Friday, October 9, 2015

Muddying the Waters: North Korea’s Deceptive Media Offensive

By Greg Scarlatoiu

Greg Scarlatoiu is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in Washington, D.C. At HRNK, he supervises, manages, and coordinates the drafting, publication, and dissemination of reports investigating the North Korean human rights situation. In close coordination with HRNK’s board of directors, Scarlatoiu shares HRNK’s findings and recommendations with UN agencies and international NGO networks. A seasoned lecturer on North Korean human rights, political security, and economic issues on the Korean peninsula, he has appeared as an expert witness at several Congressional hearings on North Korean human rights. An experienced social audit consultant, he is currently finalizing a report on North Korean workers officially dispatched overseas. For twelve years, Scarlatoiu has been authoring and broadcasting the weekly Scarlatoiu Column to North Korea for Radio Free Asia (RFA). A visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) in Seoul, he holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and an MA and BA from Seoul National University, Department of International Relations. Scarlatoiu was awarded the title of Citizen of Honor, City of Seoul, in January 1999. He is fluent in Korean, French, and Romanian.

On Monday, September 21, 2015, the 30th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva featured a panel discussion on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), including the issue of international abductions, enforced disappearances, and related matters, moderated by Michael Kirby, former chair of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the DPRK (UN COI). The panelists included Mr. Koichiro Iizuka, vice secretary-general of the Association of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.

The main panel was followed by a side event featuring the tragic accounts of South Korean, Japanese, Romanian, Thai, and other nationals abducted by North Korea. The panelists included Mr. Hwang In-chul, whose father was a passenger on Korean Air Lines YS-11, hijacked by North Korean agents on December 11, 1969. Mr. Hwang's father was one of 11 passengers and crew members who were never returned to South Korea.

On the same day, CNN’s Will Ripley and Tim Schwarz published a story based on sources inside North Korea, claiming that Ms. Mun Su Gyong, a North Korean national, was allegedly abducted by South Korean agents while working as a waitress at a North Korean state-owned restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. One of the sources quoted is the former manager of the respective restaurant, who reportedly believes that South Korean spies posing as North Korean businessmen “frequented the restaurant for two years,” befriended Ms. Mun, and then abducted her, forcing her into a car and driving away. At the time of the alleged “abduction” four years ago, Ms. Mun was twenty years old. The report included an interview with Ms. Mun’s parents.

Source: CNN

By offering this story to a prominent U.S. media organization, the North Korean authorities likely attempted to counter efforts by the UN and the international community to focus attention on South Korean nationals and citizens of other countries abducted by North Korea. As we learned from an excellent David Hawk piece published by US-Korea Institute’s 38 North about a year ago, the North Korean government reacted to the highly critical report of the UN COI through: a “counter-report” by the North Korean Association of Human Rights Studies; a significantly revised approach to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism; and a diplomatic “counter-offensive,” which involved the North Korean foreign minister appearing before the UN General Assembly for the first time in 15 years, and so-called “press briefings” focused on denial of the appalling North Korean human rights record.

By offering this story to a prominent U.S. media organization, the North Korean authorities likely attempted to counter efforts by the UN and the international community to focus attention on South Korean nationals and citizens of other countries abducted by North Korea. 

As part of the same strategy, the North Korean regime’s propaganda website, Uriminzokkiri, launched ferocious attacks against UN COI witnesses, including former political prisoners Jung Gwang-il and Shin Dong-hyuk, and also North Korean defector and scholar Cho Myung-chul, the first North Korean escapee to become a South Korean National Assembly member.

On the upside, the North Korean regime’s approach to human rights has surely changed post-UN COI. Its fundamental strategic stance on human rights used to be utter neglect. Always overshadowed by nukes and missiles, human rights would easily disappear off the radar screen of the international community, so the Kim regime knew there wasn’t much to worry about. Post-UN COI, even the North Korean regime has come to the realization that human rights is here to stay, and it can no longer just ignore attempts by UN agencies, foreign government agencies, and international NGOs to shed light on its abysmal human rights situation. Pursuant to the findings of the UN COI, North Korea is no longer seen as a bizarre relic of the Cold War, but as a post-communist, post-industrial, dynastic kleptocracy that is subjecting its own people to crimes against humanity in order to maintain its grip on power.

Post-UN COI, even the North Korean regime has come to the realization that human rights is here to stay, and it can no longer just ignore attempts by UN agencies, foreign government agencies, and international NGOs to shed light on its abysmal human rights situation.

On the downside, North Korean attempts to compromise witnesses and muddy the waters by misleading foreign media organizations will continue. Since the release of the UN COI report in February 2014, CNN has done excellent reporting on the North Korean human rights situation, and perhaps that is why it was the media organization targeted by North Korea’s deception in this case. 

In the particular case of the young North Korean woman allegedly “abducted” by South Korean agents, the story, published undoubtedly with the approval of the North Korean authorities, presents the following problems:

  • The former manager of the respective restaurant claims that Mun Su Gyong had been befriended by "South Korean spies" posing as North Korean businessmen. I have interviewed former restaurant workers who escaped and found their way to South Korea. The waitresses' "befriending" customers is reportedly a big red flag for the managers running these restaurants. The girls who get too close to customers are quickly disciplined, and in extreme cases sent back to North Korea. Sustaining such "friendship" with customers, well known to other waitresses and the manager, would be impossible. One has to remember this is a tightly confined space. The waitresses work and live together under strict surveillance. They are only seldom allowed to go shopping or sightseeing, and even then only in groups, never alone. 
  • With 28,000 former North Koreans already living in South Korea, including some former senior officials, there is absolutely no conceivable need for South Korean intelligence agents to kidnap North Koreans. 
  • There are former restaurant workers already living in South Korea. There would be no practical need for South Korean intelligence agents to kidnap additional restaurant workers. 
  • South Korea is a liberal democracy that has discarded the dark legacy of its authoritarian past. The UN Secretary-General is a South Korean national, the president of the World Bank is a Korean American born in South Korea, and South Korea contributes in many meaningful ways to international humanitarian and development assistance as well as peacekeeping operations. South Korea is not a rogue state conducting abductions of its own nationals or other countries' nationals overseas. It is North Korea that has kidnapped nationals of South Korea, Japan, China, France, Guinea, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Macau, Netherlands, Romania, Malaysia, and Singapore.

It is North Korea that has kidnapped nationals of South Korea, Japan, China, France, Guinea, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Macau, Netherlands, Romania, Malaysia, and Singapore.

