Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping: “As Close as Lips and Teeth” on Human Rights Denial

By Amanda Mortwedt Oh

A commemorative stamp of Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping 
appeared in the Rodong Sinmunon April 20, 2018.[1]

"If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” This Chinese proverb is frequently invoked to explain the interdependence of North Korea and China’s relationship with one another. Put another way, the two countries are “as close as lips and teeth,” which became more readily apparent when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and China’s Xi Jinping met in person last month. Nowhere is their interdependent bond more apparent than the countries’ policies of human rights denial,[2]seen most strikingly in their collusion to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees back to Kim’s gulags.[3]And this is precisely why human rights issues must be part of the discussion in the upcoming two summits between Kim Jong-un and Presidents Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump, respectively. The North Korean people deserve to have leaders face the reality of the North Korean regime. Now is an opportunity for Presidents Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump to urge Kim Jong-un to improve the human rights of North Koreans.

Importantly, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (UN COI) noted North Korea and China’s close relationship in 2014 after it concluded an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea. In addition to finding evidence to support the tragedy that is the North Korean people’s pervasive victimization by the Kim family regime, amounting to crimes against humanity in many instances, the UN COI warned China on supporting North Korea’s atrocities. It urged China to caution relevant officials that their conduct could amount to the aiding and abetting of crimes against humanity where repatriations and information exchanges are specifically directed toward or have the purpose of facilitating the commission of crimes against humanity in North Korea.[4]

As a result of the diligence of civil society organizations, governments, and the United Nations, we know the North Korean regime systematically oppresses its people in ways that violate international law and customs, are universally immoral, and have the potential to pose a security threat to South Korea, the United States, and the Asia Pacific region. Kim’s regime is unquestionably criminal and the United Nations Security Council should refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.[5]Furthermore, North Korea’s collusion with other tyrants of the world, specifically its weapons (both chemical and conventional) support to Bashir Al-Assad in Syria,[6]demands discussion at these summits at a minimum.

Yet, Xi Jinping, now “leader eternal,”[7]took the opportunity, or perhaps succumbed to pressure,[8]to hold the first summit with Kim Jong-un ahead of the summits with Moon and Trump. This spells the worst for serious discussion of human rights with Kim going forward because of China’s terrible human rights record as well as China’s practice of repatriating North Korean escapees back to the North.[9]Nevertheless, perhaps there has never been a more important time and topic to discuss in the Moon-Kim and Trump-Kim summits. In a visit that took the international community by surprise, Kim traveled to China by armored train to meet Xi for the first time on March 25, 2018. Kim’s next summit is now set for April 27, 2018 with President Moon, giving China and North Korea about a month to continue to collude on negotiation strategy and cooperative practices.[10]

The Xi-Kim Summit confirms that people’s basic and fundamental human rights are in even more peril. Both regimes mercilessly repress human rights, and it doesn’t take much more than an internet search–not to be taken for granted in China–to read news about China’s “re-education” camps for Uyghurs, for example.[11]These camps are aimed at squashing political dissent for a leader who has, in effect, already removed voting rights from the people of China. The fact that Xi has clear influence over Kim, who traveled outside of his comfort zone of North Korea, means that human rights considerations are nonexistent, except for a policy of human rights denial, coined by North Korean leadership expert Robert Collins for HRNK.[12]

As a result, Presidents Moon and Trump should push back during the upcoming summits against this collusion to deny human rights. With that in mind, these are the top five human rights considerations for Presidents Moon and Trump to discuss with Kim Jong-un, all of which North Korea violates in contravention of its five international human rights treaty obligations:[13]
  1. North Korea’s system of political imprisonment, manifested in modern-day gulags, where crimes against humanity are occurring. At a minimum, families of prisoners must be notified of their loved ones’ whereabouts and when they are killed or die in detention.[14]Kim Jong-un must also be pressed to release the three Americans and six South Koreans in detention. While the regime acknowledges its long-term labor facilities (kyo-hwa-so) it still denies the existence of its political prison camps (kwan-li-so) despite continually mounting evidence.[15]
  2. North Korea’s and China’s practice of detaining North Korean escapees and forcibly repatriating them to North Korea, where they face torture and, at times, death in detention. Kim must not order the execution of those fleeing North Korea, as has been reported as the current practice and witnessed via video.[16]
  3. Separated families deserve to be reunited with their loved ones, intentionally separated by North Korea for sixty-five years. So many of these family members have died or are elderly now, and soon this basic human right to family will be denied forever with their passing.[17]
  4. The full return and accounting of prisoners of war and those abducted by the North Korean regime.[18]As an ally against the Kim regime, Japan has specifically requested this issue be a part of the summits as well.
  5. An assurance against the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of war, especially against innocent civilians. In line with this, Kim must end the reported practice of testing these weapons against prisoners.[19]
Ultimately, the Xi-Kim summit is an indicator that the near future of human rights progress in North Korea remains bleak. Despite and because of this, now is the time to be even more hardened in the commitment by the Republic of Korea and the United States to push for human rights reform in North Korea, as people’s lives depend on it.

