It’s Time to Aid North Korea’s Dissidents

While many around the globe celebrate the creation of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) as a milestone in the struggle for the survival and basic rights of the North Korean people, refugees and virtually all those intimately aware of the DPRK mass atrocity situation still fear the possibility of the regime killing off its surviving prisoners of conscience in a counteroffensive to eradicate evidence of international crimes that have taken place in their vast network of concentration camps. International human rights groups suspect that Prison Camp No. 22, a massive and infamous slave labor/death camp in Hoeryong County, could be the scene of North Korea’s latest known genocidal massacre. Former guards who have defected from North Korea admit that human vivisection, inclusive of biological and chemical weapon experiments on political prisoners, were routine at Camp 22. In mid-2012, the entire prison was shut down.

An August 2013 report (pdf) from the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) called for an inquiry into the fate of some 20,000 former prisoners of Camp 22. In 2012, the camp population was reported by Radio Free Asia (RFA) to have diminished precipitately from an estimated 30,000 to 3,000. RFA’s sources (undercover North Koreans) determined that most of the prisoners were starved to death. The North Korean defector–led, Seoul-based online periodical Daily NK confirmed Camp 22’s closure in September of last year, noting that the camp had been “extensively documented through satellite photos as well as via the testimony of defectors” and that “the closure appears to represent an attempt on the part of the state to cover its tracks.” HRNK, although initially cautious about the report of Camp 22’s termination due to satellite data indicating continued activity at the site, has since ascertained (pdf) that prisoners were replaced surreptitiously by local farmers and coal miners while several guard posts, towers, and buildings formerly serving as interrogation and detention facilities had been destroyed. In September 2013, the Washington Post editorial board wrote about the disappearance: “Thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air—perhaps via Camp 22’s crematoria.”

Not coincidentally, the appalling Nazi-esque atrocities that took place at Camp 22 were some of North Korea’s best known. A 2004 BBC documentary report featured extensive interviews with North Korean camp survivors and Camp 22’s former head of security, Kwon Hyuk (his new name). The former DPRK officer confessed on-screen to the crime of extermination as well as other crimes against humanity, while he and an escaped victim provided elaborate eyewitness accounts that suggest prisoners of conscience, enslaved in the country’s gulag, have been used as guinea pigs for biological and chemical weapon experiments over several decades, and on a systematic scale. The BBC report has since been either quoted, written about, republished, or re-posted in virtually all major mass media outlets and elsewhere online, and Hyuk’s testimony has again come to the fore via a recent documentary, Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012) by German documentary filmmaker Marc Wiese (online here). Wiese has stated to the press that his backlog of interviews with Hyuk amount to sufficient evidence to sentence him before an international tribunal.  

Prior to Hyuk’s testimony, another former Camp 22 guard, Ahn Myong-chol, had testified before Congress, published a memoir, and spoken out widely about North Korea’s mass atrocities to various media, declaring he was doing this in penance for having once been a perpetrator and part of the DPRK’s criminal and inhuman system. He stated to NBC News in 2003, in reference to his experience: “They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings. If someone is against socialism, if someone tries to escape from prison, then kill him. If there’s a record of killing any escapee, then the guard will be entitled to study in the college. … Beating and killing is an everyday affair. They are not treated as human beings; they are just like dogs or pigs.”

Ahn—whose father committed suicide in North Korea after being accused of a political crime, with his mother and siblings arrested and consigned as prisoners to the camps themselves as a consequence—has since his defection from the DPRK become one of the most visible and vocal advocates for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the North Korean people, and particularly on behalf of those still subject to genocidal brutality in the camps. In August, he testified before the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, bearing witness to the very troubling reality that DPRK camp guards are each trained and instructed to eliminate all “evidence,” meaning human prisoners, in the event of a war or an invasion.

Ahn stated to the Commission of Inquiry on August 21st (as translated from Korean by the UN interpreter): “In case a war breaks out, in order to eliminate any evidence, we are supposed to wipe out the prisoners, so that no evidence of inmates remains … In each political prison camp there are tunnels … These tunnels were dug so that we can eliminate the inmates in the event that we had to erase any evidence of their existence … Every camp has an artillery … to annihilate all evidence should there be an attack or a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula … should a war break out, the guards are supposed to shoot everybody under their supervision.”

Daily NK reported that, during a 2008 speech, Ahn was asked by a university student about the “fate of prisoners after reunification.” He answered, “The policy is to kill all of them before it happens. I saw a new dam constructed from a satellite picture in 2000. If destroyed, it could flood the entire Camp No. 22 and kill all of the inmates.” In 2010, the Korea Times reported that an international law professor claimed that dams were under construction near North Korea’s camps to—in the words of the news report—“destroy evidence of possible genocide there.” His conclusion was based on observation of satellite imagery, intelligence, and defector accounts. “The North may blow up the dams to kill the inmates in the event of a sudden change there,” stated Yonsei University’s Professor Hong Seong-phil.

In a February 25th statement, HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu stated, “If a dismantling of some of North Korea’s political prisoner camps and prisoner transfers to expanded facilities are in progress, it is essential to ensure that the North Korean regime does not attempt to erase evidence of atrocities committed at the camps, including the surviving prisoners.” At a symposium about North Korea’s prison camps in December 2012, Scarlatoiu added, “My greatest fear is that … the North Korean regime may be in the process of dismantling these facilities, attempting to turn them into Potemkin villages that can be featured to … inspectors. [The DPRK would then say,] ‘All the reports of our political prison camps were definitely unfounded. Please come and take a look.’”


