The ICAS Lectures


North Korea's Human Rights:
Now Is the Time to Act

Jae H. Ku

ICAS Spring Symposium
Humanity, Peace and Security May 19, 2005 12:30 PM - 5:30 PM.
U S House Rayburn Office Building Room RHOB 2255
Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. 20510

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Jae H. Ku

North Korea's Human Rights:
Now Is the Time to Act

Jae H. Ku, Ph.D.
Director, Human Rights in North Korea Project
Freedom House

Thank you Vice President Sang Joo Kim and to all of you from ICAS who made this event possible. And a special thank you to Congressman Weldon for laying out so lucidly the state of US-North Korea relations.

I have divided my presentation into two parts. The first part will discuss the nature of North Korea's human rights abuses. The second part will put the issue of human rights in the context of the current security debate.


Despite six decades of progress in the field of freedom, democracy, and human rights, a field that Freedom House has been at the forefront for the past 65 years, we are still faced with totalitarian tyranny and suffering of unimaginable proportions.

Today, I would like to speak about one of the most egregious examples of tyranny and suffering: North Korea and its people.

North Korea is no stranger to international news headlines, most recently because of its nuclear policies.

However, the list of North Korea's transgressions in the past six decades is far too long and well documented and known to most of you.

But how many of you know the extent of human rights abuses occurring in North Korea everyday? Many of you may have read or heard in various press reports of defectors' stories of abuse.

Today, I would like to emphasize in the strongest language the worsening condition of North Koreans in North Korea and in northeastern China.

Because the human rights situation is so horrendous in North Korea and continues to deteriorate rapidly in China for those refugees fleeing North Korea, the time for us to act is NOW.

We in the human rights community strongly believe that the plight of over 200,000 North Koreans in concentration camps, ranging from infants to grandparents, can only be done away with by our collective demand.

We know from historical experience that when atrocities of epic proportions occur, our immediate response is sometimes disbelief and inaction. Many ask: Could that be possible? Or maybe the figure is exaggerated. Still, others will deny outright that it had happened or is happening at all. And too often, and too late, we know that that to be true. This was the case of the holocaust. This was the case of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. And this too had been the case in Rwanda and Sudan. And yet, we still say "That can never happen again."

Therefore, we must not remain mute in the face of this on-going tragedy. And we must not allow the North Korean regime's abuses to go unchallenged.

There are many tasks that lie ahead of us.

The first step is to document the abuses and to make those documented abuses known around the world—by citizens, media, and policymakers.

Freedom House has covered conditions in North Korea for the last 30 years through its global survey of freedom. North Korea has always been given the lowest possible ratings, and have always been included in our list of the "Worst of the Worst," our list of the world's most repressive regimes.

Other organizations have produced much more detailed reports. The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has made a major contribution by putting out the report "The Hidden GULAG: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps." In this report by David Hawk, who has also documented genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, he exposes the mass scale abuses in the hidden concentration camps through prisoners' testimonies and satellite photos.

If you have not seen a copy, please visit their website: WWW.HRNK.ORG and download the report.

The report is compelling. The testimonies will haunt you. You will be changed.

These camps may be described as North Korean political, penal-labor colonies; long-term prison labor camps; labor/detention facility; jails and interrogation facility. Hawk aptly calls them collectively the North Korean gulags. There may be at least 200,000 people detained in some fourteen known prison camps. Most likely, there are more. We must continue to investigate.

How did people get there? What do they do? How do they survive? And how do they die?

Most of these victims are detained for political reasons, with no judicial process at all. And great many of them are there for reasons of "guilt-by-association."

These lifetime sentences of hard labor are given not only to the alleged perpetrator but also to three generations of the victim, because the late Kim Il Sung declared, "Factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations."

Kang Chol Hwan is one of these countless victims. (Hawk, 30-31) Born in Pyongyang in 1968, Kang and his father were arrested and sent to a prison labor camp after Kang's grandfather mysteriously disappeared. Kang was just nine years old.

Subsequently, he learned that his grandfather had committed some acts of treason. Kang's mother was spared because she came from a prominent political family, although she was forced to divorce Kang's father.

Kang's prison memoir, Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, is now being read by President Bush; this was reported by Yonhap News on May 9. A source tells me that not only is President Bush reading it but also is getting his White House aides to read it, just as he had done with Israeli Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy.

Ji Hae Nam's story is another unique story. The only sad part is that her story is all so too common. (Hawk, 46-47) Born in 1949, she was a model North Korean, working as a Korean Workers' Party propaganda cadre.

In 1992, after watching a North Korean TV show ridiculing the former South Korean President Park Chung Hee, Ji was taken with a popular South Korean pop song, "Don't Cry for Me, Hongdo".

After memorizing the song and its melody, she and four of her friends sang the song in one December night in 1992. Overheard by the neighbors, Ji was reported and arrested. She was sent to the People's Safety Agency jail, where she was beaten and sexually abused. Unable to bear the punishment and humiliation, she tried to commit suicide by swallowing concrete pieces of cement.

She served 26 months of her three-year sentence; she was released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation. Her four friends were given eight months of hard labor.