To the reader interested in learning more about North Korea’s abduction of citizens of South Korea and other countries, I highly recommend HRNK’s report “Taken,” by Yoshi Yamamoto, published in the spring of 2011. While I do hope that, if she is indeed alive and separated from her family, Mun Su Gyong will be reunited with her loved ones, one has to remember: 82,959 South Koreans were abducted by North Korea during the Korean War; 3,824 South Koreans, most of them fishermen, have been abducted since the July 27, 1953 Korean War Armistice; 93,000 ethnic Koreans residing in Japan were lured back to North Korea and never allowed to leave, many of them trapped together with Japanese spouses; hundreds of Japanese and Chinese nationals have been abducted to North Korea; and at least 25 nationals of countries other than South Korea, Japan, and China have been reportedly taken against their will. With 180,108 nationals of South Korea and other countries taken by North Korea, that regime must provide a full accounting of those abducted and detained, facilitate the reunification of abductees’ families, return the remains of deceased abductees, and observe the right of freedom of movement by allowing the surviving abductees to return to their families. With abductions by North Korea featured prominently in UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK Marzuki Darusman’s most recent September 8, 2015 report to the General Assembly, this issue is here to stay. The North Korean regime should rest assured that its attempts to muddy the waters and run anti-human rights media campaigns will, once again, be doomed to failure.

With 180,108 nationals of South Korea and other countries taken by North Korea, that regime must provide a full accounting of those abducted and detained, facilitate the reunification of abductees’ families, return the remains of deceased abductees, and observe the right of freedom of movement by allowing the surviving abductees to return to their families. 

To download a free PDF copy of “Taken,” go to:

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Statement of Roberta Cohen at the Launch of "Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression and Prisoner Disappearances" and "Camp 15 Imagery Update"

© 2015 Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

by Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair Emeritus


I find the reports of David Hawk and Joe Bermudez significant because they make everyone so uncomfortable. Most people don’t want to know about the camps, especially diplomats who hope to negotiate with North Korea, humanitarian organizations on the ground seeking to get along with the host government, and all other parties who want to engage with Pyongyang and feel good about their doing so. These reports provide inconvenient information. It puts a human face on the political prison and re-education camps by providing testimonies of survivors, satellite imagery of camps, and for the first time a list of 181 incarcerated prisoners from Kwan-li-so Camp 15. 

David's report brings to light how women in North Korea are facing particular repression. Most of the North Koreans today who cross the border illegally are women trying to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Increasingly they are arrested, ill-treated and imprisoned. I am pleased the United States recently called for the release of female political prisoners around the world and singled out North Korea. 

The Hawk and Bermudez reports are also significant because they provide evidence that can be used in future trials against the Kim Jong-un regime. Since the UN Commission of Inquiry report of 2014, the need for accountability has begun to take root. Last year, the United Nations General Assembly called upon the Security Council to consider referring the North Korean human rights situation to the International Criminal Court. It also called for targeted sanctions against those most responsible. And a UN human rights office has been set up in Seoul to compile information with a view to accountability. 

Accountability is essential to address deliberate state policies of starvation of prisoners, lack of medical attention, forced labor and beatings. Such practices are estimated to have led to over one hundred thousand deaths in the political prison camps over the past 50 years. Yet there seems to be an international reticence when it comes to demanding access to these camps. The United States to its credit began two to three years ago to speak out strongly against the camps and about accountability. And UN resolutions have called upon North Korea to release all political prisoners unconditionally. But one doesn’t hear much about governments coming together to make joint demarches or intercessions on a regular basis for access to these camps. One doesn’t hear a drumbeat internationally to gain entry. But there should be one because camp commanders, the officials issuing the orders to them and those carrying them out, need to become aware that what they are doing constitutes crimes against humanity and could lead to their being brought before a court in the future. South Korean experts have actually reported anecdotal evidence that commanders in some detention centers may have modified practices out of fear of possible future prosecution. Accountability has rattled the Kim Jong-un regime. Last year the focus at the UN on the ICC led the DPRK to offer for the first time visits for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN officials in order to try to remove from a General Assembly resolution the reference to accountability. 

Of the 181 prisoners listed in the Hawk report, more than 120 are reported to be missing. Their names should be part of dialogues developed with North Korea and part of demarches or statements. Where are these people? It is time for the international community to call for an accounting of prisoners—their whereabouts, the reasons for their incarceration, whether family members are held with them, whether they have perished. The UN General Assembly has called upon states that have relations with North Korea to use their influence to encourage the closure of political prison camps. But no joint strategy yet exists. 

Contingency plans being developed by different governments to deal with any sudden change in North Korea should include strategies for bringing political prisoners to safety. The UN Commission of Inquiry reported the existence of standing orders at the political prison camps to kill all prisoners in the event of conflict or revolution. The purpose of these orders is to destroy the evidence. While it’s impossible to know whether anything can be done to stop this, publicizing this information is important. And including prisoner protection in contingency planning should be urged. The Atrocities Prevention Board established in the United States in 2012 should have on its agenda as a standing item–the risk of potential massacre of North Korean political prisoners. And the U.S. should begin to add names of persons and entities engaged in serious human rights abuses in the camps to the sanctions list under the President’s executive order of January 2015. NGOs for their part should be sending information to the International Criminal Court. Even though the prosecutor cannot now address the situation, the NGOs can publicize the information with a view to future accountability. This might reach the attention of camp officials and sow doubt among North Korea’s elites.

At the present time, the situation is especially precarious for prisoners. Drought is plaguing North Korea and serious food shortages are predicted. In the past when there has been serious malnutrition and starvation in parts of the country, prisoners have suffered disproportionately. They have been left to eat grass and rats. 

Do international humanitarian agencies and NGOs on the ground have a responsibility? Yes, their stated goal is to reach the most vulnerable in the country. They should begin to compile privately whatever information they can find about starvation and disease in the camps and hammer out strategies to gain entry, in particular for organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

North Korea’s population could actually benefit from allowing the World Health Organization entry to the camps. Tuberculosis is on the rise in the country and reported to be rampant in the camps. The WHO has found in other countries that effective TB control in prisons protects the community at large. Shouldn’t the UN encourage the WHO to gain entry to the camps to try to help eradicate TB from the country? And shouldn’t improved treatment of women—another goal of the UN—extend to women prisoners in North Korea? The Secretary-General introduced a Human Rights Up Front Approach in 2013 that calls upon the entire UN system, when faced with serious violations of human rights, to develop a system wide strategy. This approach needs to be applied to North Korea, and HRNK has been calling upon the UN to do so. North Korea’s government must receive the message that the camps in North Korea are a blight on the civilized world and on any aspirations North Korea might have to improve its relationships with other countries and receive the political, economic and investment support it badly needs for its development.

