Opinion: Preparing for Change in North Korea

We are told that North Korea is a Hermit Kingdom ─ mysterious, unknowable, and impenetrable. But this is simply not the case. Those of us involved with North Korea are acutely aware of what is happening within its borders.

We know that a famine, exacerbated by government action and inaction, deliberately starved to death between 250,000 and 3.5 million innocent North Koreans in the mid-1990s. We know that government officials routinely commit acts of torture and sexual violence upon vulnerable women and girls. We know that returned female escapees, who are often trafficked and sold into prostitution or marriage in China, and who become pregnant in the process, undergo forced abortions upon their repatriation ─ lest the ‘pure’ Korean bloodline becomes tainted. And we know that the government runs a nationwide system of concentration camps that hold up to 200,000 people.

These facts should not surprise us, rather they should inform our actions. We cannot afford not to know that the Government of North Korea has committed crimes against humanity for over six decades. To do so would be an abrogation of our duty as compassionate, free, and responsible human beings.

To talk of Yodok and Hwasong concentration camps in the same breath as Auschwitz and Belsen is not an exaggeration. North Koreans, and up to three generations of their families, have been sent to these camps for the crime of being ‘politically impure’ and many have not returned.

North Korea’s horrors should not suffer distance or time. Nor should they be far from our thoughts, because what is happening in these concentration camps is not a part of the past. Terrible atrocities and crimes against humanity are happening today in North Korea, now – as we write this, and even as you read this.

North Korea’s horrors should not suffer distance or time. Nor should they be far from our thoughts…

To this end, the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which both authors serve, continues to raise these issues. Parliaments across the world have discussed with horror the events that have unfolded in Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere. We have contemplated the suffering of ethnic and religious minorities at the hands of Daesh and other likeminded actors. Sadly, far fewer protest about the atrocious human rights abuses and restrictions on fundamental freedoms in North Korea. This must change.

What must the world do to end suffering in North Korea? It would surely be a suspension of reason to assume that any government which keeps millions in hunger and poverty, hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, violates two Agreed Frameworks, and six United Nations Security Council resolutions, would negotiate away its security in good faith. North Korea’s rulers will not be oblivious to the consequences that have befallen totalitarian regimes who initiated reforms or lessened their grips on violence.

As difficult as it may seem, there are ways and means for the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea to exercise their leverage over Pyongyang. Stricter and better enforced sanctions on a raft of luxury goods; the dismissal of North Korean slave labourers in Europe and further afield; increasing information inflows to North Korean citizens; and the recognition that diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are effectively a façade, would all have notable effects. We must also do far more to convince China that the economic, political, and humanitarian costs of supporting Pyongyang outweigh any benefits.

Stricter and better enforced sanctions on a raft of luxury goods; the dismissal of North Korean slave labourers in Europe and further afield…and the recognition that diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are effectively a façade, would all have notable effects.

But if there is one strategy that must be implemented, it is this: the international community should prepare for change to come to North Korea. No status quo can last forever ─ especially one as catastrophic as that which exists in North Korea ─ and we cannot afford to wait until the moment of change to react.

Examples from recent nation-state transitions evidence a need for effective preparation. We must learn from cases such as Iraq and put in place rapid response strategies for food and medical aid, and from Burma, where we have seen that democracy building is a slow, painful process, which requires persistent support over time in a coordinated manner by the international community to promote progress.

We must begin to quietly support a meaningful opposition in North Korea. We must support and train North Korean exiles in leadership roles so that they may one day take ownership of their country. And we must build support for change in North Korea among international partners.

Over a decade of concerted engagement and pressure has not significantly altered North Korea’s behaviour. Millions of its citizens continue to suffer untold abuses and hardships, while the regime continues its march towards its aim of comprehensive nuclear deterrence. It is therefore high-time to recognise our failures and to help quicken fundamental transformations inside North Korea. Change will come, that is assured, and we must be ready to help. Let us pay heed to the words of the anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility”.

Fiona Bruce is Co-Chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

James Burt is Special Adviser to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and Director of Research at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea.

*An edited version of this article was originally published in the Chosun Ilbo in Korean on February 14th 2017.

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Opinion: Actions, not words, will help North Korea’s refugees

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James Burt, Special Adviser to the APPG, & Lord Alton, Co-Chair of the APPG |  Credit: Human Atlas

*This article was originally published in the Korea JoongAng Daily on February 6th 2017.