[1]On April 20, 2018, Christopher Green (@Dest_Pyongyang) tweeted, “Nothing says lips n teeth’ like #NorthKorea issuing a commemorative stamp. From today’s Rodong Sinmun.” The picture shows the stamp above in the Rodong Sinmun
[2]In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK found that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” perpetrated against the people of North Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state, amount to crimes against humanity in many instances. Crimes include murder, enslavement, deliberate starvation, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, torture, and enforced disappearances, among other hardships.
[3]North Koreans forcibly repatriated by China systematically endure persecution, torture while being interrogated about their activities abroad, sexual violence, and imprisonment in North Korea’s inhuman detention system. Persons found to have contact with the Republic of Korea or Christian churches may be forcibly disappeared into political prison camps, imprisoned in forced labor camps, or summarily executed.
[4]UN Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/25/63, February 7, 2014,
[5]See the International Bar Association and the War Crimes Committee’s report, “Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons,” (December 2017) requesting “that the UN provide the ICC or a special tribunal with jurisdiction to appropriately investigate, punish and remedy the crimes against humanity” committed by the Kim regime. 
[6]See Robert Collins, “North Korea: Committing Crimes Against Humanity in Two Regions of the World,” HRNK Insider, April 19, 2018,
[7]Tom Rogan, “Democracy Dies in Communism: Washington Post runs Chinese propaganda op-ed,” Washington Examiner, April 3, 2018,
[8]Yun Sun, “Kim Jong Un Goes to China: Mending A Weathered Alliance,” 38 North, April 3, 2018,
[9]See HRNK’s Co-Chair Emeritus Roberta Cohen’s and Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu’s December 12, 2017 Congressional testimonies on China’s treatment of North Korean refugees:
[10]“China received a warning by the UN COI in 2014 that its policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees could potentially amount to aiding and abetting North Korean perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The UN COI urged China to caution relevant officials that conduct could amount to the aiding and abetting of crimes against humanity where repatriations and information exchanges are specifically directed toward or have the purpose of facilitating the commission of crimes against humanity in North Korea.” Statement of Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), on “Protecting North Korean Refugees” at the Hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, December 12, 2017,
[11]HRNK’s Board Member Jerome Cohen, a pre-eminent scholar on China, has written about this issue in detail. See Jerome Cohen, “China sends Uyghurs to re-education camps as a “preventive measure,” Jerry’s Blog, March 27, 2018,
[12]See Robert Collins, “Pyongyang Republic: North Korea's Capital of Human Rights Denial,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016),
[13]Of the ten “core international human rights treaties,” North Korea has signed, acceded to, or ratified five: the ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, CRC, and most recently the CRPD. SeeOHCHR, The Core International Human Rights Instruments and Their Monitoring Bodies,
[14]See Robert Collins and Amanda Mortwedt Oh, “From Cradle to Grave: The Path of North Korean Innocents,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017), 47-50,
[15]HRNK reports on North Korea’s prisons are available at Its most recent, “The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s ‘An-jeon-bu’ Prison Camps,” provides satellite imagery of over 20 suspected kyo-hwa-sofacilities inside North Korea. See David Hawk with Amanda Mortwedt Oh, “The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s ‘An-jeon-bu’ Prison Camps,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017),
[16]Tweet by Jihyun Park (@JihyunPark7) showing “A #video shot by a #NorthKorean security guard #shot by two women trying to escape. Two women are #mum and #daughter. #YaluRivel [sic],”
[17]See OHCHR, “Torn Apart: The Human Rights Dimension of the Involuntary Separation of Korean Families,” 2016,
[18]See Yoshi Yamamoto, “Taken! North Korea’s Criminal Abduction of Citizens of Other Countries,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2011),
[19]Dr. Anthony Cordesman's testimony: 
There are indicators that North Korea has a biological weapons program well underway. Several North Korean defectors have claimed that the North tested biological and/or chemical weapons on mentally or physically deficient children and concentration camp prisoners.
Mr. John Parachini's testimony:
The evidence to date of a North Korean biological program is thus far not comparable to the evidence for NK’s nuclear, missile, chemical, and conventional weapons capabilities. Defector reporting presents the most worrisome picture of the North Korean biological weapons program, but most of these reports cannot be corroborated or have been proven false. During 2003–2004 and 2009, several defectors claimed that NK tested biological agents on political prisoners, but these reports are difficult to verify. Recent defectors have been reported to have been vaccinated for anthrax, which has led some to assert that the regime has anthrax in its arsenal and is prepared to use it.
See Joint Subcommittee Hearing: More Than a Nuclear Threat: North Korea’s Chemical, Biological, and Conventional Weapons | House Committee on Foreign Affairs: Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade and Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, March 23, 2018,

North Korea: Committing Crimes Against Humanity in Two Regions of the World

By Robert Collins

Image source: AFP

A number of regimes across the world are guilty of crimes against humanity, but very few may be found guilty of such crimes simultaneously in different parts of the world. The Kim family is one of those regimes, however—crimes against humanity in the treatment of its own people as identified in the United Nations’ "Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI),” as well as crimes against humanity in the Kim regime’s longtime support of Syria’s Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population.

