageant that you will be participating in in October?

Alexa White:
The pageant is on October 15th and the Miss Akron Canton organization is part of the Miss America system, but there is a Miss USA system and a Miss America System. Those are two separate pageants. If I have the honor to become the local titleholder in Canton, I will automatically advance to Miss Ohio and then the winner of Miss Ohio, which I am aiming for, will hopefully be the next Miss America.

Rosa Park:
Q3) Why did you decide to run for the Miss Akron Canton Pageant?

Alexa White:

Originally, I was invited by the pageant’s Director Ali Hoffman. At first, I thought “Oh, this sounds pretty fun. This isn’t something I would ever see myself doing. Why don’t I go ahead and do it?” When I started this pageant I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should have because I didn’t think that I could make a difference. Thanks to HRNK—to Rosa and to Greg—I’ve realized that my voice is powerful, it matters, and I hope that I can encourage other people to speak up as well about this issue.

Rosa Park:
Q4) How will these pageants contribute to your personal growth?

Alexa White:

If I am crowned Miss Ohio and if I am crowned Miss America, I’ll be able to reach more people and get this issue across to many more people. I am very grateful to say that I am in a period of my life where I’m comfortable with who I am and I’m comfortable with what I look like. That’s something that I did struggle with in the past and it’s something that everybody struggles with, but I’m ready to take the next step, finish improving myself, and start helping to improve others’ lives.

If I am crowned Miss Akron Canton I would like to discuss this issue with several of the school boards in my community, not only in North Canton, but hopefully in Columbus as well, to hopefully have human rights as a whole unit because it’s not a thing of the past. Concentration camps are not a thing of the past. I feel like that’s the conception that most Americans have today: they think that we’re done with it. They think that we’ve grown as a world, but that’s just not the truth. We really need to take a stand in our schools. Encourage our school systems to teach diversity, to teach empathy, and to teach about human rights because these are future lawmakers, future presidents we’re talking about. It’s really important that we start with our education system.

Rosa Park:
Q5) As a contestant in the Miss Akron Canton pageant, what would you like to accomplish for the people of North Korea?

Alexa White:

For one, I would really like this to be an issue that we don’t have to talk about. These people have suffered so much and to see the Koreas unified under one stable government that puts its people in front of its warheads would be the ultimate goal for me. Unfortunately, we have to take smaller steps to get to that point. Focusing on the repatriation of North Korean citizens from China back into North Korea is an issue that really, really needs to be addressed. I think that it is something that we can fix right now in our generation.

Greg Scarlatoiu:
Q6) What is the challenge of your generation? This is the other question that I would ask.

Alexa White: 
In America I feel like our youth has been so influenced by human rights issues we’ve seen a huge growth in LGBTQA+ human rights issues, which is a great step forward. I think we’ve been able to have the time and the empathy to really relate to the people who are suffering and to try and change. We see it with the Black Lives Matter movement. We see it with the LGBTQA+ movements. It’s just so amazing and I think now that we’ve helped solve these issues on our home front, and there are definitely more issues in America that need to be addressed. But I also think that some Americans, some American youths—like some of my peers, who are ready to take the next step and start to change the world for the better—instead of fixing domestic issues, I think we are at the point right now where we can really focus on international issues.

Greg Scarlatoiu:
Being concerned about these international issues, which are really not international, they’re universal issues. We basically look after our own national security interest because these abysmal human rights violations are the reason why the North Korean regime acts the way it does. In order to do away with this clear and present danger—the threat the North Korean regime poses to the United States—we have to begin by improving the human rights situation of the people of North Korea. Perhaps, meaningful change will come after that.

Rosa Park:
Q7) Is there an issue in the field of North Korean human rights that you are particularly interested in and why?

Alexa White:

All of the issues in North Korean human rights are of great interest to me and of course, we’d like to see them all stop as I said before. The exportation of forced laborers from North Korea into countries like Poland, China, Russia, and even countries in Africa is very surprising to me. I’m very surprised that the other governments of the world would want to support this heinous regime. I’m also interested in the repatriation of North Korean citizens from China back to North Korea, which is, as HRNK has discussed before, very illegal. That’s also an issue that interests me. What I see glossed over and what I see not being addressed as much, even though all of these issues are equally horrible—the conditions are terrible—but women’s rights in North Korea is something that really needs to be addressed more in the media, especially the forced abortions and infanticide taking place in the kwan-li-so camps. If the public learns more about that, then maybe we can get more interest.