Monday, September 28, 2015

An Interview with HRNK Report Author David Hawk

HRNK Hidden Gulag series report author David Hawk discussing North Korea’s prison camps with HRNK.
© 2015 Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

On August 24, 2015, HRNK Director of Programs Rosa Park and Outreach Coordinator Raymond Ha traveled to David Hawk’s home in New Jersey to interview the author on his upcoming report for HRNK, The Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression and Prisoner Disappearances. This report, along with North Korea: Imagery Analysis of Camp 15 “Yodŏk” –Closure of the “Revolutionizing Zone” by AllSource Analysis and HRNK, was launched on September 18, 2015 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Interviewer: How did the first Hidden Gulag come about?

David Hawk: Well, when the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea was first formed, it was known generally but vaguely that there were prison camps of some sort or another in North Korea, and they hired me to go to South Korea at a time when there were 3,000 refugees or defectors from North Korea who had gone to China and come around to South Korea via Mongolia or via Southeast Asia. Among the 3,000 refugees or defectors, there were several score who had been imprisoned while they were still in North Korea. So, I was hired to go to Seoul and interview them and prepare a report on political prison camps in North Korea.

The Committee [for Human Rights in North Korea] had decided that rather than hire a Korea specialist or a Korean speaking scholar, they wanted someone with a broad background in human rights and a broader background in phenomena of repression in a variety of countries and political situations. Since I had previously worked on documenting the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and the massacres in Rwanda, I had experience with documenting worst case violations. So, they asked me if I would be interested in undertaking a study, and I was very much interested because when I was Executive Director and then on the board of Amnesty [International] and on the board of directors of Human Rights Watch Asia in the 70s and 80s, we both at Amnesty and Human Rights Watch did a lot of work on South Korea at a time when South Korean students and workers and pastors and journalists were very actively engaged in protesting the military dictatorship. While we were doing that work in the late 70s and 1980s, we were aware that it was probably much worse in North Korea than it was in South Korea in terms of human rights violations, but there was no information or the possibility to get information on North Korea in those decades.

So, when they told me that there were several dozen former North Koreans who had been in various prison situations in North Korea, I thought this would be a very interesting challenge and opportunity to fill in that gap in our knowledge of repression around the world. That is, if you go back and look at the annual reports of Amnesty International or the annual reports of Human Rights Watch when that NGO was started, and you look in the annual reports for the entries on North Korea, mostly what you see is a paragraph saying, “We don’t have any information.” Yet, you’d have pages and pages on human rights violations in South Korea because we were able to get the name, information, and circumstances of pretty nearly every student, pastor, or worker who was arrested protesting the military dictatorship. So I thought this would be a unique challenge and an opportunity to fill in that gap in our knowledge of repression around the world.

Interviewer: You are now on the fourth edition of The Hidden Gulag. What got you interested in the topic of North Korean political prison camps?

Hawk: Well, it was known, vaguely, generally, that there were prison camps of one sort or another in North Korea. This was known primarily by the Korea scholars who had looked at the purges of the Workers’ Party, the army, and the general populace in the late 1960s and 70s. But it was a consensus, a global consensus, that these sorts of concentration camps, labor camps, political prison camps, were a phenomena associated with the totalitarian regimes of fascism and communism that were supposed to have gone from the scene at the end of WWII or following the death of Stalin. So, the idea that there were ongoing political prison camps or concentration camps or forced labor camps, as they are variously called, was something that struck the members of the committee as something that should not be existing in the 21st century, as this was part of the awful residue of the 20th century.
Well, it was initially the members of the Board of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea that selected the topic, and the reason they were interested was that it was widely thought that concentration camps, forced labor camps, and political prison camps were a phenomena that were associated with the terrible human destructions in the 20th century with European fascism or Soviet communism. It was known vaguely and generally that there were prison camps of some sort in North Korea because the Korea scholars had tried to document Kim Il-sung’s purge of the party, the army, the government, and the general populace of Korea. There was a consensus certainly in human rights and much broader circles that these kind of gross human rights violations are something that should have passed from the scene at the end of WWII, certainly by the end of the 20th century.

Interviewer: How has The Hidden Gulag research methodology changed over the years?

Hawk: The biggest change in research methodology was the availability of Google Earth. For the first edition of The Hidden Gulag, what we did was obtain very detailed maps of North Korea basically dating to the 1950s. These were maps of North Korea by the U.S. Army that were by this point unclassified; they were very detailed and had degrees of latitude and longitude. These were very large maps; we’d roll them up and send them in mailers to our colleagues in Seoul, who would bring the former North Korean prisoners to their offices, and they’d look at the map, try to find the prison camp on the map, plot the coordinates, and we then would call up one of two commercial satellite photograph companies and see if they had any footage available for those coordinates. We’d then print out the footage—these were about 2 feet wide and 12 feet long— and we’d roll up those, send them to our colleagues in Seoul, who would again call the former political prisoners to their offices, and they’d then pore over for hours the satellite images of the camps. They were quite surprised because they could find their houses and their work units and other landmarks in the prison camps and identify them. 

We then used computers to input their identification onto the satellite photographs. It was a bit of a hit or miss process in that sometimes they picked the coordinates of the nearest town and they could recognize the road, but the prison camp itself was a little further away. So we’d get another set of coordinates and call back the satellite companies to see if they had in their storage discs any satellite imagery for the new coordinates, send the new coordinates, and mail them back over to Seoul. This was a very arduous process. It took an extra six months to do this process of getting the satellite imagery.

