How difficult is it to find evidence of the crimes against humanity committed by the regime?
The North Korean regime refuses to acknowledge the existence of political prison camps and even claims that there are no human rights issues inside the country, and does not allow any kind of human rights monitors into the country. This is because the leadership sees no interest in making human rights a topic for discussion with other countries, and also because they have constructed a completely different and self-serving concept of human rights that would not be recognized anywhere else in the world.
It is extremely difficult to get inside the country to assess the situation on the ground, however there are thousands of North Koreans escaping from the country every year, and over 28,000 North Korean refugees have made it to South Korea. They bring with them consistent stories of widespread, systematic human rights abuses throughout the country. We have spoken with many North Korean refugees just days after they had left North Korea, and the picture they paint is of a country with the strongest form of political repression in existence today, where people fear harsh and long-term punishment for doing something as innocuous as watching a South Korean drama. North Korean refugees consistently tell us that they escaped the country knowing that the consequence of being captured trying to leave their country without state permission could even be death.
Specifically regarding the political prison camps, we now have testimonies from several former prisoners from different camps, as well as former guards who have defected. The validity of the evidence provided by these people is supported by how much these testimonies corroborate each other, and also because they have been corroborated by satellite images of the camps.
What do we know about the prison camps in particular? How and why do people end up in there? Do we know how many people are being held in prison camps?
Political prison camps are home to some of the greatest atrocities committed in North Korea, and they have lasted twice as long as the Soviet Gulags and five times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. The North Korean regime operates six known political prison camps, detaining citizens who have committed “political crimes” – actions contradictory to the government’s wishes, but generally not considered criminal elsewhere in the world. “Political crimes” vary widely and can include acts as simple as listening to a South Korean pop song, attempting to make a phone call outside of the country, creasing the picture of a North Korean leader or otherwise doing anything to insult the authority of the leadership. North Korea holds to a policy for some political “crimes” of punishing not only the “criminal,” but also up to three generations of the individual’s family, who may all be detained indefinitely or killed. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people are currently being detained in North Korea’s political prison camps.
How valuable are the negotiations and sanctions over the Regime’s tinpot nuclear and missile program by the United States and the EU?
Many countries have put a lot of focus on the problem of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs because they are naturally concerned about national security and the proliferation of these technologies to other countries around the world. Even though many policymakers would privately recognize that North Korea is highly unlikely to actually give up their nuclear weapons, this is seen as the best available approach to try to manage the situation. But at this point, North Korea is one of the most heavily sanctioned and isolated countries in the world and it is a country where one million people have already starved to death, and the leadership has proven that they have higher priorities than the well-being of the North Korean people. In addition, the Chinese government sees no interest in effectively sanctioning trade across its long border with North Korea because it does not want to cause any instability in the region, and prioritizes maintaining the status quo over piling the pressure on North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs. The Chinese government is effectively leaving the back door wide open for all manner of trade while the United Nations sanctions try to target certain types of trade, for instance in luxury goods. The fundamental problem of this approach is that North Korea has shown itself to be incredibly impervious to external pressure, and with some of the most powerful nations in the world including the U.S. and China having a stake in the Korean peninsula and having different and competing interests, it is essentially a locked, Cold War style stalemate, with little hope of finding solutions or making sustainable progress in this arena of high politics.
In this context it is questionable whether real solutions will be made through negotiations and sanctions, so this aspect of the problem should not get nearly all of the attention as it currently does. Such an approach may be used to manage the situation but ultimately change is much more likely to come from the more dynamic level of the North Korean people themselves, and more effort and thinking should be put into long-term strategies to open the country up and encourage change from within. There should be more focus on the North Korean people because ultimately empowering them will be crucial for bringing about the change towards a less-threatening North Korea–both externally and internally–that we all want to see.
Analysts say the United States and South Korea, especially, must not hide behind nuclear diplomacy, but focus more on human rights. Do you agree?
Yes. To build on the answer above, it is natural that countries such as the U.S. and South Korea will focus on national security concerns, but it is essential to also maintain a real focus on addressing the challenges facing the North Korean people, and also not to sacrifice this concern for the sake of trying to make temporary progress on security issues. There are a variety of things that can be done to address the human rights and humanitarian problems and to encourage change inside the country, including direct support for the North Korean people, certain engagement strategies, and also efforts to increase freedom of information inside the country, but directly conveying to the North Korean regime the need to address these issues out of genuine concern for the North Korean people is also absolutely necessary.
Do the U.S. government and South Korean government really want North Korean collapse or do they actually fear it?