Displacement and suffering have shaped the human landscape of the Korean peninsula. Annexed in 1910 and occupied until 1945 by the Empire of Japan, between four and six million Koreans were forced into slavery as labourers and up to 200,000 Korean women served as sexual slaves. Come 1945, twenty percent of the Korean population had been displaced and nearly half a million had been killed.

This legacy of loss and dislocation continued throughout the Korean War and forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to migrate between the newly formed North and South Koreas. For the people of South Korea, memories of these times are still raw. The ongoing struggles over Japanese apologies, compensation, and how to deal with North Korea all point to wounds that have yet to heal.

But for North Koreans, memories of displacement and brutalisation cannot be confined to the historical record ─ for they are also the reality of life today. A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry established that extermination; enslavement; torture; rape; forced abortions; sexual violence; and persecution on political, religious, racial, and gender grounds are all prevalent in North Korea.

That such abuses continue is surely one of the greatest failures of the modern era’s collective response to atrocities.

One consequence of this failure has been the creation of a North Korean refugee crisis. Since the late 1990s, when significant numbers of North Koreans began to flee their homeland following severe famine, it is estimated that over 200,000 have fled to China. In that time, just 30,000 North Koreans have successfully reached the safety of South Korea, while around 2000 have settled in North America and Europe, including close to 1000 in the United Kingdom.

In theory, the Government of China should accept North Koreans as asylum seekers and extend the many protections granted by the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. It should allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to screen, determine the status, and protect those in need. And it should not practice refoulement — the forcible return of North Koreans to a country where they risk persecution.

Despite this, plus many other international obligations (namely the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), China deports up to 6000 North Koreans every year. Upon their repatriation, North Koreans, of which around seventy percent are women and girls, face torture, sexual violence, imprisonment, and even execution.

What can the world do to end this illegal situation? The international community have long called upon the Government of China to put a stop to the arrest and deportation of North Koreans, while numerous United Nations speeches and resolutions have called upon the Government of North Korea to respect fundamental human rights. The final report of the former United Nations General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon, noted, “the Secretary-General remains concerned that women who seek to leave or have left [North Korea] are subject to trafficking and sexual abuse…serious human rights violations, including torture and ill-treatment”.

That our words and concerns have failed to protect North Korean escapees is clear. Sitting thousands of miles from North East Asia, and facing the might of the Government of China, it would be easy to see desperate and fleeing North Koreans as a responsibility for someone else. But the issue of North Korean refugees is, ethically and legally, a global responsibility. Where vulnerable escapees face journeys that risk imprisonment or death, we are compelled to provide our support.

The Government of North Korea is the cause of the refugee crisis and should be our long-term target, but engaging the Government of China may provide a more feasible short-term solution. Clearly, Beijing does not want North Korean refugees on its territory, so conscientious states should begin to quietly offer an alternative to China: namely, that their embassies and consulates would, without publicity or fanfare, take custody of captured North Koreans from Chinese authorities and aid their travels to safe havens ─ such as South Korea or Europe. In return, China would gain further leverage over North Korea, end years of negative publicity, and put a foot on the right side of history.

This recommendation may appear improbable or unrealistic. But as Nelson Mandela frequently told us, the most arduous challenges seem impossible until they are conquered. That China would welcome a solution to an internal refugee crisis should not surprise us. Instead, it should encourage us to formulate new solutions. A day will come when all North Koreans are free. Until that day, we must do what we can to help refugees that fall within our grasp.

Authors: Lord Alton of Liverpool (Co-Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea) & James Burt (Special Adviser All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea; Director of Research at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea).

Lord Alton: BBC World Service and North Korea

As Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, I welcome today’s announcement by the BBC of a Korean-language World Service. The announcement follows many years of work by the APPG and others, and we congratulate the BBC and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on making the correct decision for the people of North Korea.

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Lord Alton of Liverpool (Credit: Human Atlas)

In July 2014, I initiated a wide-ranging House of Lords debate on the BBC World Service. In that speech, my colleague, Lord Eames, stated:

‘I visited North Korea…From a most unlikely source, there was a remark that will live with me for a very long time. Obviously, I cannot disclose the complete circumstances, but the words speak for themselves. “Where”, he said to me, “is the BBC?”. If you knew the person who said that, the circumstances and the position that he held, it would set the balance right of many of the impressions that we have of what is going on in North Korea. Those words speak louder than statistics, transmission problems and the facilities needed, and I convey them to the House with great feeling’.