The author at home in New Jersey looking at satellite imagery provided by AllSource Analysis.
© 2015 Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

The satellite imagery was enormously important because it backed up the prisoners’ testimony about places that the regime denies exists. Of course, the regime won’t allow the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to have access to any of these facilities; nobody gets to see these places. It was very important to have the satellite images. After Google Earth came online, it became very, very easy. In fact, the Korean language version of Google Earth is very good and very precise. If you take the English language version and type in a romanized Korean name, you don’t get very much. But if you’re working off the Korean language Hangul script in Google Earth, and you type that in, it just zooms right to it. It’s now very, very easy for North Koreans to go online and look at their hometowns and places they visited, and, in this case, the prison camps where they were detained and subjected to forced labor.
The reason that it is important to do periodic updates is because we’re in the odd situation of only being able to find out about human rights violations in North Korea between two and five years after the violations occur. So we’re constantly playing catch up, as it were. What has to happen in terms of arbitrary detention, political imprisonment, and forced labor is that you have to wait until after the prisoner is released or, in a couple of cases, escapes, and then spends several months or even several years inside North Korea plotting the escape to China. The refugees in China spend months or several years getting enough money, making enough connections for the journey from Northeast China through Mongolia, or down through south China and Southeast Asia to get to Seoul. It’s not until the former prisoners get to Seoul that they’re really accessible to foreign journalists, or particularly Western journalists, scholars, or human rights investigators.
Because North Korea doesn’t allow North Korean citizens to make international phone calls or to have access to the Internet, there is a two to five year time lag between the time when violations occur in North Korea and when the outside world can find out about it. The prisoners have to be released, and they spend several months, possibly several years, in North Korea organizing their defection, their escape to China. Most of the North Korean refugees in China need to spend months, or even several years in China obtaining the funds and making the connections necessary for the onward journey from Northeast Asia down to south China and then through Southeast Asia or sometimes through Beijing and then Mongolia. It is not until these former victims of human rights violations reach South Korea that they’re available to Western journalists or scholars or human rights investigators. This process can take two to five years, so we’re in a constant catch-up game trying to find out recent developments. Recent developments aren’t like in the rest of the world where recent developments are something that happened yesterday or ten minutes ago that just was put on YouTube or over the Internet. There is this long delay, and up to now, there was no way around that, really.

Interviewer: What is the most interesting thing you found while interviewing these three women?

Hawk: Actually, I interviewed seven or eight women, but three from this particular kyo-hwa-so prison where they just built a new wing of the prison to accommodate the increasing number of women prisoners. Jongo-ri Kyo-hwa-so is written up in the first and second editions of The Hidden Gulag when it was a men’s prison. But we learned that, six years ago or so, the authorities constructed a new area of the prison to accommodate around 1,000 women prisoners. I interviewed three women prisoners from the Kyo-hwa-so Number 12. 

Google Earth and © 2015 DigitalGlobe image of Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri, 6/29/2015
© 2015 Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

What was most interesting was the senselessness and the perniciousness of punishing these women for having gone to China in search of food because of the chronic food shortage, particularly in the northeast provinces of North Korea, or for employment so they can get the money so that their families back in North Korea can buy food in the markets. It’s actually one of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that people have the right to leave and return to their country of origin. This right is also included in the international law forum–the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights extends the right to leave and return to one’s country of origin. But North Korea makes that a crime. Previously, tens of thousands fled at the height of the famine in North Korea. 
Currently, large numbers of North Korean women who, because of the food shortage and because there is no work in North Korea, go to China and work in service industries of various kinds. They are treated as illegal immigrants once in China. The Chinese police catch them and repatriate them to North Korea where they are punished, severely in many cases, for having left their country of origin in search of food or money to buy food. Those North Koreans who are repatriated and investigated by the North Korean police after they are repatriated, if the North Korean authorities believe there was the intent to defect to South Korea, then those forcibly repatriated North Koreans are sent to the kwan-li-so political prison camps. There are tens of thousands of North Korean women who were in China not with the intent to flee to South Korea but to get food or to find a job. Because of the harshness of the punishment, it sets up a terrible situation for these North Korean women in China. There is a separate report on this: Lives for Sale by the Committee [for Human Rights in North Korea] which came out several years ago. 

This process is also detailed in the 2nd edition of The Hidden Gulag that discusses where the North Korean refugees in China are repatriated from and the different kinds of punishments that are meted out to them. But the fact that the punishment is so severe sets up a terrible situation where North Korean women in China are subjected to trafficking and a lot of other violations and very difficult situations. This happens because of the senseless punishment of the North Korean women who have gone to China in search of food or employment. So, the most interesting thing about the three women from Jongo-ri Kyo-hwa-so was the senselessness of their imprisonment and their severe punishment under very brutal conditions and the perniciousness of the risks that this exposes North Korean women to in China. It’s senseless and it is pernicious. 

They were using prison labor to make wigs and eyelashes that were probably being sold in China or shipped somewhere else. 

The other interesting thing about the women’s section at Jongo-ri Prison was that in addition to the normal forced labor, which is mostly agricultural production or mining or timber cutting, at Jongo-ri there was a work unit to make wigs and one to make eyelashes. The prison was getting boxes of hair that were sent from Pyongyang, but the prisoners believe that the hair was being collected in China, and the women prisoners would sort the hair into color and length, thread the hair into needles, sew the hairs into the fabric that was going to go next to the head, and then the wigs would be returned and sent somewhere else for finishing. They were using prison labor to make wigs and eyelashes that were probably being sold in China or shipped somewhere else. I hadn’t encountered that kind of forced labor for those purposes. There was another women’s prison in Kaechon where there were textile units that made clothing for sale abroad, but I hadn’t encountered the forced labor for wig making or eyelash production previously. I found the women’s testimony about the production techniques for making wigs in a terrible North Korean prison interesting to hear about.

Interviewer: Why should we, as the American public, care about these political prison camps halfway around the world? Why should we keep track of ongoing changes?

These are not your run-of-the-mill prisons. 
People are being persecuted and subjected to forced labor under extremely brutal conditions for having exercised their rights. 
They are being detained arbitrarily, and their detention constitutes crimes against humanity. 

Hawk: The severe violations that are the phenomena of repression associated with these prisons, prison camps, forced labor in North Korea are gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, and they are what are considered to be worst-case violations, which are really atrocities and are recognized in international law as atrocities, as crimes against humanity. These are not your run-of-the-mill prisons. People are being persecuted and subjected to forced labor under extremely brutal conditions for having exercised their rights. They are being detained arbitrarily, and their detention constitutes crimes against humanity. The same reason that international public opinion as a whole should care about the crimes against humanity in North Korea is for the same reason that people care about genocides in Cambodia or Rwanda, or the anarchy, the dreadful situation in eastern Congo. These are worst-case violations, they shouldn’t be occurring in the 21st century. The only recourse available is to try to mobilize international public opinion and the governments of other nation-states around the world to try to put pressure or try to persuade the North Korean authorities that it has to improve the human rights situation in North Korea.

Interviewer: On that note, why should the international community be concerned about the North Korean political prison camps and the ongoing changes?