Arguably, individuals of the Kim regime are aiding and abetting the Syrian regime's commission of crimes against humanity when they knowingly provide chemical weapons support–through illicit supplies and North Korean trainers, for example–that are used to murder innocent civilians in Syria. As the recent attacks on Douma show us, unfortunately, Assad is attacking his own people with chemical weapons, and he is receiving outside support in the commission of these atrocities. This support comes from the Kim regime, in part.

The lethal nature of the chemical weapons that Syria’s President Assad is employing against his own people is far beyond shocking, as evidenced by the media visuals of the effect of these weapons against children of a political opposition group. This recent chemical attack at Douma by the Assad regime is a crime against humanity by almost anybody’s definition of the term and it demonstrates just how far the Assad regime will go to retain power. However, at the lowest tier of discussion on these crimes against humanity is the collusion between the Assad regime and North Korea’s Kim regime relative to chemical weapons sales, development, training, and targeting from North Korea to Syria. The chemical weapons used in Syria by the Assad regime are North Korean. As a result, the Kim regime’s aiding and abetting liability in the commission of crimes against humanity in Syria must be carefully considered.

The lessons of World War I led the West to refrain from further use of these terrible weapons, but not necessarily development. Most nation-states have acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but not all. Of those handful of states that have not acceded to the CWC, the most threatening is North Korea.[1] Not only does North Korea maintain a large stockpile of chemical weapons, enough to kill every South Korean several times over,[2] but the North’s Kim regime has been proliferating these weapons for decades. The regime continues to do so to nation-states whose values do not limit the use of such weapons in the offense.

How big is North Korea’s chemical weapons commitment to Syria and the rest of the Middle East? According to Rami Abd-al-Rahman, Director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Arabic-speaking North Korean officers “are taking part alongside the regular forces.” Al-Rahman estimated that there are between 11 and 15 officers in such service. He added that the North Korean officers speak Arabic and are spread out on many fronts, including the Syrian Defense Ministry factories southeast of Aleppo and with the regime's forces. Al-Rahman said they do not take part in actual fighting, but provide the Assad army with logistic support and construct operational plans. "They also supervise the regime's artillery in the region," he said.[3] North Korean military officers can be seen visiting Syrian military casualties at the Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus in pictures online.[4]

North Korea began its chemical weapons program almost five decades ago. In a speech to the KPA Party Committee on December 25, 1961, Kim Il-sung issued instructions for the North Korean military to “chemicalize” (prepare for chemical warfare), citing the importance of such capabilities.[5] On October 8, 2011, two months before his death, Kim Jong-il stated in his last will and testament that North Korea needed sufficient nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as long-range missiles, to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula.[6]

Now, the Kim regime has committed as many as 6,000 North Korean personnel to serve North Korean interests in the Middle East and has maintained a military liaison in Syria since the 1960s that includes scientists, military personnel, and construction workers.[7] Those involved in proliferation support do so under the supervision of North Korea’s Office 99, a Korean Workers’ Party sub-organization assigned to the Party’s Munitions Industry Department. An escapee who escorted proliferated weapons from North Korea to intended destinations says the Korean Workers’ Party’s Office 99 leads all weapons export operations.[8] The North Korean scientists that are deployed to Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, rotate in and out every 3 to 6 months and they are supervised by Office 99.[9]

The Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) is the Kim regime’s front company for shipping the chemicals overseas. KOMID has worked with Syrian front companies to cooperate with Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which has led Syria’s chemical weapons program since 1970.[10][11]

In early September 2013, then South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin told then U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel that Syrians had visited the North’s notorious 105th Research Institute (cover name “Cancer Research Institute")[12] in Kanggye City, Jagang Province (Kanggye is center mass for North Korea’s defense industries).[13] However, North Korea has a vast research and development complex in the chemical field that goes far beyond the 105th Research Institute in Kanggye.