Greg Scarlatoiu:
Please remember that human rights in North Korea should not be a political issue and here’s your comparison: was apartheid in South Africa a political issue? What would have happened if we had been afraid to address apartheid because especially during the days of the Cold War, it might have been construed a political issue. So I would say that North Korean human rights is an issue that transcends politics. Refer to the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights. Of course, at any beauty pageant, mention of the UN is great. In this particular case, it confers legitimacy upon our cause. Remember that a UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights established that crimes against humanity are committed against the people of North Korea.

Rosa Park:
Q8) How do you get your information on North Korea human rights? Are you familiar with HRNK’s publications and other activities?

Alexa White:

When I became aware of this issue, it was just regular Google searches. As I really started to delve into researching the organizations involved and helping to correct this, I started getting my information from Twitter and I recently subscribed to HRNK’s daily newsletter as well, which has been a great source of information. I’m also a big fan of Lee Hyeon-seo. She’s been such an inspiration and her courage is out of this world. We cannot thank her enough for telling her story and having her shed a light on what’s really going on in North Korea.

Rosa Park:
Q9) In our initial conversation, you mentioned that your grandmother escaped North Korea and that you still have family members in North Korea. Could you please share their stories with us?

Alexa White:

Well, my grandma was this rough and tumble girl from North Korea and she was part of a family of silk textile merchants so when Kim Il-sung took power, they felt very uncomfortable there since they were merchants producing luxury commodities. They decided to leave and join South Korea, but my great-great-grandfather was not able to travel with them. To have someone take care of him, they left my great aunt, her sister, behind to help out, but unfortunately, we’ve lost contact with her and her fate is unknown to us. I pray that she’s okay, but my family taught me to hope for the best and expect the worst.

Rosa Park:
Q10) How does your family background influence your views on North Korea today?

Alexa White:

I just learned about my great aunt maybe one or two years ago and that really invited me to learn more about what was going on in this mysterious country. In American media, it’s kind of portrayed as a hermit country, we don’t really hear about a lot of its human rights violations. We hear more about its nuclear warheads and about the eccentricities of its dictators. Having a family member there really helped to propel my quest for knowledge further. My dad is a very kind and giving man so a lot of what I’m representing here today comes from him. He taught us to always be as generous as you can and do whatever you can for other people.

Rosa Park:
Q11) If you could see your great aunt now, what would you say to her?

Alexa White:

I would say that I hope you’re doing well and I’m so sorry that you had to suffer the way that you did. There was no way that my grandmother and her mother, father, and your sisters could ever have known that it would have gotten this bad. I hope that you are able to find love and create a family if that’s what you wish to do. I hope that you’re happy, but the reality of this country is very dim. So I hope that you can forgive us.

Rosa Park:
Q12) Have you thought of a message you would like to deliver to the people of North Korea? If so, what is it and do you plan on delivering this message on stage.

Alexa White:

I think if there’s anything that I would like to say to the people of North Korea it is that we hear you, we see you, and we are fighting for you.

Kim Jong-un’s Hats: the Concept of Authority in North Korea

By Robert Collins

Photo credit: KCNA/Reuters

Numerous political and military leaders around the world hold simultaneously different positions of authority, each with specific powers of execution. For example, the President of the United States is also the Commander-in-Chief of the United States military. Most national leaders throughout the world hold similar authorities. Another example is the Commander of United States Forces Korea who also serves as the Commander of the United Nations Command, Commander of the Republic of Korea
United States Combined Forces Command, and the senior U.S. military officer assigned to Korea. Each of these positions holds specific authorities that enable him to make specific military decisions during armistice and crisis situations on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is no different. Kim wears several “hats”
or holds several positions of authoritythat enable him to command the challenging, albeit ruthless, issues that come with being a totalitarian dictator. Each hat serves Kim in a specific manner that enables him to maintain his grip on power, policy, and decisions, however stable or unstable his power consolidation may be. The following are Kim’s specific “hats,” each with powers based in the party charter of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), state authority, including the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Constitution, or political ideology:

1. Supreme Leader of North Korea.

Political power in North Korea is centered in the “suryong.”