Hawk: As I mentioned before, there is a two to five year delay from the time violations are committed until the outside world can find out about it. We know that there are enormous changes going on in North Korea from the bottom up, primarily with the creation of markets, which the regime in the 1990s and first decade of the 20th century tried very hard to suppress but did not succeed in suppressing. Now, the real life situation of most North Koreans is very different from what it was a decade ago because they now get their food and their clothing not through the Public Distribution System or from factories or mines that aren’t working but from markets. We know that there are changes. We also know that information from the outside world is increasingly seeping into North Korea in the form of video, radio broadcasts, and on DVDs and thumb drives, so we want to try, even though there is a time delay between when the violations are committed and we find out about it, we still want to see what these developments are, and particularly, hopefully, if there are some improvements. 

I have, it’s only a general sense, but I believe there are less public executions going on in North Korea than was the case in the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century. I believe that the number of public executions has gone down. It is my sense also that there are fewer North Koreans who are being imprisoned for the political offenses of their parents or their grandparents. It is a very unusual phenomena of oppression that was unique to North Korea, although it was practiced during the Chosun dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries. We hear fewer reports of people being imprisoned and subjected to forced labor for the political offenses, real or imagined, of their grandparents. Since the North Korean authorities won’t allow human rights investigators or the Red Cross or NGOs like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch to go in and make on-site confirmations of either the claims of the government or the testimony of the refugees, we need to as best we can keep track of the most recent developments, even if the most recent developments are two to five years previous.

Interviewer: You include a list of 121 missing people in your report. How do you recommend that we find these missing people?

Hawk: Well, let me first explain what the missing people are and how we come by their names. The report that the Committee [for Human Rights in North Korea] put out a year and a half ago talked about the dismantlement of Camp 18 and the closure of Camp 22. When Camp 22 closed, the prisoners at night were trucked to a train station in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province. The trains departed going south. We don’t know what happened to those people. There are sketchy reports that they were transferred to Camp 16 or Camp 14 when they closed Camp 22, but the satellite imagery of Camp 14 or 16 doesn’t show the expansion of those camps sufficient to accommodate the former prisoners of Camp 22. But in the case of Camp 22, we don’t have the names of individual prisoners. Our information about Camp 22 came from former guards who defected to South Korea, who told us, “We have no names of the prisoners who were in the past imprisoned in Camp 22.” 

Another one of the kwan-li-so prison camps is called Camp 15, or it’s called Yodok Camp, after the name of a local town. Camp 15 was unique in that it had portions of the prison camp that they called “total control zones,” where the prisoners were held for life. They were brought in as children or grandchildren of political offenders, or as the presumed or real political offenders themselves, and would spend the rest of their lives, as short or long as they were, in forced labor. But in addition to these total control zones, there were what the North Koreans called “revolutionizing zones,” where people who were not deemed implacable “counter-revolutionaries” were sent for a period of three to ten years of forced labor, after which they were potentially eligible for release back into North Korean society. These revolutionizing zones are sometimes called “re-education camps.” I don’t like that terminology because they’re essentially not receiving education. It’s forced labor; they are being brutally punished. Even in the re-revolutionizing zones, many prisoners die from malnutrition. There are executions. There is torture. There is nothing going on in these revolutionizing areas of Camp 15 that merit the term “educational.”

The North Korean technical term is “revolutionizing zone,” and what’s unique about this particular revolutionizing zone called Sorimchon is that one of the prisoners who was released after three years had a photographic memory. When he was first imprisoned for being forcibly repatriated from China, he was assigned to an agricultural production unit. But then he was reassigned to assist in the administration and record keeping of the Sorimchon revolutionizing section of Camp 15. As part of his work in the record keeping section, he got to see the records of prisoners, and he got to meet a lot of them in discussing their individual work assignments with them and their production experiences. This particular prisoner had a photographic memory, so when he was released and later escaped to South Korea, he, with South Korean activists, sat down and made a list of 181 former prisoners. Of those 181, some were released, a number were executed, and quite a number died of starvation and malnutrition while in the labor camp. 

Of the 181, there are 121 whose whereabouts are unknown. We know that they were imprisoned, and it is really unusual to have the names and biographical information, the prior occupation, the age, of these prisoners. Of the 181, the status of 121 are unknown. Some of them could have been released, some of them could have died in detention, some of them could been moved to the lifetime imprisonment total control zones within Camp 15. We don’t know the fate or the whereabouts of the 121 former North Korean prisoners. That is highly unusual that we have the names of any of them at all. 

In a sense, these North Korean political prisoners have doubly disappeared. They were sent to Camp 15 without any trial or judicial process or sentencing or charges. They were not imprisoned according to the DPRK Criminal Code and criminal procedure provisions. They were just abducted by the political state security police and deported to the camps. They are held in incommunicado detention. Their families or their friends or former work colleagues are provided no information about what happened to these people after they were deported to Camp 15. The technical human rights term is “enforced disappearances.” These people were grabbed by police operating on the authority of the state and simply deported or deposited in the camps, and their fates and whereabouts are unknown. That was their first forcible disappearance. Then [based on] what we saw in recent satellite imagery about actually a year ago on Google Earth, it became apparent that the prisoner residence units in the Sorimchon section of Camp 15 and the animal, it was agricultural production and animal husbandry, but the pens for the animals, the warehouses for agricultural implements, and machinery were destroyed and demolished, as were all of the prisoner housing units. The Sorimchon section of Camp 15 does not exist anymore, and so we don’t know what happened to the former prisoners from the Sorimchon section of Camp 15. But in this case we have their names and some of the personal identification about these 181, including these 121 doubly disappeared North Korean prisoners.

Interviewer: How can we hold the North Korean regime responsible for the 121 missing people included in the report?

Hawk: We actually want to hold them responsible and accountable for a lot more than the 121; it’s just that in this case, we have their names. It is a well established principle of contemporary international law that those who commit atrocities should be held accountable and should be asked to account for the violations of human rights that are so severe that they are considered to be atrocity crimes. That has do be done primarily through the efforts of other UN Member States. It’s at this point only other governments that can demand from North Korea that North Korea hold accountable those who are responsible. There are institutions and mechanisms for doing this that, as of December of last year, are employed. An overwhelming majority of Member States in the [UN] General Assembly passed a resolution requesting the UN Security Council to refer the North Korean human rights situation to the International Criminal Court for its investigation and its prosecution of those who are responsible. It’s the Member States of the UN that have to continue to pressure North Korea to improve its human rights situation and to cease these criminal violations and to bring those who are accountable to justice. We are a long way from that happening, but it’s only since the international community took these measures in 2014 to raise the issue of accountability and obtain an account of these dreadful ongoing violations that the North Korean regime has responded at all to the concerns of the international community. 