According to the 2012 South Korean Ministry of Defense White Paper, North Korea maintains a very significant chemical weapons R&D capability that has resulted in a stockpile of 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons.[14] This is enough to make 625,000-1,250,000 chemical rounds for air, special operations, or artillery (primary means) use. With its current stock, North Korea can cover the Seoul city limits area of 605 square kilometers four times over. Just 1,000 tons of the North’s chemical weapons have the capacity to kill up to 40 million South Koreans across the DMZ.[15] North Korea is capable of producing 5,000 tons of chemical weapons during peacetime and 12,000 tons during a crisis.[16]

The Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology in South Korea has reported to the South Korean National Assembly that North Korea has four military bases equipped with chemical weapons, 11 facilities where chemical weapons are produced and stored, and 13 locations where research and development is carried out related to chemical weapons.[17] These facilities are, for the most part, underground, giving U.S. intelligence limited opportunity to observe North Korean operations of chemical weapons units. Chemical weapons research facilities are concentrated in Hamhung, Kanggye, and North Pyongan Province. In a country where electricity is sparse for everyone but the highest of the elite, electrical power is prioritized to these facilities.[18] North Korea’s chemical research staff numbers at almost 600 personnel, and they are all subordinate not to the government, but to the Korean Workers’ Party.[19]

There has been significant writing on Syria’s chemical weapons program, its North Korea connection, and what can be done about it. Within that scope, there have been two significant efforts to this argument offered here. North Korea’s support for the Syrian chemical weapons program has been well laid out by Dr. Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University. His book entitled The Last Days of Kim Jong-il goes into this issue in depth and includes North Korea’s links to Hezbollah (a true threat that cannot even be imagined yet), and is a must read for those who would like to understand the Syria-North Korea connection.[20] From the opposite angle, distinguished journalist Claudia Rosett has expertly laid out how difficult it will be to enforce the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.[21] There are numerous other reports of the Syria-North Korea links in the chemical industry of varying detail. The point is that the evidence has been there for some time for Syria’s use of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (just view the pictures of the child victims available online), and there is no warning of consequences for North Korea.

We should realize that North Korean efforts to move its technology via undetectable routes are nothing new. They do the same for its illicit drugs, arms sales, and technology acquisition. Pyongyang has one of the world’s most sophisticated global procurement networks.[22] As a United Nations Panel of Experts Report on Security Council Resolution 1874 pointed out, “a culture of fraud and corruption is both rampant and institutionalized through a wide network of North Korean trade offices that work in with overseas diplomatic missions and criminal networks overseas in illicit trade and covert acquisitions.”[23] The United Nations lists three ports in the UAE, Malaysia, Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Lichtenstein, Greece, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Turkey, Mauritania, Thailand, and Singapore as being related to North Korean proliferation efforts.[24]

North Korea will find more buyers for its chemical weapons due to the proven effectiveness, as demonstrated recently in Douma. Pyongyang stands to make more cash to support its own WMD programs by resupplying Syria and additional sales to other states as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Should buyers come calling, North Korea’s Kim regime has demonstrated that it is ready, willing, and able to sell whatever the customer needs, ultimately profiting from the proliferation and bolstering of its own capabilities.

It should be noted that the U.S. tried to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons before. In September 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed an agreement on the “expeditious destruction of the Syria chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof,” leaving the world in anticipation as to whether implementation of that agreement would actually take place. Well, obviously, it did not. At the time, Secretary Kerry specifically mentioned in Congressional testimony that North Korea and Hezbollah, a state actor and non-state actor with a healthy weapons trade relationship, were targets of influence in the conduct of U.S. action.[25] Then, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel rightly pointed out that Hezbollah’s access to chemical weapons must be prevented.[26]

To stop Syria’s use of chemical weapons, it is important to go beyond signed agreements. The Syria-North Korea connection must be cut off to prevent further crimes against humanity. Any future summit between North Korea and the United States should address this issue directly.

[1]North Korea is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention.
[2]Only in terms of dosage per person, not in realistic dispersal capability.

[3]Roi Kais,North Korean officers join Assad's forces,”, June 3, 2013. URL:,7340,L-4387732,00.html.

[4], “North Korean officers visit a Tishreen military hospital in Damascus, Syria,” March 15, 2012. URL:
[5]Kim Il-sung, “우리나라의정세와몇가지군사과업에대하여(On A Few Tasks For Our Country’s Situation),” vol. 15 of Kim Il-sung’s Works(Pyongyang: Korean Workers’ Party Publishing Company, 1981).
[6]Kwon Yang-joo, 북한의대량살상무기(WMD) 개발관려– 관계조명(Focusing on Party-Military Relations Related to North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD] Development ),” Korea Institute of Defense Analysis Weekly National Defense Forum, No.1460, April 29, 2013, pp.1-11.  
[7]Kim Pil-jae, “중국이북한-이란의핵개발돕고있다(China is Helping North Korean-Iran Nuclear Development),” NewDailyNewsFebruary 17, 2013. URL:
[8]Mok Yong-jae, “Puk, Hanulkil Mukisuchul, Nodongdang 99 Hosil Chudo (North Korea Exports Weapons by Air, Korean Workers’ Party’s Office 99 Leads),” Daily NK, December 17, 2009. URL:

