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: http://hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Taken_LQ.pdf.

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