North Korea is a country where access to foreign media is prohibited and accessing such media is punishable by barbaric sentences. Today, the BBC and the United Kingdom Government have taken a stand against the censorship and repression practiced by the North Korean Government. Free speech, objective news, and voices from the outside world will now travel from London to the darkest corners of North Korea.

Over the past decade, the APPG has listened to many calls from exiled North Koreans to send information to their compatriots north of the 38th parallel. This call has now been heard. A mistake which has often been made is to believe that to engage with North Koreans, one must deal with the North Korean Government. Our approach at the APPG has differed. We have instead listened to the knowledge and stories of the 30,000 North Koreans who have escaped their homeland. Some of these exiles have bravely addressed our group in Parliament and their stories have undoubtedly inspired today’s BBC service and will go on to challenge a sixty year old status-quo on the Korean peninsula.

The work of the APPG has long-established the increasing desire of North Koreans to know what is happening in the world outside. Escapees say that significant numbers risk imprisonment and even execution to consume foreign media. But try as they may, the North Korean Government has been unable to put the information genie back in the bottle.

In 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Justice Michael Kirby, detailed ‘an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought’ as well as ‘the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association’ in North Korea. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that citizens have a right to access news and information.

For the people of North Korea, I am pleased that breaking their information blockade and upholding their given rights is to become a central pillar of UK foreign policy and BBC practice. From the Soviet Union to Burma, the BBC has shown that broadcasting can inspire and broaden the horizons of the repressed.

Facing the challenge of North Korea is an urgent diplomatic and political problem, but it is also a moral obligation. A BBC World Service in the Korean-language should come as a sledgehammer to the North Korean Government’s information blockade and inspire those who will one day lead a new North Korea into the light.

Event: While They Watched

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The All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea will host a screening of the documentary film ‘While They Watched’ on November 17th at 17:00 in Committee Room 17, the Houses of Parliament.

Using interviews, archival and observational footage, Director Jake J. Smith’s film draws on the power of hindsight and stories from former North Korean gulag soldiers and propaganda agents, ex-leaders of the ‘underground railroad’ through China, professors of Korean history, activists, NGO leaders, and exiles to question whether the international community has done enough to challenge the Government of North Korea.

 

According to Smith, who will be taking questions following the screening:

“The message of this film, and the questions it asks will hopefully touch a nerve with audiences. The defectors’ lives and stories are sometimes so dreadful it’s difficult to accept how this continues to be allowed to occur in the 21st century. We can’t choose where we are born. I count myself lucky to be born in a ‘free’ country and I feel it’s the responsibility of free peoples to help those who are powerless to help themselves.

After reading about North Korea in books, the media and from talking to people here in Korea, I knew I wanted to make a film about the country and it’s people. During my research deeper questions kept creeping into my mind about our relationship to the stories I was reading. The way I decided to construct this film pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, without diminishing the seriousness and extraordinary courage of the activists and defectors who participate in the film.

The decision to set the film in the future was made to compel viewers to ask themselves what they can do today to relieve the continuing humanitarian catastrophe happening in North Korea. By the end of the film I want the audience to be inspired to help change the present, and create a better future for the North Korean people.”

Attendance is free and open to the public. The Houses of Parliament can be accessed via the Cromwell Green visitor entrance.

Event: Exiled North Korean Activism

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea will hold two presentations on November 8th at 17:00 in Committee Room 21, the Houses of Parliament.

First, in partnership with the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, the South Korea-based National Students’ Council of North Korean Human Rights will address the Group. Consisting of 32 chapters at 28 universities across South Korea, the Council hosts conferences, seminars, exhibitions, and a Human Rights Week to engage young people in the quest for the improvement of North Korean human rights.

The guest speaker will be Ji Young Lee, a 29-year-old North Korean exile. As a former member of staff at the Ministry of State Security in North Korea, Lee saw first-hand how the North Korean state systematically violates human rights. Lee will talk about her work today and her experiences of discrimination in North Korea. 

The second presenter will be Seung Hoon Chae, a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Chae will speak on the causes behind the activism of North Korean refugees.

Whereas previous studies of the North Korean diaspora have often sought answers from the refugees’ experiences in the home country, Chae will suggest that reasons for ‘voice’ need not be grounded upon reasons for ‘exit’. Thus a ‘political’ refugee is not necessarily more political in the host country, and an ‘economic’ migrant may realise, post-exit, new political potentials for changing his home country. Based on 83 structured interviews and qualitative assessments of 13 semi-structured interviews, Chae will present a case study of North Korean refugees in the UK to suggest that the voices of North Korean refugees are determined more by who a person is today than who that person was at the point of exiting North Korea.

