Dialogue on ‘The North Korean Human Rights Conundrum’ held at HUFS

3 North Korean defectors and one humanitarian aid worker of human rights in North Korea were invited to speak on the human rights conundrum of North Korea on the evening of August 7, 2013 at the international conference hall of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies(HUFS). This academic dialogue was a part of HUFS International Summer Session 2013 Special Lecture Series.

During special lecture on North Korea at HUFS, August 7, 2013 (Photo: HUFS-ISS facebook page)

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been suffering in the unsafe North Korean prisons built in the early 1960s and in Chinese refugee camps. Among them, are a large group imprisoned for reasons they do not know. Tim A. Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea similarly revealed that thousands of North Korean refugees, the majority of who are women and children are under fatal treatment in some regions of China’s provinces.

Peters began the discussion with a brief presentation on the bad living situation of North Korean refugees in China. He could understand the mistreatment of North Korean refugee children and women living in China thorough witnessing heart- wrenching cases. North Korean refugees are not welcomed by China; North Korean women are sold and resold (unchecked by authorities) in China by human traffickers, and are often forcibly repatriated by PRC regardless of their households and children.

In his presentation entitled, “Breaking the silence of North Korea’s forgotten children,” he disclosed several cases that illustrate the North Korean citizens’ tremendous problems; the 1st wave was of the North Korean Orphanages in the 1990s, and the urgent challenge is the 2nd wave of children who typically have a North Korean mother and a Chinese birth father. Lastly, he concluded that the main cause of all this mistreatment of citizens, which brought them to this fate, was their country’s dictatorship governance in which power is transferred only by inheritance.

The second speaker was Shin Dong Hyuk, who is known by the media as “Hero of ‘Escape from Camp 14.” He is now a 28-year-old man who was born in the prison camp of North Korea from imprisoned parents. Sharing his memories of prison camp life, he said people who had been living there including his parents did not know why they were put in that horrible site; being starved, beaten and publicly executed were common phenomena in the camp. From history he said, “We know world figures like Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi … History will remember them for a long time up until coming generations owing to their honorable commitment and deeds.

And of course they deserve it! History has to be for such blessed acts, not for massacres. In North Korea, because of the dictatorship governance, people have been victims of massacre; and still are. Unless the world unites and makes a difference in that nation, the massacre will continue. Let the world help the innocent North Korean people, who have been starving for freedom, democracy, and human rights. Massacre doesn’t belong to history!”

North Korean prison camp survivor Kim Young Soon, a 77-year-old woman, who was put in prison on October 1, 1970 spoke next about her experience. Kim Il-sung ordered for her to be imprisoned for being a friend of Sung Hye-rim, one of Kim Il-sung’s favored mistresses, even though she was married to a government official.

Sharing her memories of prison life, she said that in Yodok prison, one of the prison camps in North Korea, people had to eat whatever grew there. People died from malnutrition, parasites originating from the snakes they used to eat, poisoned mushrooms, and contaminated drinking water.

Explaining why she was sent to prison, she said knowing family of a president in South Korea is a good opportunity while in North Korea, it is a crime. Her “crime” was that she knew her good school friend Sung Hye-rim was having a romantic relationship with Kim Il-Sung even though a married woman and would join the Royal Family’s elites, which no one was allowed to know about. Knowing about the affairs of the Royal Family was automatically committing a crime.

Following this, her whole family – a total of 9 people including her parents, who were above 70 years old, were sent to prison. At the time, if one was found guilty of a political crime, the ‘Family Responsibility System’ was often applied to the most immediate family members (those who shared a household registration with the culprit in question) of the accused, who were then shipped to prison camps as well. Due to this system, her parents were imprisoned and died of hunger at Yodok prison camp, she said. One of her sons accidentally drowned there. Another was executed in 1989 while trying to escape. Kim’s husband was taken to a separate camp, which she calls “a place with no return.” She never saw him again. When she was released after 9 years, out of the 9 family members, only four survived.

She concluded her speech with a call for all the citizens of the world to help the North Korean prisoners be free of all types of human right violations.

Kim Kwang Jin was a former senior North Korean official tasked with running international financial operations. He explained how the current political and economic situation looked like. And he said that currently the North Korean government under the Kim’s 3rd generation leadership is concentrating on the military while the economic sector is poor and being overlooked by the government. On the July 27, 2013, the 60th Anniversary of the Armistice of the Korean War, the North Korean government was celebrating the “Liberation War” as they believe it was colonial war against the United States and South Korea.

Kim shared his view that the North Korean government is experiencing poor economic performance especially this year because of the disputes early this year surrounding the Kaesong joint industrial zone. North Korea used to earn about 100,000,000 USD per year from this industrial park. In addition, the nuclear weapon trials were very costly. With these two issues, the current government is undergoing a severe economic recession.

Following the speech was a question and answer session among which the following questions were raised. The first question was directed to Tim Peters about the solutions in progress, if any, for the North Korean refugees living in China. His response was that some non-governmental organizations including his organization have been enacting various ways of protection through advocacy work and treatment in enclosed camps.

One participant asked Kim Kwan Jin to disclose the government’s agenda on the country’s economy and what the source of foreign currency was. He replied that the economy is not a priority at this time, but the number one agenda was rather to strengthen the power of the new leader and the military power. The source of their foreign currency is from exports of iron and coal to China and Singapore as well as remittance of laborers sent to China, Russia, and the Middle East. Similarly, to compensate the large income loss from the dispute of the common industrial zone, farmers and soldiers are assigned extend arable land for extensive rice production.

Panel during special lecture on North Korea at HUFS, August 7, 2013

Greg Scarlotoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), Washington, D.C., USA, who was moderator of the event, closed the discussion by remarking that all speeches, presentations and questions were tremendously important and a timely agenda. Over and above, he believes the evening was another step forward in contributing to increase awareness of the North Korean human rights issue within the international community and he expressed his hope for the continuation of similar events.

To close the event, saxophonist Choi Kwang Chul, one of the invited special guests, sang a self-composed song about reunification, followed by a saxophone performance.

Now we have to meet
Now we have to meet
We can’t wait anymore
Now we have to meet

There isn’t much time left
Before we give up and pass away
We want to meet at least once
Now we have to meet

What is our wish
When will unification come
Until that day comes, we can’t close our eyes because we miss you so much
In my dreams, I see the faces and the hometown of my childhood memories
Just once, now we have to meet!

Lyrics/Music by Choi Kwang Chul

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