[9]Korea Times, “Source: Hundreds of NK nuclear and missile experts working in Iran,” November 13, 2011. URL: also Kyunghyang Shinmun, “언론, “시리아핵시설참여북한군10사망(Japan Sources, Ten North Korean Soldiers Participating at the Syrian Nuclear Facility Die),” April 28, 2008. URL:
[10]Michelle NicholsNorth Korea shipments to Syria chemical arms agency intercepted: U.N. report,” Yahoo.comAugust22, 2017. URL:
[11]On January 2, 2015, KOMID was designated by the U.S. Treasury as an agent of the “North Korean government” pursuant to Executive Order 13687. Treasury also designated ten individuals, eight of whom were said to be representatives of KOMID. Two individuals, Ryu Jin and Kang Ryong, were listed as “KOMID officials operating in Syria.” U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Imposes Sanctions Against the Government of The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea,” January 2, 2015,
[12], “, ‘105 연구소화학무기연구(North Korea, 105thResearch Institute Conducts Chemical Weapons Research) ,” September 9, 2013. URL:
[13]MK News, “화학무기비밀리연구개발하는따로있어…(Where Chemical Weapons Are Secretly Developed in North Korea…), September 5, 2013. URL:
[14]Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, “Defense White Paper 2012,” http//; p.35; see also Lee Min-yong, Understanding the North Korean Military(Seoul: Hwanggumal Publishing, 2004), pp.139-140 (in Korean).
[15]Kwon Yang-joo, The Comprehension of North Korean Military (Seoul: Korea Institute of Defense Analysis Press, 2010); p.244.
[16]Lee Min-ryong, 김정일체제의북한군대해부(Understanding The Kim Jong-il Regime’s North Korean Military) (Seoul: Golden Egg Publishing, 2004); p.139.
[17]Nocut News, 북한화학무기5천톤보유군사기지관련시설도28(North Korea has 5,000 Tons of Chemical Weapons and 28 Support Facilities)," October 17, 2006. URL:
[18]Mok Yong-jae, "화학무기공장은평안남도·자강도에밀집(North Korea Chemical Weapons Factories Are Concentrated in Pyongan South Province and Jagang Province)," Dalian News, September 6, 2013.  URL:
[19]Lee Chun-kun and Kim Chong-son, 북한의과학기술수준및관심분야분석(Analysis of North Korea’s Science and Technology Standards and Related Areas) (Seo ul: Ministry of Unification, 2009).
[20]Bruce Bechtol, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il(Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2013).

[21]Claudia Rosett, “Syria’s Pals at the Chemical Weapons Convention,” National Review Online, September 13, 2013. URL:; see also Claudia Rosett,The UN’s colossal failure to stop Syria’s chemical weapons,”, April 11, 2018. URL:

[22]Mark Hibbs, How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program,”AtlanticApril 10, 2013. URL:

[23]David J. Birch and others, Final Report to the United Nations Security Councl by Panel of Experets Pursuant to Resolution 1874 (2009),United Nations, 2010.

[24]Mark Hibbs, How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program,”AtlanticApril 10, 2013. URL:

[25]David Martosko, “Kerry And Hagel Refuse To Rule Out Sending Troops In To Syria As They Tell The Senate That The World's Dictators Are 'Listening For Our Silence’,”DailyMailOnline, September 3, 2013. URL:

[26]Josh Rogin, “Hagel: America Can’t Let Hezbollah Get Chemical Weapons,” Daily Beast, September 3, 2013. URL:

Kim Family Regime Portraits

By Hye-soo Kim*
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
Translated by Grace Kan, HRNK Research Intern

This year in 2018, Kim Il-sung’s birthday falls on Sunday, April 15th. His birthday is called the “Tae-yang-jeol” (태양절), which translates as “The Day of the Sun.” He was born in 1912 in Pyongyang at Mangyeongdae, where tourists are forced to visit and bow. This Sunday will be the most important holiday of the year in North Korea. All North Koreans will bow down to the portrait of Kim Il-sung, or face grave consequences.

When you go to Beijing, the capital of China, you can see a huge portrait of Mao Zedong in the middle of the city. You see such portraits commonly in communist countries. However, no other country except North Korea has statues of the totalitarian leaders in every city. Besides statues, in every North Korean city, portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are hung in every single factory, business, military branch, school, and home.

The homes in other countries differ dramatically from those in North Korea. What truly stands out the most is how in every home, without exception, there hang the portraits of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un, and Kim Jung-Suk. Every family in North Korea must display the portraits in their homes; no one can refuse this. It is forbidden to have even just one speck of dust on the portraits because inspectors, who are the head of the in-min-ban (neighborhood watch units), come to inspect the status of the portraits in each and every home two to three times a month. In addition, monthly and quarterly, people called the “geu-roo-ppa” (그루빠) also do a surprise visit and check the status of the portraits. They go to each home randomly, without any prior notice. As a result, North Koreans need to always make sure that these portraits are kept clean. If the portraits are not clean, as in there is any speck of dust found on them, then the families are punished and are chastised in front of everyone in the town or village to be criticized during an event called “sa-sang-tu-jaeng” (사상투쟁). I am still in disbelief that this is common practice in North Korea. It is unacceptable.