This is certainly one of the regime’s maleficent stratagems to try to “deal” with the UN Commission of Inquiry. Kim Jong-il, who headed the Pyongyang regime from 1994 to 2011, is widely reported to have once said, “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.” In 2001, the Seoul-based Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet) asserted in its quarterly journal, “The issue will one day prove to be the Achilles’ heel that leads to the total destruction of the regime and system.” Indeed, the systematic and massive crimes that have been committed in North Korea’s camps objectively warrant an intervention pursuant to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm and Article 8 of the UN Genocide Convention. Often overlooked, North Korea has been found to be in clear violation of the Genocide Convention—to which it is a state party—by the notable anti-genocide NGO Genocide Watch, among others.

Action must be taken commensurate to the Commission of Inquiry to preserve the lives of North Korea’s prisoners, and quickly. Most exigent is the matter of substantively assisting and empowering dissident victims still trapped inside the world’s most totalitarian and militarized state. Robust support toward the organizing of legitimate, humanitarian-based dissident activities in the North represents one of the only openings we have to rescue those in desperate peril within the DPRK’s prison camps, as well as others gravely at risk.

I recall a conversation from several years ago with a female North Korean acquaintance (unnamed for reasons of personal safety). She was orphaned in the DPRK and narrowly survived starvation, only to become trafficked into sexual slavery following her escape to China. She suffered immeasurably as a direct consequence of North Korea’s wholly preventable, state-sponsored famine-genocide and China’s refusal to respect North Korean refugees’ rights to asylum. Having made it to South Korea after enduring overwhelming hardship, we were discussing what would be the most meaningful action that could be taken by the international community to help the North Korean people live, when she said matter-of-factly, “What the North Korean people need is not food aid, but weapons.” (Every North Korean I’ve ever known personally adamantly opposes food aid distribution via the regime as unethical, harmful, and naive.) Another friend re-emphasized her point later in a separate conversation. With the right money, he said, North Koreans can buy food and other necessary resources on the black market: What they could really use, provided that their other basic needs are met first, is arms to protect themselves against the constant threat of arbitrary arrest and punishment at the hands of a brutal regime. This friend also noted that, with enough resources—and far less than what evangelical groups in America and South Korea raised to build the valueless and unprincipled Pyongyang University of Science and Technology—a serious effort could be initiated to liberate the camps.

A 2011 study, based on interviews with more than 1,600 North Korean refugees by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, found that North Koreans queried “overwhelmingly” preferred unification with South Korea as opposed to the reform or replacement of the current government independent of the South. This indicates that North Koreans have zero faith in the system. A 2012 report by the Washington-based nonprofit InterMedia, “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment” (pdf), found that a substantial part of North Korea’s population was illegally accessing foreign media, including television and radio broadcasts. The report, commissioned by the US State Department, also found that computers and Chinese mobile phones have been smuggled into North Korea in substantive numbers, affirming that “the proliferation of illegal Chinese mobile phones along the Sino-North Korean border has made direct contact with the outside world more possible and has greatly increased the efficiency of cross-border trading, remittances and defection.” In a 2013 article for Asia Times, noted North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul stated that today most of the more than 24,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea “stay in contact with their families, using a network of brokers – professional intermediaries who deal with money transfers, letter delivery, and if necessary people smuggling (across the Sino-Korean border).”

North Korean refugees’ financial remittances can potentially reach any community in North Korea, including those surrounding or near the camps. The more money sent in via these unofficial channels, the more dramatically the regime’s control over the security apparatus and even the military will degrade, as is evidenced already by literally hundreds of thousands of successful defections into China over the last two decades. Border guards have been willing to look the other way for enough cash, which is a serious capital offense.

A campaign focused on supporting organized dissent would also, of course, have to be rooted in conveying in no uncertain terms—via cell phone communications, smuggled literature, radio broadcasts, and all other available media—the sincere hope and wish of South Korea and other nations for the North Korean people’s freedom and prosperity, for peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula rather than for war or further bloodshed. The real questions at this point are: How many people will have to die as a consequence of the world’s insouciance before the regime has fallen? What must be done to reach those in the prison camps? How do we preserve as many lives as possible while at the same time promoting as soft a landing as possible? 

“Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse,” a September report from Bruce Bennett of the RAND Corporation, recommended judiciously for South Korea to immediately begin communicating to China its plans for unification, and for the United States to pledge to China that “US forces would not be based on North Korean territory after unification.” Bennett stressed that “North Koreans must be convinced that they will be treated well and could actually have better lives after unification” and underlined the urgency of liberating North Korea’s prison camps before prisoners are all executed.

North Korean defectors, together with their friends and family members who remain in the North, would no doubt need to be—and already are, proportionate to the limited resources at their disposal—the leaders of such an initiative. Most are already in regular communication with contacts in the North, making well-coordinated and effective action truly possible.

The time is now to support North Korean defectors in their work. 

Robert Park is a minister, former prisoner of conscience in North Korea, and human rights activist. He entered North Korea on Christmas Day in 2009 to protest against genocide and crimes against humanity taking place within the country and was subsequently tortured before being released 43 days later. He is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, a nonprofit working to provide life-saving resources to victims and their families within North Korea, and may be contacted here: www.robertparkofficial.com.

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