Center for Global Justice & North Korean Human Rights

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia- The Center for Global Justice, affiliated with Regent University Law School, hosted a summit meeting with a panel of distinguished speakers to discuss North Korean human rights abuses. The panel included Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), professor Jae-Chun Won, faculty member from Handong International Law School in South Korea and member of the Board of Directors for the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, and Myunghee Um, North Korean defector who escaped through a third country.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, has a distinct record of human rights abuses. Below are eight points that summarize the North Korea human rights issues discussed at the summit.

1. North Koreans are “Marked for Life”

North Koreans citizens are assigned a ‘songbun’ status, and classified according to their socio-political background and the perceived political loyalty of his family. There are three broad categories of ‘songbun’: the core, wavering and hostile classes.

“Every [North Korean] citizen has a file,” said Scarlatoiu, Executive Director for HRNK.

Under the ‘songbun’ social stratification system, the core class is perceived as loyal to the regime, the wavering class’ loyalty is regarded as undependable and the hostile class is deemed disloyal.

The ‘songbun’ classification essentially affects all aspects of a North Korean’s life and those in hostile class are most often discriminated against. One’s ‘songbun’ determines access to food, education, housing, employment, medical treatment, and even marriage.

“There are 51 sub-categories based on family history and blood line,” said Scarlatoiu. “Political crime has a special procedure and not subject to the legal court.”

When a North Korean is convicted of a political crime such as speaking against the regime, listening to a foreign broadcast, or watching CD/DVDs with South Korean programs, his “songbun” would be demoted from a good to a bad “songbun.” The accused together with three generations of his family will be imprisoned in a concentration camp, and could possibly be executed. The lesser consequence would be the loss of one’s job or housing.

According to Scarlatoiu, ‘songbun’ is the root cause of discrimination and humanitarian abuses in North Korea.

2. North Korea’s Concentration Camps

An estimated 150,000-200,000 people are still imprisoned in the concentration camps or gulags buried deep in the mountainous areas of North Korea. Each of the forced labor camps is surrounded by an electric fence and guard towers. Inmates are inhumanely tortured and punished. Forced labor at these camps includes mining, logging and agricultural work. The North Korea government, nonetheless, has repeatedly denied the existence of such camps.

To gain insight on these hidden gulags, HRNK partnered with DigitalGlobe Analysis Center to produce imagery analysis of the prison camps. Scarlatoiu highlighted that findings based on the satellite images were revealing. Camp 25 was expanded twice during the period between 2003 and 2013 and Camp 22 had downsized.

Scarlatoiu surmises that prisoners from Camp 22 might have been transferred to other gulags, possibly Camp 25, which may explain in part for its expansion. Camp 22 is located near the Chinese border, and DPRK may have moved its prisoners to a camp further away to curtail their flight to freedom. These political camps are in reality “re-education prison centers” and “20,000 prisoners have disappeared overnight.”

“There is a high rate of death in detention political camps,” said Scarlatoiu.

3. Lack of Protection for Women and Children

Women and children are most vulnerable to physical exploitation as well as emotional and sexual violence. North Korean women are susceptible because of their social role in the family as food providers. Once food supplies run out, they leave the country in the hope of finding food for the family.

Won highlighted, “Eighty percent of the North Korean refugees who escape are women.”

When they cross the borders into China, they are at the mercy of human traffickers. There are few women of marriageable age in rural China and as such, men are wiling to pay large sums of money to buy a wife. The unsuspecting North Korean women are often sold and forced into marriages to poor farmers in China.

Although Chinese law grants citizenship to children of Chinese nationals, children conceived from these de facto marriages are usually not registered with the Chinese government, in order to avoid the risk of the North Korean mother being deported and sent back. Without a hukou or official Chinese papers, thousands of children are stateless and do not have access to education and other social services.

When a North Korean woman is repatriated back and found to be pregnant, she is forced to abort her child because the unborn child’s father is presumed to be Chinese. Prison guards loyal to the regime are known to kick and stomp on the stomach of pregnant women to induce abortion. Women who are far too advanced in their pregnancy will be forced to kill the baby after the child is born. Infanticide is widespread as a result of the quest to maintain racial purity.

“North Korea is party to the Geneva Convention on Women and Children,” said professor Won, “but it consistently commits crimes against humanity.”

Um, a North Korean refugee, testified at the summit meeting and recalled being interrogated and tortured at the prison camp after she was repatriated to North Korea.

“I was electrocuted until I lost consciousness for three days,” said Um.

Such punishments undoubtedly breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR,) which North Korea has ratified. Article 12 (2) provides that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own” and article 7 states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

4. Religious Persecution

Religious persecution is especially intense for the Christians. North Korean Christians are classified as the hostile ‘songbun,’ which is the same category as political prisoners, and often subjected to harsher punishments in the prison camps.

“Christianity is [considered]a crime against the State,” explained professor Won. “It is a crime of treason.”

Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, always believed that “a good Christian is a dead Christian.”