Best translated as “supreme leader,” the suryong concept was initially based on party ideology first developed in 1967 by Kim Il-sung’s younger brother, Kim Yong-ju, and promulgated later by Kim Jong-il. Through the Ten Great Principles of Monolithic Ideology, the suryong/supreme leader concept has been utilized by the regime to demand from every North Korean citizen the study of, and obeisance to, the ten principles. As a consequence, the concept of supreme leader is how every North Korean understands leadership in the North. These principles are inculcated into every North Korean from government minister and military five-star to kids in kindergarten—no exceptions, nobody. It is through these ten principles and the concept of the suryong that human rights denial is vigorously pursued by the regime under the supervision of the KWP Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). 

Furthermore, at the 4th Session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly in June 2016, the DPRK Constitution was amended to designate Kim Jong-un specifically as the supreme leader (최고영도자),[2] thus officially making him the legal, as well as ideological leader, of the entire Korean population living in the North and related party, state, military, economic, and social organizations. It should also be noted that the KWP Charter starts out by stating the KWP is the party of “suryong Kim Il-sung.”[3] 

2. Chairman, Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).

The KWP Charter was amended at the 7th Party Congress in May 2016 to state the “KWP Chairman is its supreme leader who represents the party and leads the whole party."[4] Through this authority, Kim Jong-un oversees all party functions within every geographical and functional area of North Korea and its society down to party cells at the most remote villages in North Korea and the most distant enterprise or embassy overseas. It is the ultimate political organizational authority that enables Kim to hold other party positions and to supervise party control of the government, the economy, and the military. The DPRK Constitution states: “the Democratic People's Republic of Korea conducts all activities under the leadership of the Workers' Party of Korea.”[5] By extension, the party chairman oversees that designated conduct. Furthermore, the 7th Party Congress amended the KWP leader’s title from First-Secretary to “KWP Chairman,” thus assuming the party title that Kim Il-sung used from 1946 to 1966.[6] 

3. Director, KWP Organization and Guidance Department (OGD).

Kim Jong-il was appointed to this position in 1973 by Kim Il-sung to succeed Kim Yong-ju. Kim Jong-il rebuilt this department to channel the entire party’s reporting and personnel evaluation systems under his personal control and never gave up the post, even after becoming the KWP General Secretary in 1997, and held it until his death in December 2011. Why? The reason is Kim Jong-il turned the OGD into the clearing house for all policy vetting and senior official assessments based on OGD-led daily political evaluations and police surveillance. Anybody who is somebody in North Korea is there because the OGD has vetted them, and in return, the OGD is respected and, most of all, feared. One cannot be a military flag officer, a government minister, an economic advisor, or a senior party cadre unless the OGD has vetted that person for the supreme leader’s approval. No policy recommendation crosses Kim Jong-un’s desk unless it goes through the KWP OGD for verification to be in line with Kim’s guidance. The OGD is the singular most politically influential organization in the Kim regime and serves as center mass for control of the entire party-state. It does not control the guns of the military or security services, but it controls each and every one of those organizations’ leaders.

There have been scattered reports that Kim Jong-un’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, and/or his sister, Kim Yo-jong, has taken over as the OGD Director, but there is no substantiation or confirmation of such reports. Indeed, the reason Kim Jong-il kept the position even after gaining the ultimate party position is that he could not trust another person with so much power. Until North’s Korea’s state or party media publishes the assignment of another person as the OGD Director, we must assume Kim Jong-un is doing the same as his father, i.e. maintaining North Korean leadership control close to his chest through the directorship of the KWP OGD.

4. Supreme Commander, Korean People’s Army (KPA).

This position commands all strategic and operational aspects and decisions of the North Korean military. The position of KPA Supreme Commander came about through “strong recommendations” from Soviet Union leader Stalin in return for Soviet support for Kim Il-sung’s war effort in 1950. Subsequently, the KWP appointed Kim Il-sung as KPA supreme commander in July 1950, soon after the war started.[7] Kim Jong-il became supreme commander in 1993, and Kim Jong-un in December 2011. Through an expanded meeting of the KWP Politburo, this was the first title conferred on Kim Jong-un after his father’s death, thus demonstrating the importance of the position within the regime in controlling the military.

The KPA Supreme Commander oversees three reporting chains, a system Kim Jong-il put in place in the 1970’s to ensure maximum control over KPA leaders. The three chains are the standard commander-to-commander chain; the General Political Bureau chain whereby the political officer[8] at every level of command from battalion to the KPA General Staff, as well as frontline companies, reports independently from the commander; and the Military Security Command officer[9] who separately parallels the chain of the political officer (see rendition of this command and control system above).