Unable to make a living as an ex-convict, she fled to China in 1998. In China, her nightmare would be relived. Upon entering China, she is caught by a "trafficker and sold to a physically deformed Chinese man who locked her up as a ‘sex toy' for seven months before she was able to escape." (46)

After some odd jobs, she teamed up with six other North Koreans in China; they steal a boat, only to have the boat take on water. They are captured by the Chinese authorities and forcibly returned to North Korea, where they are sent to a detention center. Again, she is physically abused; the younger women are physically and sexually abused.

After spending five weeks in a detention center, Ji made another attempt to flee North Korea. In China, this time, she found a Korean pastor who helped Ji and the group she was with cross into Vietnam where she was able to seek asylum in South Korea.

Ji's experience in North Korea and in China must be experienced by tens of thousands of women in similar situations. As many as 200,000 North Koreans are hiding out in China. Women are bought and sold into prostitution or as wives to Chinese farmers. Almost all of them live dangerously precarious lives.

Kang and Ji now both have a face and a voice.

But countless others in North Korea and in China are voiceless and faceless; they must be given a voice and a face. And that kind of hope needs to be heard today.

Building on years of work by a diverse group of committed individuals, the Freedom House is launching an international, year-long campaign to galvanize the world opinion to urge concrete action so that the suffering of 23 million Koreans living under the dictatorial regime of Kim Jong Il can be alleviated. In order to advocate effectively for an improvement of human rights conditions in North Korea, the Freedom House, in conjunction with other existing advocacy groups, seeks to:
  1. organize a grassroots-level mobilization of concerned citizens worldwide to lobby their governments so that human rights issues are given top priority in dealings with North Korea;
  2. bring attention to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans withering away in gulags and other prison camps in three high-profile international conferences
  3. assist segments of South Korea's active civil society to engage a reluctant South Korean government to be more vocal about North Korea's human rights record in their engagement with North Korea.
  4. seek ways also to apply constructive pressure on the government of China so that North Korean refugees are not repatriated to North Korea.

In support of the this effort, Freedom House has received funding from the U.S. State Department's Bureaus for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, consistent with the North Korea Human Rights Act enacted in October 2004. Indeed, while our cause is noble and needed, we understand the sensitive nature of the topic of North Korea's human rights issue, both in South Korea and in the United States, as it coexists with the nuclear issue.

We, however, in the human rights, freedom, and democracy movement strongly believe that regional security and human dimensions of security are inseparable.

Only when a dictatorial regime accepts the norms and values of a civilized international society will it negotiate rationally on the issues of security.

Let me put the issues of human rights in the context of the current security debate.


There are those who argue that the nuclear issue is the single most important issue that needs to be resolved and not unnecessarily complicated by other issues. A subset of this argument is that all other issues can only be tackled once this nuclear issue is resolved

I think this is a fundamental misreading of history and misreading of North Korea.

During the Cold War, the US-Soviet competition and the threat it imposed on global security was far more dangerous. Yet, through the Helsinki Process, all relevant issues: political, economic, and security issues were tackled.

On the Korean Peninsula, resolving the nuclear issue, as argued by the Nuclear Issue First proponents, encompasses a lot of subset of issues: Territorial and regime sovereignty guarantee, developmental assistance, and food and energy assistance.

Clearly, there is room for human rights issue to be on the bargaining table—you must add the human dimension of security. Only when North Korea is livable will you get regime stability.

To resolve the nuclear issue, many say that engagement is the only effective policy.

Many of us in the human rights community do not disagree with this. As always, provision of humanitarian assistance has always been decoupled from politics. Many of us, however, believe that engagement must also include human security, and especially human rights.

Proponents of engagement argue that thawing of relations, drawing North Korea out first, will eventually lead to regime behavior modification. In essence, this is the delayed reciprocity argument. This is simply wishful thinking.

The proponents of this argument say that this is in fact working. They point to economic reforms and the rise of black market, the special economic zones like the Kaesong project, and the loosening of grip on society (oddly by the number of defectors).

While all of these things are happening, to a debatable point, this argument that engagement is working, again, is a misreading of North Korea.

There is nothing in social science that accurately shows a causal relationship between engagement and these purported improvements.

I can argue, just as convincingly, that these limited changes are due to system decay. Six decades of running the system to the ground will lead to some reforms. It happened in the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. Is North Korea that unique?

The third argument is that without engagement, Kim Jong Il will threaten war. Perhaps, but Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have been threatening war since North Korea's inception. What has changed?

That North Korea has nuclear weapons? But South Korea's official policy is that that is inconclusive. If it's inconclusive, then the actual threat is conventional. Again, South Korea has lived with that conventional threat all along.

Related to this argument is that, without engagement or pressuring North Korea on human rights issue, the Kim Jong Il regime will collapse and that millions will flee to North Korea.

The Kim Jong Il regime may or may not collapse; certainly it could without anyone's doing. But all this shows is how illegitimate the regime is in the eyes of their own citizens.

Thus, a longer term solution to solve North Koreans voting with their feet is to pressure the Kim Jong Il's regime to conform to the practices of a civilized state.

In conclusion, I want to make it clear in the clearest language: The Time to ACT is NOW on North Korea's human rights record.

This page last updated 7/2/2005 jdb

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