I tend to stick to domestic legal affairs but this is an issue I feel particularly strongly about, and given that this blog is largely centred around human rights I feel it would be wrong to overlook it. This week is the very first North Korea Freedom Week in Europe – a week of events which aim to raise awareness of the appalling and systematic human rights violations which take place in North Korea.
The international community is by and large woefully ignorant to the situation; mainstream media only pay attention to mock and condescend, or when there is some perceived nuclear threat or act of aggression, with the result that most westerners view North Koreans as a race of dangerous and hostile people.
The truth of the matter is that the people of North Korea are victim to some of the most severe ongoing human rights violations the world has known. The inception in 1948 of Kim Il-Sung’s totalitarian regime – the hallmarks of which are corruption, incompetence and cruelly warped ideology – introduced increasingly hellish conditions for ordinary citizens whilst the Kim dynasty and political elite have consistently enjoyed a life of luxury and self-aggrandisement.
It is difficult to think of any other case in which a Government has invested so much of its time, money and resources into creating an infrastructure of total oppression for its own people. North Koreans have virtually every aspect of their lives dictated to them. They are not allowed to leave their hometown without permission, and leaving the country is out of the question. Private enterprise is officially prohibited, and citizens must rely on state-provided rations for food. These are often pitiful and have led to chronic malnutrition in entire generations of people, not to mention the famine of 1994-1998 which is thought to have claimed the lives of up to 3.5 million people. The media is entirely controlled by the State and the slightest criticism of the Leader or of the regime is considered a crime.
Those who commit such trivial ‘crimes’ are subject to a completely arbitrary justice system in which there is usually no charge, conviction, or trial. Punishment is usually in the form of time spent (often life) in Kwan-li-so (political prison camps). These camps are truly barbaric – prisoners are condemned to hard labour in squalid conditions in which starvation, arbitrary beatings, rape, torture and public executions are commonplace. Policy also dictates that three generations of the offender’s family are punished in the same way. It is estimated that 200,000 people are currently being held in such prison camps.
The kwan-li-so system and other actions of the regime appear to violate practically every right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including (to name but a few) the protection of life, liberty and security of person, the protection from slavery and servitude, protection from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. (Examined in detail here and here)
What we know about the camps is due to a small handful of defectors such as Shin Dong-Hyuk, Kang Chol-Hwan and Kim Young-Soon who against all odds survived the camps, escaped the country and managed to have their stories heard. It is refugees such as these who have been responsible for establishing this week of awareness. Thanks to their tireless campaigning, along with commendable efforts from groups such as the North Korea Freedom Coalition and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, progress is being made and slowly the international community is beginning to pay attention. Earlier this year the UN launched an official Commission of Inquiry which is currently in the process of hearing evidence from defectors. However a long struggle lies ahead. Only when the regime is fallen and Kim Jong-Un and his political elite brought to justice will there be freedom for the people of North Korea.
If any events this week are taking place near you, please attend and encourage others to do so.
Events this week:
Further reading, resources and campaigns:
- Freekorea.us – excellent website detailing the prison camps of NK
- DailyNK – website which obtains news from undercover agents operating in NK
- The Aquariums of Pyongyang – brilliant and tragic book detailing the life of Kang Chol-Hwan who was imprisoned with his family aged 9
- Escape from Camp 14 – unique and incredibly harrowing story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in and escaped from a ‘total control zone’ camp
- European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea – newly formed group aiming to promote NK human rights in Europe
- US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea – see in particular ‘The Hidden Gulag’ by David Hawk
- Liberty in North Korea – US based charity working with NK refugees