Prior to this, there had been a decade of resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council. There had been a decade of reports by the Special Rapporteur. There had been a decade of resolutions at the General Assembly, and North Korea ignored all of that, all of those resolutions, all of those reports. It’s only when the international community raised the issue of accountability that the North Koreans responded. They responded in a variety of ways, none of which are the responses that are desired, such as allowing the ICRC to conduct on-site investigations, or for the regime to admit that these violations are taking place, that these prison camps exist. It’s only when the international community, other governments raised the issue of accountability that North Korea responded at all, which is why it’s important to continue to update the situation and continue to request that other governments continue to persuade the North Korean government to change its policies.

David Hawk representing HRNK at the UN Human Rights Council’s 30th Session on Sept. 21, 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland. © 2015 U.S. Mission Geneva

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Human Rights Council’s First Official Panel on North Korea

A general view during the 30th regular Session at the Human Rights Council. 21 September 2015. 
UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

By Christine Chung

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. She is currently serving as the political analyst for the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to the Kyrgyz Republic Parliamentary Elections.

On Monday, September 21st in Geneva, the United Nations Human Rights Council elevated discussion of North Korea’s human rights situation from the side events that have regularly taken place in the halls of the Palais des Nations to the main chamber with its first official panel discussion. Although both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly’s Third Committee have regularly hosted reporting by and interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for many years, the panel featured civil society representatives alongside Marzuki Darusman, the current mandate-holder. The panel is part of the continuing legacy of the work of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (COI), whose comprehensive report in February 2014 captured the attention of the international community with its assessment that the scale and scope of North Korea’s human rights violations amount to crimes against humanity.

Although the focus of the panel discussion was on “international abductions, enforced disappearances and related matters,” such a broad heading allowed panelists and speakers to touch on many ongoing concerns from political prison camp populations to summary executions for watching South Korean soap operas. The main question posed to the panel was raised early in the list of speakers by the representative from Albania: what further strategies are available to address the dire human rights situation in North Korea? It was repeated by various speakers thereafter. This article will address the responses of the panel, provide a summary of highlights of the discussion, and assess possible directions for the international community.

The format of the three-hour panel was to start with introductory remarks by former Chair of the COI Michael Kirby who, as the moderator, asked the panelists to make brief presentations to be followed by an interactive discussion broken into two 45 minute segments of comments and questions from the floor with 15 minutes of response by panelists. The panel was comprised of Special Rapporteur Darusman, ”Hidden Gulag” author David Hawk, Kwon Eun-Kyoung, representing the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, and Koichiro Iizuka, Vice Secretary-General, Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea. The interactive dialogue followed Human Rights Council procedure with a registration of a list of speakers each with two minutes speaking time enforced by the Human Rights Council President H.E. Joachim Ruecker who chaired the panel.

Mr. Ruecker made one real point aside from the need for speakers to adhere to the time limit: house rules also require speakers to use the official name of the country in question. The Honorable Michael Kirby reminded the Council of the timeline of the COI and that its report had been delivered on time, on budget, and unanimously. He explained that the topics that had been singled out for the panel included a very large number of people who had been abducted and disappeared and their loved ones, even though more people would have been affected by violations of the right to food; nevertheless, these were powerful human stories of suffering and could not be ignored. The Special Rapporteur noted that there has been a new turn in the relations between North and South Korea with the next round of family reunions expected at the end of October. He appealed to both sides to amplify the number of families involved in the reunions with some 66,000 families needing to be reunified but only 100, drawn by lottery, able to participate. Mr. Kirby calculated that it would require some 660 years for all the families to be reunited at that rate.

David Hawk turned his attention to the brutal deprivation of liberty of North Koreans who are subject to incognito detention in their own country. He stressed the need to ask for an accounting of these North Koreans who are forcibly disappeared into the kwan-li-so, translated as “managed places,” but are more widely known as political prison camps whose existence the North Korean authorities continue to deny, most recently at the country’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in April 2014. Koichiro Iizuka spoke of the agony of having his young single mother taken from his 3-year-old sister and him and then being told during the Japan-North Korea summit meeting in 2002 that North Korean authorities acknowledged abducting her but that she had subsequently died in a traffic accident. Eun-kyoung Kwon provided an update on frequent summary executions of people who were caught watching foreign programs on video, listening to South Korean radio broadcasts, or possessing illegal cell phones.

The North Korean delegation, as the concerned country, was given the first opportunity to speak, for five minutes instead of just two. As might have been anticipated, North Korea’s representative categorically rejected the panel as politically motivated. He characterized the panel as an unjust and dangerous precedent for the Human Rights Council. He protested the internationalization of the human rights of a particular country and repeated previously voiced claims that the COI aimed to change the socialist system of the DPRK and to eliminate its government. He also repeated what he characterized as a proverb from his country: “Mind your own business.”

The list of speakers moved from Japan—whose representative noted that there can be no normalization of relations until North Korea addresses its human rights situation and allows families of abductees to reunite—to the European Union (EU). The EU representative called for the closing of all political prison camps, reiterated support for the COI’s recommendations, including the referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and welcomed the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) field-based mechanism in Seoul. Most EU Member States aligned themselves with the EU’s statement, including Ireland, Germany, Latvia, and the Czech Republic in the first segment, then Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Belgium in the second segment. Albania commended the panel but was followed by Cuba whose representative opposed selective and political mandates including the Special Rapporteur on North Korea and the COI. The representative stated that “dialogue” was preferable to “confrontation,” citing UPR as an ideal forum for cooperation on human rights. The emphasis on UPR as a viable alternative to country specific mandates was also raised by Myanmar, Laos, Venezuela, and Russia, while Belarus, Syria, and Iran called more generally for non-interference and cooperation. France also called for ICC referral and the need to end detentions. The United States recalled that 80,000 to 120,000 people, including children, are still languishing in political prison camps. Norway welcomed efforts to establish a contact group as recommended by the COI. Liechtenstein noted that one and a half years have passed since the findings of the COI were released and the Security Council referral of North Korea to the ICC had yet to materialize, so perhaps more urgency was required and universal jurisdiction might be considered. China’s representative said that peace is a necessary pre-condition on the peninsula. She noted that, as we observe the 10th anniversary of the joint statement from the Six Party Talks, the responsible position on Northeast Asia should involve the re-launching of denuclearization talks.

