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The Eye-Opening Truth About North Korea’s Regime
by Faith McDonnell
I shut my eyes at the moment of the first execution. I could not watch the death of this poor refugee, who had been forcibly repatriated by the Chinese when he was discovered trying to escape from North Korea. When the second execution took place, I opened my eyes.
Sitting on Capitol Hill, watching a March 2005 secret film of public executions in North Korea, I was ashamed to do less than the hundreds of North Korean citizens summoned to learn their government’s lesson: “Criminals” did not deserve to live. The film, a courageous collaboration by dissidents and the Japanese media, gives the first-ever photographic evidence of the regime’s merciless treatment of those who try to flee.
Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il cut off the country from the rest of the world, but now the testimonies and daring actions of defectors, refugees, and activists are exposing this totalitarian state. The same irrationality and evil that make the regime a danger to the national security of the United States have made it hell on earth for the North Koreans.
But word gets out. German activist Dr. Norbert Vollertsen was one of the first to mobilize American advocacy for human rights in North Korea. In 1999, volunteering as an emergency-room doctor in Pyongyang, he donated skin for a graft for a burn victim. The North Koreans rewarded him with a “Friendship Medal,” a car, and a V.I.P. passport, affording him the kind of access never given to those on state visits.
Vollertsen was undone when he saw the real North Korea: the country of mass starvation; villages with no sanitation or running water; no medical care; and orphanages full of dying children. Since that time, he has devoted his life to efforts to bring freedom to that country. He and other heroes regularly risk their lives helping North Korean escapees.
While all of North Korea—whose official name is the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea—can rightly be called a prison, an estimated 200,000 North Koreans now suffer in actual prison labor camps, and 400,000 have died in them in the last three decades. In 2003, the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps. The report includes groundbreaking high-resolution satellite photographs and the testimonies of dozens of former political prisoners and defectors. Details in the close-up photos correspond exactly with details from the witnesses.
Most inmates have been imprisoned for trumped-up political “crimes.” Such offenses include reading a foreign newspaper, singing a South Korean pop song, or “insulting the authority” of the North Korean leadership. Three generations of the family of the offender are also arrested and imprisoned, with no legal recourse or judicial process, according to North Korea’s “heredity rule.” Even offenders’ babies are “guilty” and are killed at birth.
All prisoners suffer unimaginable agony in the camps. The Hidden Gulag maintains that “the camps feature the gamut of abnormal and aberrant human behavior that results from treating people like animals.” Prisoners are deliberately semi-starved, yet expected to fulfill absurd quotas in mining, timber cutting, and other hazardous work.
North Korea’s Evil
A 2004 BBC documentary, Access to Evil, provided another shocking revelation. A producer and an investigative journalist were invited to North Korea to film a political documentary in which the regime offered its perspective on the nuclear crisis. Undeterred by the propaganda the authorities organized for them, the filmmakers interviewed several defectors now living in Seoul and ended up revealing North Korea’s gas chambers and chemical experiments to the world.
The witnesses included a former prison-camp security chief who had watched parents and children die by poisonous gas injected into a small glass cubicle, and a doctor who had actually performed the experiments. Those the regime considered enemies of the state, including Christians, were selected for the experiments.
The South Korean government was outraged by Access to Evil. Not by the horrendous human rights abuses taking place in North Korea, but by the threat to their policy of constructive engagement with Pyongyang. The former security chief, Kwan Hyuk, has been harassed by the country’s National Intelligence Service from the moment the BBC film was shown. Both he and the prison-camp physician, Dr. Kim, have had their passports cancelled.
Seeing the disastrous financial ramifications of reunification in Germany, the world’s twelfth-largest economy is not eager for the same experience. Recent South Korean governments have propped up the northern regime with millions of dollars in aid and illegal payments to Kim Jong Il.
The treatment of Christians is especially bad, because being a Christian is viewed as one of the most serious crimes. Yet some experts say there are as many as 200,000 secret believers in North Korea.
Christians and other political prisoners receive life sentences of hard labor, tantamount to a drawn-out, torturous death sentence. Soon Ok Lee, a former North Korean government worker and prisoner, witnessed the persecution and death of many Christians. She saw prison officials pour molten lead over one group of elderly believers. The uncompromising faith of Christian prisoners deeply moved Mrs. Lee, who has become a Christian and a tireless activist.
North Korea is currently designated by the US State Department as a “Country of Particular Concern for Severe Violations of Religious Freedom” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The others on the list are Burma, China, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. (A list provided by the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom [USCIRF] includes all those countries plus Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.)
Although three years ago the regime told the UN that the country had freedom of religion and conscience, North Korean officials are reliably reported to have “arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes executed North Korean citizens who were found to have ties with overseas Christian evangelical groups operating across the border in China, as well as those who engaged in unauthorized religious activities such as public religious expression and persuasion,” the USCIRF’s vice chair told a UN meeting in mid-March.
People who have escaped the country say that “religion has been prohibited in the guise that it is an opium of the people,” reported David Hawk, former executive director of Amnesty International/USA. It is an axiom favored by Kim Il Sung, the first president of North Korea, designated the “Eternal Leader” by the Communist party and now almost worshiped as a god under the North Korean state ideology, called Juche. His son clearly believes that North Koreans should have no other gods before him.
The West’s Response
In the West, differing political opinions hamper efforts to bring freedom to North Korea.
Some leaders would shut their eyes to the appalling human rights abuses and offer subsidies to the Pyongyang regime in return for promises to restrain their work on weapons of mass destruction. The financial incentives for these promises, promises that Kim Jong Il has repeatedly broken in the past, would do nothing more than support the building of more gulags and advance the starvation and repression that keep him in power.
The release of refuseniks, dissidents, and the persecuted helped to open up and finally bring down the Soviet Union, as Nathan Sharansky has pointed out in The Case for Democracy. In the same manner, US policies offering support and safe haven for refugees and would-be defectors from North Korea would help to bring about that nation’s internal collapse and lead to a free North Korea.
Such polices are included in the North Korea Human Rights Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2004. But the implementation of these policies is being held up at the State Department.
Some activists and political leaders are also calling on the UN to protect the refugees, and particularly for its High Commissioner for Refugees to pressure China to keep its commitments to refugees under a UN treaty. The political leaders include Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Frank Wolfe of Virginia, and the activists include the National Association of Evangelicals, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, North Korea Freedom Coalition, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Freedom House, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and the Korean American Church Coalition.
“It is time for us to call China to account, not just through protests but through concrete methods . . . to develop creative ways to force China to choose between its continued support for the regime of Kim Jong Il and its own economic progress,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, at a press conference in April. The methods could include economic boycotts and relocating the 2008 Olympics set for Beijing or boycotting them entirely, he said.
“ It is time for those of us who are resolved to do what we can,” Land continued, “to insist that the considerable influence and the considerable resources of the United States are on the side of the oppressed and not the oppressors. . . . We become partly responsible for the oppression when we continue to treat an oppressor nation as if it were a civilized one.”
It is neither honorable nor prudent to appease the creators of death camps and the persecutors of our fellow Christians and others. Now that the extent of the suffering inflicted by Kim Jong Il’s regime has been undeniably revealed, we are accountable. We must not shut our eyes.
— Additional reporting by David Mills
Faith McDonnell is Director of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan (CANS) at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.