March 08, 2016

An HRNK Interview with Robert Collins, Author of "Pyongyang Republic: North Korea's Capital of Human Rights Denial"

Q1: What was your motivation to be a leader on North Korean human rights?

Robert Collins: When I decided to retire from the army six years ago, I felt that my knowledge could be useful in writing materials that would contribute to an overall understanding of how North Korea makes its decision and to how they carry out their policies. And so, since retirement, I’ve just continued with what the army taught me to do over those decades at the end of the 20th century and doing it unilaterally. And now I’m doing it in support of HRNK.

Q2: What do you think is the relationship between human rights issues and security concerns for the U.S. – R.O.K. relationship regarding North Korea?

Robert Collins: The deplorable human rights condition of North Korea has a direct impact on their military. They have a million man army that can’t be composed of everybody in the country that is on the positive side of the political classification system—songbun. Many, if not close to half, are recruits—those that receive a denial of human rights through their entire life because they have been classified, socially and politically, as enemies of the state. Therefore, they have grown up with inadequate food, poor education, poor housing, and the opportunities that they receive in the military are very, very limited. Those in the lower songbun classifications can’t become officers. The few that do can’t go past the company grade. And even up until a few years ago, many of the individuals in the North Korean military that were regarded as low songbun—low trust on the political scale—weren’t even allowed to carry weapons because they didn’t trust them.

Q3: What is most striking to you about the structure of the Kim Regime?

Robert Collins: The Organization Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers Party is the party within the party. It is the center of power, the center of regime governing administration that compels everybody in North Korea to follow supreme leaderism and to follow supreme leader guidance. Every leader is evaluated for their ability to do that and that evaluation comes from the Organization Guidance Department or the OGD. So, it is this organization that compels the regime and the population to carry out all regime orders. For NGOs, when and if they ever have an opportunity to enter North Korea and try to help the North Korean population, they must understand that the front people they are talking to are controlled by the OGD.

Q4: How difficult is it for North Korean defectors to resettle in South Korea?

Robert Collins: The problem is that the two countries have developed a different understanding of societal norms. And so, when North Koreans come to the South, they have a problem adjusting. It’s a severe problem and the South Korean leadership is well aware of it.

Q5: Do you believe that the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex will impact human rights policy for North Koreans?

Robert Collins: The closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex leaves a lot people without a job in North Korea. Tens of thousands of people were employed in that complex so quality of living is going to be severely decreased for those individuals. At the time, that’s not President Pak’s responsibility. Her population is her responsibility. So the issue would be not so much human rights, but overall quality of life is going to deteriorate and there will be no improvement of human rights to try and make that improvement in their quality of life happen in the Kim regime.

Q6: What do you believe is the most compelling human rights issue elucidated from your interviews with North Korean defectors?

Robert Collins: Well, when you do a number of these interviews, you quickly learn that life in North Korea is very, very difficult and much of it is based in sorrow. And during these interviews, it’s compelling to watch the sorrow come out of their life story about how they got from what kind of lives they led in North Korea, how they escaped, and how they came to South Korea. These are very compelling and a lot of sorrow and unhappiness that is related to malnourishment, starving to death of family members, basic denial of human rights, and not even understanding that some of those human rights are denied. And so, over the years, one can see that these stories become even more and more sorrowful or even more and more compelling and sad. That drives one to believe that situations are just getting worse in North Korea for individuals—for populations in North Korea. The quality of life continues to deteriorate in North Korea for those that live in the provinces, particularly those in the northeast.

Q7: Do you see a time when the Kim Regime’s policy of human rights denial is no longer sustainable?

Robert Collins: Yes, as a matter of fact I do. That time would be the fall of the Kim regime. Until that time, the Kim regime will continue to carry out its aggressive policies towards the United States and the Republic of Korea, and at the same time, carry out the human rights denial for the North Korean population. Those go hand in hand. He’s got to—in his mind with the concept of Suryong-jui or supreme leaderism—compel the population to support him personally in not only the survival of the regime, but also in policies that are relevant to peninsula security issues, R.O.K.-U.S. relations, North Korea-U.S. relations, and North-South relations.

Edited by Rosa Park, Director of Programs and Editor

Original transcription by Liz Cheek, HRNK Research Intern