Towards the end of each interactive segment, NGOs were given the floor. Speaking for UN Watch was Yeon-mi Park, a 21-year-old woman from North Korea who eight years earlier had escaped across the river to China only to see her mother raped and sold while she herself was sold for $260 as a 13-year-old child bride. She recounted crossing the Gobi Desert under difficult conditions to Mongolia to escape trafficking in China. She objected to being called a puppet by the North Korean government and noted that her relatives were still suffering in North Korea. Human Rights Watch (HRW) made the first explicit reference to China immediately after Ms. Park’s personal story reminding the Human Rights Council that these violations have a China dimension with its government labeling all North Korean refugees as illegal economic migrants and subjecting them to repatriation. This makes China complicit in the crimes that take place in North Korea. HRW’s representative emphasized the need for collective action.

After the first segment of the interactive dialogue, Mr. Kirby responded to the North Korean representative’s charges that the COI was subject to the bidding of the United States. Given his history as a judge in Australia and the pledge of independence that he and the other commissioners took at the start of their work, he rejected the allegation of having political motivations. Noting that North Korea’s representative had made no reference to the particular issue of abductions and disappearances, he hoped that the lapse indicated North Korea’s continuing support for family reunions. Mr. Kirby characterized the problem as essentially one of mechanism rather than principle, which perhaps new technologies such as Skype and email, but also old-fashioned letters, could help to resolve. He also responded to the recitation of the North Korean proverb; since the signing of the UN Charter in 1945, universal human rights is not the business of one regime but a common issue for the international community.

The panelists provided a range of practical measures. The exception was Mr. Iizuka, who responded that as a member of the public rather than a representative of the Japanese government he was not in a position to make an official recommendation. However, as a 38-year-old Japanese citizen whose mother had been taken away by North Koreans when he was only a 1-year-old child— before he could form his own memories of her—he hoped that he could be reunited with her before it is too late. The Special Rapporteur called for a concerted intellectual effort by the international community to put in place an accountability mechanism. Mr. Hawk took exception with the North Korean claim of an international community conspiracy against their socialist system. The international concern, he explained, is about a particular phenomenon of repression. Some people believe that the progressive dismantling of Camp No. 18, which involved a broad clearance with release of prisoners in place, might also work for Camps No. 14, No. 16, and No. 25. Ms. Kwon noted that the North Korean authorities criticize the testimony of some North Korean escapees, but hundreds of cases have been filed with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. While the North Korean authorities refuse to provide information on these cases, they have the capacity to do so.

The second segment of the interactive dialogue saw general support for the COI recommendations, including the OHCHR field office in Seoul by New Zealand, Costa Rica, Australia, Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, Canada, and the aforementioned EU states. The representative of the Republic of Korea noted that 130,000 families had been separated during the war and in its aftermath; after almost seven decades, half of them are no longer alive. He clarified that the two Koreas had agreed to family reunifications for 200 families and hoped for more regular events on a larger scale. Two NGOs spoke during the second segment: Conscience and Peace Tax International and the World Evangelical Alliance. The former called on the Human Rights Council to convene a peaceful settlement conference as stipulated in the armistice agreement 62 years ago. The World Evangelical Alliance noted UN reports on food insecurity and stunting of children that call for monitoring of distribution. North Korea’s four churches in Pyongyang are severely constrained, and North Koreans are punished for possessing bibles. The same organization pleaded that China should reconsider its practice of refoulement of fleeing North Koreans.

In their final comments, the panel members provided some key points for considering future strategies on North Korean human rights. The Special Rapporteur announced that in the coming days there would be more information forthcoming about the follow-up on the COI’s recommendation to establish a contact group as well as the group’s composition and other details. According to Mr. Darusman, this contact group would be able to address the problem that no action is taken on North Korean human rights between sessions of the Human Rights Council. On the question of what OHCHR’s field-based mechanism could accomplish, he alluded to the need to re-establish exact figures of Japanese and South Korean abductees following new findings which needed corroboration. David Hawk explained that the usual avenues to address human rights are not available in North Korea as there is no civil society, independent press, indigenous human rights defenders, or ability of people to regularly communicate by phone with those outside North Korea; this leaves only expressions of concern by the international community as an available mechanism. He recommended continuing to press Pyongyang for dialogue with the Special Rapporteur and the High Commissioner—with the contact group as a significant potential breakthrough—urging UN Member States whose recommendations to North Korea during the UPR had been accepted or noted to follow up with the government, and making efforts to keep North Korean human rights in the spotlight. Koichiro Iizuka mentioned the difficulties of dialogue with North Korea given its ultimately insincere attitude. Michael Kirby closed the panel by suggesting the possibility of separating the issues of abductees and disappeared persons and moving that to a more technical level of discussion. In this respect, forming an aggregate list of families who wish to find family members, as has often been done at the end of wars, might be an interesting step. He reminded the Council of the COI’s recommendation for more people-to-people contacts, possibly involving professionals such as dentists or lawyers.

The panel appears to have provided another channel for bringing attention to the plight of various groups suffering from the ongoing violations of human rights in North Korea. Discomforting scrutiny is one of the few identifiable tools available to the international community for provoking any response from the North Korean authorities on human rights concerns. Likewise, reminders about the need for accountability appear to continue to resonate at the highest level in Pyongyang. The High Commissioner alluded in his oral update on the field-based mechanism in Seoul, which followed the panel discussion, to the potentially constructive role that the Seoul office could play beyond continuing its documentation and advocacy work. He further said that office staff are broadening contact with civil society in the region, as there are regional implications of the human rights situation in North Korea. It falls within the office’s mandate to strengthen monitoring and documentation, maintain visibility of the issue, and enhance engagement and capacity building of governments of all states concerned, civil society, and other stakeholders.

Nevertheless, this point highlights what was left unsaid by panelists and diplomats in the Human Rights Council this week: that China remains a key link to any resolution of the situation of gross and systematic human rights violations in North Korea. Only civil society representatives raised the problem of refoulement by China and China’s complicity in the crimes that are committed against those North Koreans who are severely punished for attempting to escape the country. In fact, China’s role in enabling North Korea’s draconian control over its population goes beyond its own failure to respect international human rights and refugee conventions and is the subject for a longer discussion. The COI broke new ground when it named China in its report rather than referring to it as a neighboring state as had been the practice within the United Nations. As numerous speakers and the panelists themselves highlighted the urgency of addressing the human rights situation in North Korea, the international community needs to regard the regional dimensions of not only the problem but also the solution.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Images of Flood Damage in Rason

By Raymond Ha, HRNK Outreach Coordinator

On August 22–23, the Rajin-Sonbong (Rason) special economic zone in the northeastern region of North Korea suffered torrential downpours, resulting in widespread flooding. Radio Free Asia has reported that “more than 40 people are believed to have lost their lives…while 1,000 homes have likely been damaged.” [1] Pyongyang has appealed for international aid, and the IFRC, WFP, and organizations in Germany and the United Kingdom are assessing or considering the provision of emergency aid. [2]

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has obtained recent images of flood damage in Rason, courtesy of Mr. Jung Gwang-Il, the founder and executive director of No Chain: The Association of North Korean Political Victims and Their Families. Mr. Jung, a survivor of political prison camp no. 15, is a key witness and contributor to HRNK’s upcoming report Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression & Prisoner Disappearances, which will be launched on Friday, September 18.