Ironically, Kim Il-sung’s mother, Kang Pan-sook (1892-1932) was a devout Christian and an elder in a church. But in order to establish a communist regime in North Korea, Kim Il-sung repudiated his Christian heritage and built his cult of personality whereby North Koreans idolize him as the Great Leader. After the Korean War, Kim Il-sung intensified his persecution of Christians. Those who renounced their faith and embraced ‘juche,’ or the self-reliance ideology were spared, but those who did not were thrown into the gulags and brutally punished. Till this day, Christians are routinely purged.

The U.S. State Department 2012 report states that “genuine religious freedom did not exist.” North Korea has been a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) since 2001 under the International Religious Freedom Act for exceptionally severe violations of religious freedom.

5. Forced Abductions and Kidnappings

North Korea started abducting South Koreans during the Korean War to resolve the shortage of intellectuals in DPRK.

“Kim Il-sung wanted to bring the best to North Korea,” said Scarlatoiu. “Doctors, professors etc.”

DPRK later enticed ethnic Koreans in Japan to come to North Korea and entrapped them against their will. Ten years later, the children of North Korean agents were kidnapped and used to blackmail their parents.

But from the late 1970’s onward, the ‘hermit kingdom’ turned its attention outside of the northern peninsula. Foreigners from various countries around the world were kidnapped for the purposes of training North Korean spies.

“Foreign abductees were used to train intelligentsia,” explained Scarlatoiu.

At least 14 nationalities have been abducted and trapped in North Korea, including American, Chinese, Dutch, French, Italian, Guinean, Japanese, Jordanian, Lebanese, Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Romanian.

It was only until 2002 when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pressed Kim Il-sung on the issue of Japanese abductees that DPRK’s policy of abduction came to light.

Scarlatoiu estimates, “As many as 180,000 people have been abducted.”

North Korea’s policy of systematic kidnaping and covertly detaining foreign nationals clearly contravenes the United Nations Charter, the ICCPR, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages.

6. International Obligations and the Role of China

Most North Koreans choose their flight to freedom by crossing over to China due to the proximity of its borders. The Chinese government, however, does not grant the North Koreans refugee status and views them as illegal economic immigrants. Those who are caught are forcibly sent back to North Korea.

In 2010, the North Korean Ministry of Public Security pronounced defection as a crime of “treachery against the nation.” This implies that North Koreans who leave the country would most certainly face punitive punishment upon repatriation, thus making them refugees sur place, which is people becoming refugees because of a legitimate fear of persecution upon return.

The 1951 Refugee Convention indicates in article 1 that a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

By repatriating the North Koreans, China contravenes its commitments as a state party to the 1951 Refugees Convention, 1967 Protocol, and the 1984 Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment.

7. “Control, Coercion, Surveillance”

Scarlatoiu emphasized the point behind DPRK’s extreme scrutiny and cruel imprisonment of its own citizens in concentration camps has to do “control, coercion and surveillance.”

“It is all about regime control and the survival of the Kim family,” he said. “There is aggressive purging even of the political party.

The international press had recently featured a smiling Kim Jong-Un and his wife, Ri So-ju. However, Scarlatoiu warned,“Any perceived change is for publicity.”

The appearance of North Korea’s First Lady alongside Kim Jong-Un in his official duties is an attempt to give a different image of North Korea to the press and international community. He added that these media appearances of Kim Jong-un and his wife together are just “to give the image of a celebrity couple in the West.”

8. Progress in North Korean Human Rights

On a more encouraging note, Scarlatoiu highlighted there is some progress on the North Korean human rights issue.

The first is the UN mandated Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the human rights abuses by the North Korean regime. The UN COI headed by Judge Michael Kirby are currently in dialogue with international lawyers over the possibility of summoning the senior regime leaders to appear before the International Criminal Court. The commission is expected to make its final report to the Human Rights Council by February 2014.

The second key progress is the recent meeting between former President George Bush and Shin Dong-hyuk at Dallas. Shin was born and raised in Camp 14, a harsh concentration camp for political prisoners. In 2005, he escaped to freedom by climbing over an electrified fence. The former president invited Shin to the newly opened George W. Bush Presidential Center because of Bush’s deep concern with human rights issue in North Korea.

Scarlatoiu underscored this prominent event as a fresh opportunity to press the international community to work towards improving human rights in North Korea.

The third is the conference, co-hosted by Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and HRNK, advocating for the dismantlement of North Korea’s political prison camps. Dignitaries and special guests include Ambassador Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights; Shin Dong-hyuk, North Korean prison camp survivor, Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14 and Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Escape from North Korea—The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.

This high profile event is expected to reinforce the work of the UN COI, which was set up to investigate the crimes against humanity in North Korea.

– Flora Khoo

Sources: Center for Global Justice, U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, U.S. State Department, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, United Nations, Radio Free Asia
Photo: US News

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About Author

Flora is from Singapore and she graduated from Regent University with a master’s degree in Journalism. She was drawn to The Borgen Project because of her love for writing and interest in international development issues. She speaks both English and Mandarin and enjoys canoeing.

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