In kindergarten, little children have to bow to the portraits. For example, the birthdays of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are the most important holidays in North Korea. For these days, North Korean authorities provide candies and snacks for children, from toddlers to kindergarteners. These snacks and candies are usually of poor quality and aren’t even tasty, but nonetheless, the children have to thank the dictator by bowing down to the portraits. The children do so without question because they consider it to be normal and also because the adults tell them to do so. These snacks are provided for North Korean children up until they are in elementary school. When elementary students are given these snacks and candies, they must make sure that their school uniforms are even neater than usual, gather around in the school field, and sing idolizing songs about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

To view HRNK's first episode of With Love, Your North Korean Neighbor, please click here.

*Pseudonym for the safety of the author and the author’s family.

HRNK's EXCLUSIVE First Interview with Ji Seong-ho after SOTU Appearance as Guest of FLOTUS Melania Trump

Interview by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor

Tell us about your escape from North Korea. We heard many details in President Trump's State of the Union speech, but tell us more. How long did it take you to escape? What was your path of escape?

It took me about three months to escape from North Korea to South Korea. The distance of the route that you must take is over 10,000 kilometers (about 6,214 miles). On the journey, I had to pass through a number of countries such as China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand to reach South Korea. Freedom is not so easy to reach. Since this journey is difficult, not many people attempt to escape from North Korea. If you get caught, you are tortured or sent to a political prison camp. Nevertheless, there are people with the courage to try to escape and I am one of them. I escaped from North Korea in 2006 with my younger brother by crossing the Tumen River. I almost drowned to death and after we reached China, we started to think about what we could do. Plainly speaking, we were skeptical about whether we would be able to reach South Korea or not. There was no hope that I would survive because I was not on a safe route and we had to move as quietly as possible without being detected by the Chinese police while at the same time crossing the border holding my crutches made in North Korea. At that time, I thought that I should part from my brother and go on separately. Due to my crutches, I was easily detectable. I thought it would be better if even just one of us could reach South Korea alive. Unfortunately, the journey was extremely harsh. Once, I was caught and threatened to be killed. Another time, I was dehydrated and fainted in a jungle. At that time, I cried and thought "Why was I born in North Korea, not in South Korea? Why did I have to go through this hardship? If I die here, then my body will be eaten by wild animals and none of my family would know that I am dead." I was very sad. I also felt sorrow for the fate of the North Korean people. I promised myself that I would contribute to the reunification of Korean peninsula so that in the future, no more disabled people like me will experience the hardships that I went through. I would like to wipe away the tears of the North Korean people. It is a blessing that I succeeded to escape and reach South Korea, a country of freedom.

Tell us about your life in South Korea. Where and what do you study?

When I first came to South Korea, although I had many things that I wanted to do, not knowing much, I could not do them. I was contemplating what I should do and decided that I should learn about computers. I enrolled in an academy specializing in computers. Thankfully, even though I was disabled, the academy accepted me and I was able to learn to type with only one hand.

Then, my next goal was to go to a university because I had the opportunity to do so. In North Korea, whether or not you can go to a university depends on your social classification [songbun]. In South Korea, you can attend university despite a disability, right? There are no laws that prohibit the enrollment of a disabled person nor are there any laws that prohibit North Korean escapees from attending school. South Korean society is committed to providing various opportunities like education for North Korean escapees to settle and develop themselves. For this reason, I decided to go to a university and I further realized the importance of education. My outlook on life changed and progressed. My experience at a university helped me to see beyond my own life to the broader community of “us.” I questioned myself about many things. Where was I born? How did I end up in South Korea? What was the environment that I was living in? What should I, who has settled down happily in South Korea, be doing for those who are having trouble settling and adapting in South Korean culture and society? Attending university gave me an opportunity to continuously ponder over many things in my life at that time. I understood that my disability was not a “wall” that blocked me from pursuing my life. I still worked very hard. I was admitted into Dongkuk University and majored in Criminal Law.

Today, I am at the same university and am working to obtain my Master’s degree in Law. If there is reunification of the two Koreas in the future, then new laws that are different from the ones administered currently in North Korea will be needed. We will also need temporary laws that can incorporate North Koreans into South Korean society. I want to prepare and research the development of such laws. Specifically, I want to study to help policymakers make better laws that can assist North Koreans in better adapting the democratic system of rule of law.

Tell us about your work for human rights in North Korea?