This photograph appears to show a kindergarten in Rason. 
The red text on the banner above the doorway reads “Thank you, Dear General Kim Jong-un.” 
The six letters in the foreground, written on the lower fence, reads “We are happy.”

A flooded street in Rason.
The red sign on the right side of the picture reads "Self-reliant nature."

A resident clears debris on the street.

[1] “Global NGO To Redistribute Flood Aid in North Korea’s Rason,” Radio Free Asia, 02 September 2015.

[2] Lee Bong-Seok, “국제사회, 앞다퉈 북한 홍수 피해 지원 나서,” Yonhap News, 03 September 2015.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Training North Korea’s Supreme Leader

By Robert Collins 

How does one train a “supreme leader”—especially a young and inexperienced one—on how to handle crisis when any mention of his mistakes may lead to the notorious termination of the trainer by anti-aircraft gun? Difficult question, to be sure, but an even more difficult process. After all, North Korea had never gone to any external crisis of this depth under the short reign of Kim Jong-un, the North’s hereditary First Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. Now it has.

During the past two weeks, the two Koreas have once again put on shows of military force in responses and counter-responses to the North’s planting of landmines in the Demilitarized Zone that maimed two young South Korean soldiers. The South’s response was to resume loudspeaker broadcasts across the DMZ, designed to attack and undermine the legitimacy of the regime. Essentially, these types of South Korean propaganda targeting the North’s leadership drive that same leadership up the proverbial wall. A series of kinetic responses and counter-responses elevated a provocation into a crisis requiring raises in military alerts, shows of great force on both sides and, finally, face-to-face negotiations at Panmunjom in the DMZ.

So how much “training the trainer” went into planning for these actions? Driven by fear for their lives, North Korea’s generals and admirals must couch their recommendations on courses of action within the cocoon of absolute and bellicose loyalty to the supreme leader. Most likely, they must parse their requests and answers in strategy deliberations in such a manner that makes any suggestion by Kim Jong-un appear to be sheer tactical brilliance reminiscent of Sun Tzu, Napoleon, or, even better for North Koreans, of the much celebrated greatness of the supreme leader’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

This loyalty demanded by the North’s incessantly inculcated ideology has definitively negative by-products that have the world’s attention—impetuous purges and executions of senior leaders, human rights denial, political prison camps; imprisoning up to 120,000 inmates; and resource de-prioritization for any individual North Korean perceived by the regime as not faithfully serving the interests of the supreme leader.  

When North Korea and South Korea held talks at Panmunjom beginning on August 22 to defuse this most recent crisis, it was a meeting of two sides whose characteristics are dramatically different. Not only are the two political systems antithetical, but their social and ideological values are antithetical as well. The backgrounds of the four South and North Korean participating delegates are polar opposites, both politically and militarily. Their backgrounds clearly indicate that the South is at the negotiating table because it values the safety of its citizens and the North is at the talks because it values the “face,” i.e. the reputation of its supreme leader over everything else.

How so? The intent and values of the South are self-evident. Democratic societies look to preservation and safety of their nation-state above all else, as essential in safeguarding the human security of their citizens. The presence of President Park’s National Security Adviser, Kim Kwan-jin, and her Minister of Unification, Hong Yong-pyo, demonstrates that resolving this crisis focused on the security of the South. Kim Kwan-jin is a lifelong military man who has commanded army units from the company-level up through field army and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by a stint as the Minister of National Defense. Hong Yong-pyo serves as the leader of the government agency dedicated to finding peaceful means of unification. However, on the North’s side, there are polar opposites. The one man in the group who wore a military uniform with a military rank of vice-marshal (5-star) was the North’s Hwang Byong-so. Oddly enough, he is not truly a military man. He is a lifelong political commissar who has worked for the Korean Workers’ Party his whole life. He has never commanded a battalion, a regiment, a division, a corps, or a field army… ever. His job has always been to monitor North Korea’s military officers to ensure their loyalty to the supreme leader and the party as well as their compliance with all aspects of North Korean ideology. Hwang’s function has always been to ensure that those officers that supposedly fail to meet that standard are purged from the military ranks. In the first three and a half years of his rule, Kim Jong-un has gone through four Chiefs of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army and six Ministers of People’s Armed Forces. The other North Korean negotiator, Kim Yang-gon, heads the party’s United Front Department, tasked to foment South Korean social and political instability by employing a “toolkit,” including espionage, sabotage, propaganda and even inter-Korean dialogue.  

The final agreement by the four to end the crisis was a statement of regret (the same language Kim Il-sung used after the DMZ axe murders in 1976) from the North concerning the landmine incident and the end of the South’s propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ. As the profiles of the four negotiators indicate, while South Korea’s concern was the security of its soldiers, North Korea’s concern was the security and reputation of its supreme leader.  

In the long run, training the supreme leader may have created a larger mutated political logic in the mind of the Supreme Commander of 1.2 million soldiers armed with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Future trainers—at least those who survive the purges—will deal with a supreme leader who thinks he now knows it all. Decision-making within the North’s national security structure will likely lose some operational and strategic agility due to his hubris. To emphasize this, Kim Jong-un will likely demonstrate his leadership through internal propaganda claims of having made the Republic of Korea-United States alliance “stand down.”  

One of the outcomes of this crisis is that it will work toward consolidating Kim Jong-un’s power, at least in the young leader’s mind. Surely, it is still possible for an individual or a group of senior officials to fall on their sword after using it on the young, impetuous leader. But for the time being, the outcome of the crisis also enables the continued suppression of the North Korean people, including denial of the most basic of human rights and political prison camp internment of those perceived as disloyal. Another outcome of the crisis is the continued threat to the security of 51 million South Korean citizens, not to mention the threat of nuclear war.

The North’s military trainers may have made themselves look good in the eyes of the supreme leader for now, but the next time he may be the one “training the trainers” on further threats to the people of both North and South Korea.