It should be noted that Kim holds the military rank of Marshal of the Republic (국가원수). This is the highest military rank in the KPA today. Kim Il-sung held the rank of Generalissimo (대원수), and the only one to do so. There is a lesser rank of Marshal of the KPA (인민군 원수) for a handful of former anti-Japanese partisans who supported Kim Il-sung, but that is a different and subordinate designation.

5. Member, Standing Committee, KWP Politburo.

The mission of the KWP Politburo is to organize and direct all party work on behalf of the party's Central Committee between plenary meetings. From this position, Kim Jong-un leads all policy deliberations for national directions and goals. Under Kim Jong-il, Politburo meetings were not held at all as Kim Jong-il made all decisions on his own. But Kim Jong-un has demonstrated an interest in holding such meetings, the most memorable being the arrest of his uncle, Jang Song-taek, as distinctly displayed in the North Korean media.

6. Chairman, KWP Executive Policy Bureau.

At the 7th KWP Congress in May of 2016, the KWP Secretariat was replaced by the KWP Executive Policy Bureau. Kim Jong-un was designated chairman and former party secretaries were re-designated vice-chairmen. From this position, Kim Jong-un supervises all policy implementation within the party-state. The KWP Executive Policy Bureau ensures the supreme leader's guidance is carried out t
hrough direct political supervision of DPRK government functions and procedures.

7. Chairman, KWP Central Military Committee.

From this position, Kim Jong-un oversees all military policy consultation, deliberation, and decisions that impact the North Korean military, whether military, government, economic, or social. It is this position that is most critical to crisis decision-making. During Kim Jong-il’s rule, he did not hold meetings of the KWP Central Military Committee, making all decisions based on forwarded recommendations from military leaders and agencies/commands.

8. Chairman, DPRK State Affairs Commission.

On June 29, 2016, the 4th Session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) amended the DPRK’s socialist constitution to establish the DPRK State Affairs Commission, thus replacing the authority of the National Defense Commission.[10] Kim Jong-un was designated by the SPA as the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission. From this position, Kim Jong-un oversees state implementation of party decisions on all programs and projects in every field of North Korean society.

Kim Jong-un also holds two other positions: membership in the KWP Central Committee and in the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly.[11] 

The former position is within the KWP senior membership organization that carries out no direct decision-making processes but is designated as the organization that oversees all party affairs. In reality, it is the “good-old-boys club.” The latter position holds no decision-making authority, only voting authority in what is a rubber-stamp legislative body blindly subservient to party direction.

Though it may be the least known title understood by the Western world, there is no title more effective at imprinting upon the North Korean populace the supreme leadership other than the title “suryong.” However, respect for Kim as the suryong has proven to be far less than that of his father and grandfather. If there is a weakness within the leadership identification system, one has to look no further than that.

[1] For a detailed discussion on the suryong (supreme leader), see Robert Collins, Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial (Washington, D.C.; Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), pp.18-21.
[2] Lee Sang-hyun, “北 개정헌법 살펴보니…'최고영도자' 김정은 권력집중에 초점 (Looking at the North’s Revised Constitution…”Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un Focuses on Consolidating Power),” Yonhap News, June 30, 2016,
[3] Korean Workers’ Party Charter, 2010,
[4] Kim Soo-yeon, “N.K. adopts decision to elect its leader as ruling party's chairman,” Yonhap News, May 10, 2016,
[6] After 1966, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il used the title “General Secretary.” See
[7] Torkunov, A. 2000. The War in Korea 1950-1953: Its Origins, Bloodshed, and Conclusion. Tokyo: ICE Publishers; see also Ko Jae-hong, 북한군 최고사령관 위상 연구 (Studies on the Status of the North Korean Military’s Supreme Commander) (Seoul: Korean Institute of National Unification, Policy Studies No. 06-07, 2006); pp. 37-38.
[8] See Lee Tae-kun, 북한군 총정치국 (North Korean Military’s General Political Bureau) in Chun Yun-jun, et al, 북한의 군사 (North Korea’s Military) (Seoul: Kyongin Munhwa Publishing, 2006), pp.169-205.
[9] Yoon Kyu-sik, Understanding the Korean People’s Army: the Military Security Command, Republic of Korea Army Administration College, accessed June 28, 2010,
[10] This does not mean that the National Defense Commission has been disbanded. 

[11] Kim Song-hun, “김정은, 北헌법 바꿔 국무위원장 추대 (Kim Jong-un, North Korea Change Constitution, Appoint Kim as Chairman, State Affairs Commission),” Maekyung News, June 30, 2016,