What I wanted to focus on was not the human rights issues in North Korea. At first, I thought that successfully settling down in South Korea was enough. The reason why I started to work for human rights was because I visited the U.S. When I visited Arizona, many people cried and applauded after listening to my story and they even started a campaign for me. If I did not take action, I heard that I would be no different from a Nazi. I felt burdened to do something. During the campaign, a child of about 6 or 7 years old told me that they were participating in the campaign because they watched a documentary about the suffering of the North Korean people. The child was especially touched by the "kotjebi," homeless children who rummage through the garbage in bare feet during the winter. After listening to this child, I blamed myself. I questioned whether I was the adult. I was surely no better than this child. I reflected deeply after this. I could not just live for myself any longer. There were still people suffering, including the disabled and the "kotjebi" children. It was not sufficient for me to just eat rice and wear warm clothes. It should be my role as a citizen in a democratic society to work for North Korean human rights.

With nothing to begin with, my friends and I became activists for human rights in North Korea by starting NAUH. We started with only $200 in the beginning. However, I thought that if we show candor and diligence then, slowly but surely, others would join us and the things that were needed would be fulfilled in the end. It has been 7 years since the organization began with $200 and now, we have rescued about 270 refugees from North Korea, which cost more than $500,000 dollars. We learned that if we, people who were victims, become advocates and appeal to the world with the truth, then they can help to move the hearts of South Koreans as well as the warm-hearted people around the world in order to make miracles happen. I learned that miracles happen to people who dream and take action. We are actively trying to rescue female refugees who suffer from sex trafficking in China. We also campaign about the human rights situation in North Korea, stating that human rights in North Korea is an urgent issue and needs more attention. People should be activists for these issues so that when the two Koreas do unify someday in the future, people will not be ashamed to face those who once suffered under the Kim regime. When the time comes, we should not look at these people as mere sources of labor, but share our love. We deliver our message through the campaigns, rescue work in China, and radio broadcasts to the young people in North Korea. We show our vision, what we want to do when unified by comparing North Korea, the first homeland, and South Korea, the second homeland. We produce programs that help the “jangmadang” (market) generation to think about what they could do in the future—what they can sell in the emerging and growing market and giving them tips to vitalize the economy. We exhibit the items sold in North Korea's markets so that South Korean people are able to broaden their understanding of the North Korean people. We show what they sell and introduce "kotjebi" by reenacting their lives through theatrical plays. These novel reenactments were performed in the U.S. and South Korea and are still in the works today. This is what we are doing.

Were you able to speak with President Trump prior to the State of the Union? What did you talk about?

The first time that I saw President Trump from afar was at the National Assembly of South Korea when he was giving a speech. I remember crying a lot at the time. He understood, in depth, the sentiments of the North Korean people. I cried because President Trump had compassion for the North Korean people.

It was an honor for me to meet him face to face this time. Obviously, you are only given a short amount of time to meet the President of the U.S. I greeted him and he recognized who I was right way. I was very much surprised. He even winked at me. We took photos together and I saw First Lady Melania Trump. I took photos with her as well. After President Trump’s speech, we took photos again. We did not have a long conversation, but I could sense that President Trump knew a lot about my life and the lives of the North Korean people. He welcomed me with such a warm reception. I was very grateful.

What was going through your head and what were you feeling when every single person at the State of the Union last night was applauding you and your incredible journey?

I first thought of my father. I thought that my father would be very happy in heaven to see that the greatest President of the world, the U.S. President, remembers and speaks about him, an escapee who was tortured to death. I am truly grateful. Not just my father, but many North Koreans go through a similar situation where they are arrested, tortured, and incarcerated in political prison camps. To watch President Trump talk about all these at the State of the Union, I could not help but to think about my father. It was a time to remember our past life. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about the people who are currently living in North Korea. President Trump has a will to improve the lives of North Korea and if people like us activists work hard enough, we can wipe away the tears of those North Koreans one day. There would be no more people like my father and myself, who were tortured. There would be no more starvation. There would be no more selling off North Korean people in China. It was not a long period of time, but I had many feelings and I was grateful. The officials of the U.S. executive and legislative branches at the State of the Union all applauded me, and it is a memory I will never forget for the rest of my life.

What does it mean for the North Korean escapee community that you were a guest of the FLOTUS Melania Trump and able to have the spotlight at the State of the Union?

Well, first, it was a great honor. The second that I stepped foot inside the White House, I thought to myself that this was my family’s greatest honor. However, remembering how many North Koreans would want to be there with me, rather than think that I was there alone, I believed that I was there with the hearts of the North Korean people—with all of their hopes, dreams, and wishes. For this reason, I felt that I was carrying a large weight on my shoulders regarding the work I will have to do from now on.

