North Korea human rights abuse has reached a new peak last month in the midst of another nuclear crisis that was initiated by Pyongyang. Amid North Korea's announcement that it possesses nuclear weapons and is suspending its participation in “six-nation” nuclear talks, Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist regime also found time to execute 70 refugees who were recently captured en-route to China.
The Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, a highly reputable NGO, said that eight or nine of the 70 who were executed were put to death publicly in order to discourage others from attempting to slip across the border into China
Such practices have become a horrible routine in North Korea, yet they receive little attention due to the country’s nuclear menace. Even South Korea, concerned that raising the issue of human rights would “anger” its northern neighbor, abstained last March from voting on a U.N. resolution calling on North Korea to improve its human rights record.
Seoul fears that efforts to pressure Pyongyang on its human rights record will damage any potential progress in the ongoing six-party process that aims to end North Korea’s nuclear threat. But now that North Korea has decided to abandon the talks on its own initiative, there may be a chance for the South to reconsider its policies.
Currently, South Korea hosts about 6,000 refugees from the North. In July 2004, it accepted an additional 468 North Korean refugees via Vietnam, the largest single entry to date. But these refugees are the lucky ones.
According to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Kim Jong Il’s gulags still hold between 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners under conditions that can only be described in terms of the concentration camps of Hitler and Stalin.
At one of the more infamous camps, No. 22 in Haengyong (which has since been closed), some 50,000 prisoners toiled each day in conditions that killed 20 percent to 25 percent of them each year. Kwon Hyok, a defector and former Head of Security at Camp 22, has described chemical experiments carried out on political prisoners in specially constructed gas chambers. Official Korean documents listing individuals transferred for “the purpose of human experimentation with liquid gas for chemical weapons” confirmed Hyok’s testimony.
Following increased media and satellite attention, the North Koreans decided to dismantle Camp 22—a process that was completed in late 2004. But the political prisoners in Camp 22 were not released; instead, they were transferred to places like like Yodok Prison Camp, located 62 miles north of the North Korean capital Pyongyang, farther away from the South Korean border.
Footage obtained from a defector who managed to secretly film the Yodok camp revealed conditions similar to that described in Camp 22. In one scene, pairs of men and women were seen carrying what the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun said were “canisters of human waste slung from a pole across their shoulders."
The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) said recently that it needs 500,000 tons of food, worth more than $200 million, to help feed 6.5 million starving North Koreans this year. Richard Ragan, WFP's Pyongyang-based country director, said in January that millions of women, children and elderly people in North Korea were “barely subsisting because they lack both the quantity and quality of nourishment they deserve.”
Indeed, Kim Jong Il—who is busy augmenting his collection of Daffy Duck cartoon and Hollywood movies when not developing uranium for nuclear weapons—was able to starve millions of Koreans in the process of solidifying his reign.
This mass brutality highlights the danger of North Korea developing a nuclear weapon. After all, if this is how North Korea deals with its dissenting citizens, one can only imagine how it will deal with the political dissent of another country once it is armed with a nuclear bomb.
The fact that North Korea is once again stalling the negotiation process should be used to reorient some needed focus to the question of the ruling regime’s horrific human rights record. Europe, which is not a party to the Korean negotiations, has an opportunity not to stand idly by, but to apply much needed pressure on the issue of the political detainees. The countries who have been taking part in the negotiations—the U.S, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea—cannot ignore the massive human suffering taking place in North Korea. The time to act was yesterday—but today may still not be too late.
Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.