This is a difficult question with no simple answer. There are a variety of opinions and interests within the governments and politicians of both countries on this. Many people will also not reveal their true position, because their view may be politically too inflammatory or stating it explicitly may even be counter-productive to their goal. In general both the South Korean and U.S. governments would rather not have to deal with the many problems caused by North Korea, and in the long term North Korean collapse may ultimately seem beneficial if it means those problems will go away. However the complexity comes from the expectation that if North Korea did collapse then there would be a lot of short-term and some long-term problems to deal with, including the potential for the regime to launch into a desperate last-ditch conflict, the potential of coming up against the Chinese government’s competing moves after a collapse, the difficulty of administering the country, and the cost to the South Korean economy of rebuilding North Korea. Another factor is that many governments and leaders would also rather not have to deal with those kinds of short-term crises during their term in power, and would rather ‘kick the can down the road’.
North Korean collapse could also create many headaches for the Chinese government, especially in the short term. But it is also possible that a collapse of North Korea and reunification under the leadership of the Seoul government, with coordination between the US, Korea and China and a balancing of interests of all sides, could also be beneficial to all sides including China.
Studies have found that North Koreans have more access than ever to outside media, including via radio, TV, DVDs and USBs. Is it true? If yes, how they can use it in their favor?
The InterMedia report on this issue was an essential update on the very important topic of information freedom and the penetration of foreign media into North Korea. The main findings of this report are certainly supported by the conversations that we have had with North Korean refugees leaving the country over the past two years. Foreign media and information is really making its way into the country at a level never before seen in North Korea.
North Korea is still the most closed off country in the world, but refugees leaving the country now are significantly more aware of South Korea and the outside world than they were 10 years ago. This is partly due to increased trade with China and increased cross-border movement, and the effects of grassroots marketization in the country, but it is also in large part thanks to an increasing number of North Koreans having access to smuggled DVDs, foreign radio and TV broadcasts, and having illicit communications with relatives who have already defected to South Korea through illegal Chinese mobile phones that can be used close to the border with China. North Koreans tell us that they are now gathering with very small groups of friends to watch South Korean dramas on smuggled DVDs, that they are using USB drives to watch films from other countries, and listening to South Korean music on MP3 players. One young North Korean refugee even told us that he had played foreign computer games that were smuggled in on hard drives from the outside world. All of this is highly illegal and very dangerous but those with the means can escape punishment by bribing officials.
The information blockade carefully constructed by the North Korean regime over several decades is breaking down. Illicit communication and foreign information is being used to facilitate trade and smuggling, increasing the bottom-up marketization in the country. Being exposed to foreign media is also having a real impact on the North Korean people’s beliefs and attitudes and people are increasingly breaking away from the state. More and more North Koreans inside the country understand that North Korea has to change, but at the moment they are not empowered enough to really exert that pressure on the ruling elite because the repression is still too strong. However there are encouraging signs that the growing prevalence of foreign sources of information is causing the consumption of foreign media to become normalized in some communities, and as it is becoming more of a shared activity and people are mutually dependent on each other for access to foreign media, the bonds between the people are strengthening, and people are also now less likely to report these illegal activities of their peers to the authorities.
Coupled with the rampant corruption inside the country and other grassroots changes this means that the regime’s control is gradually breaking down, and foreign information and media and the technologies that enable that are playing a crucial role in this.
If diplomatic approaches fail, is an armed intervention one of the possibilities to deal with this issue?
Frankly no, because North Korea has nuclear bombs, and even their conventional military force is too powerful and located too close to Seoul and other major population areas in South Korea. The risks and expected costs are just too high to consider.
What is the best thing that normal people can do to help fix the problem of North Korea?
Firstly, action must start with awareness. It helps to realize that, contrary to the focus of the mainstream media, North Korea is about much more than the nuclear weapons and the Kim regime. The biggest and most interesting and important stories about North Korea are about the North Korean people themselves, and once we dig into this area we realize there actually is hope for change and progress on this issue. If people from all sorts of communities and backgrounds can come alongside the North Korean people and help empower them in their struggle for a better future, then we can play a role in helping to bring about the change in North Korea that we all want to see. There are various NGOs working on different angles to promote change inside the country for the benefit of the North Korean people, so we would encourage people to consider supporting one of them. For those who are in a position to do so either directly or indirectly, a very positive thing to get involved with is helping those people who have left the country to be successful in their resettlement. If they land on their feet and are able to make the most of their new freedoms, that is an important victory not just at the individual level, but also at the macro level because the North Korean defector diaspora is acting as a bridge community back into the country, helping to open up the country.
People can of course choose to support LiNK’s work, and we have many ways that people can engage in and invest in our mission. We do not take any funding from government sources, and our work would not be possible without community support from around the world with people using their time, effort, skills and resources to support our mission. If people are interested in getting involved on this issue then we encourage them to go forward and find out more, and reach out to groups to see how best they can engage. Considering the magnitude of this issue, there is a real lack of people getting involved and supporting the North Korean people, so your interest and engagement will certainly be appreciated!