April 04, 2017

ISC Trilateral Conference Panel #1

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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