At the moment that I met President Trump, I could not think of anything. Like I said before, he winked at me. I was very comfortable after that. We had the photo session with the President and First Lady Melania Trump. I had many different feelings and thoughts going through my mind. This would have never happened if I was in North Korea. It was because I had escaped from North Korea. It was because the South Korean government granted me citizenship that I was allowed to travel anywhere I wanted freely—a fact that I am really thankful for. I was also bewildered and in awe of the fact that I was in the White House when I have not even been inside the South Korean Blue House yet. All in all, yesterday was a day filled with a rollercoaster of emotions.

For the North Korean escapee community, my visit to the White House and the spotlight at the State of the Union is of significant importance. This moment will be shown to North Koreans in North Korea through many news media outlets, like VOA. This is an extraordinary event. I’m sure many in North Korea have heard that some escapees go to Washington, DC, but that an escapee was invited to the White House and was welcomed by the President of the United States of America and the First Lady will come as a shock to all back home. People will be asking, “Who is that guy?” They’ll say, “He’s a handicapped kotjebi!” People will say, “Wow!” This will blow everyone away in North Korea. Of course, the North Korean government will not like my appearance at the State of the Union. However, I believe the North Korean people will be thankful for how aware and attentive the American people and their government are towards the issue of human rights in North Korea. They will know that many people in the U.S. are aware and care about their suffering in North Korea.

What do you think is going to be different now that you have been publicly recognized by the POTUS and FLOTUS?

From my point of view, this was not a small event. This was a very big event. Furthermore, at the State of the Union, the President directly spoke about the lives of escapees from North Korea and my personal story as well. I received applause from many there. They supported me. The North Korean government would not like this at all. There is no reason for them to like it. The things they wanted to hide are being disclosed to all of the outside world. Actually, that is why they tortured me and wanted me to die. Now, my story has been broadcasted to all the world. They were afraid of this reality coming out to the best known press in the world and the media in South Korea as well. I think Kim Jong-Un also watched the State of the Union yesterday. Wouldn’t he have? Wouldn’t the North Korean Bo-wi-bu (State Security Department) have watched it? I think they would really be fuming. However, at this moment, I think they should be honest about this problem. They should acknowledge their wrongdoing, admit that they have human rights issues, and provide for the disabled. Having a couple athletes in the Paralympics will not be representative of life for all of North Korea's disabled people. The government needs to feed them, provide clothes for them, and house them. This is what the country needs to do since the disabled and the non-disabled are not in the same condition. They need to help them so they do not suffer. I wish they would admit what they are not doing well and try to get better. I hope for that type of North Korea. Of course they would get angry, but what can we do?
I think this experience has become an opportunity to invoke the South Korean people to pay more attention to the North Korean human rights issue because the U.S. President directly presented the issue at the State of the Union. Most of the South Korean people already know about the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea. Even recently, North Korea threatened to launch nuclear missile tests and threatened South Korea as if a war would start. This is ridiculous. They are just like a bullying gangster neighbor. The South Korean people are angry about North Korea's provocations. Furthermore, after this spotlight, I think many South Koreans will become interested once again in the human rights issues in North Korea. After the seeing the work of activists, many people might think more about how terrible the regime has been and how they should not be that way. They could give donations to the NGOs working to improve the improve the human rights situation in North Korea. Wouldn’t this revitalize activists to be able to do more this way? If the heads of state are willing to save the 25 million oppressed North Korean people, I think many people, especially the citizens, youths, and students of the U.S. would follow suit and join the movement to help solve the issues with human rights in North Korea. Therefore, I hope this becomes a chance to disclose the difficult reality of what is happening in North Korea.

Holding up your crutches as you did at the end of the State of the Union last night was a symbol of hope for many, especially for the disabled community in North Korea. Do you have anything else you would like to share in our remaining time?

First, in North Korea, a disabled person is called a “byungshin” [“retard”]. This is what the North Korean government officially labels their own citizens who are disabled. The government tortures the disabled, telling them that they “might as well just die.” That was the life that I lived in North Korea. However, when I escaped to South Korea, never once did I think that I was a disabled person. I was able to live happily and more diligently. [Showing his crutches] These are the crutches that I brought with me from North Korea. The reason why I am actively fighting for the human rights in North Korea is because I want to be an example of hope for disabled North Koreans. I want to stop the North Korean government from torturing and persecuting the disabled in its country. There is also the role of closely monitoring these atrocities towards the disabled. But I can’t do this alone. So, I need the international community, the North Korean people, and the people that care for the North Korean people to all participate in working for the human rights of North Koreans. In this way, I believe there will be an end to the suffering of the North Korean people. I did not know that I would be showing my crutches this often, but it does symbolize my difficult journey.

My only request is that people don’t think about just one person, Ji Seong-ho, but rather, think about the many North Korean people who are still suffering in North Korea right now.

Translated by Grace Soomin Kan, Dohyun Kim, and Hyungjun Yu, HRNK Research Interns

Interview was filmed on Wednesday, January 31, 2018

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