Attendance is free and open to the public. Please arrive at least 30 minutes before the start of the event to clear security and make your way to the Committee Room. The Houses of Parliament can be accessed via the Cromwell Green visitor entrance.

 

Event: North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society

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Jieun Baek, a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the University of Oxford, will address the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea on November 2nd at 17:00 in Committee Room 11, the Houses of Parliament.

Jieun Baek is the author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society (which will be published by Yale University Press in November 2016) and a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Baek received her BA in Government and MA in Public Policy from Harvard and has worked at Google, where, among other roles, she served as Google Ideas’ North Korea expert.

In her talk, Jieun Baek will draw on interviews with North Korean exiles from all walks of life, ranging from propaganda artists to diplomats, to discuss how North Korea’s information underground — the network of citizens who take extraordinary risks by circulating illicit content such as foreign films, television shows, soap operas, books, and encyclopedias — have fostered an awareness of life outside North Korea and affected the social and political consciousness of North Koreans.

Attendance is free and open to the public. The Houses of Parliament can be accessed via the Cromwell Green visitor entrance.

A Letter to North Korea’s Exiles

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Fiona Bruce MP (Credit: Human Atlas)

What more is there to say about the Government of North Korea, a regime that wantonly starves, enslaves, impoverishes, and exterminates its population to maintain the legitimacy and rule of a system? To suffer for one’s family or for one’s cause is one matter. But to suffer for the Supreme Leader-centred system: that is another matter entirely.

As a serving Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom and a Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, I have witnessed Pyongyang’s march toward ever increasing capacities of evil. My journey has been marked by scores of exiled North Koreans who have visited London to tell of the horrors of starvation, poverty, imprisonment, and physical abuse and violence. I have heard of the state’s psychological weapons of war that have led to North Korean children being forcibly aborted and women and men being humiliated and compelled to give their minds to the Kim-family cult.

When I listen to exiled North Koreans, I always hear of a sense of betrayal. As exiles, you will have escaped the grip of the North Korean system, but you will have been forced to pay a heavy price for your freedoms. Many of you will have experienced brutalities that I will never comprehend. You will all have been separated from your families or have heard of suffering that befell family members. Those of you who now shed light on life inside North Korea or those of you who once worked for the North Korean government may now live under constant threat. And you will all have now realised a very stark fact: the system that raised you also betrayed you.

It may be of little consolation, but five-thousand miles from the Korean peninsula in London, your stories and your voices are heard. Through reports, oral testimonies, and exiled media outlets, such as New Focus, the awful realities of life inside North Korea — once dismissed as fantastical — are no longer hidden or denied.

To be frank, global recognition of the horrors that you once faced in North Korea took far too long to arrive. But today, the evidence against the North Korean government is so overwhelming that no amount of tourist attractions, paid for by the blood of twenty-five million citizens, or attempts at dissuasion by Pyongyang or its apologists can disguise the brutal reality of life under the Supreme Leader-centred system.

As exiles, you function as vital relays between hope and despair for your countrywomen and men who remain in North Korea. Every time you contact a remaining friend in North Korea, send money back to family members, or another compatriot flees, the foundations of the Kim dynasty erode ever more. The Kim dynasty is not simply based on the perpetuation of violence, it is also sustained by propaganda that justifies the cult of Kim. It is vital that we continue to break down this communications barrier.

It is my contention that the exiled North Korean community deserves more credit than it has received. For all of the good work of the United Nations and the international community, we must never forget that it has been the tireless work of exiles that has kept the candle burning for North Korea. The world has taken much from your community, and we must remember to repay your sacrifices. The All-Party Parliamentary Group has always welcomed, and will continue to welcome, you to London to tell your stories to the British public and politicians.

As I look forward, I see reasons for hope. Forces such as the blackmarket, foreign media, and the growing ability of ordinary North Koreans to make contact with the outside world are eroding Pyongyang’s ideological grip on its citizens. The exiled North Korean community that once stood in despair now rallies against those who abused, tortured, and killed their very own.

I have previously written of my hopes for the 30,000 exiled North Koreans who now live in the Republic of Korea. The National Assembly has passed the North Korean Human Rights Act and it is my hope that exiles will play a leading role in the Act’s implementation. Without the input and leadership of those who have experienced North Korea, we are all doomed to repeat the failures of the past.

Time waits for no man and change in North Korea cannot wait. I believe that North Koreans will soon be freed from their shackles and the exiled community will surely play a large role in this momentous task.

[The above op-ed was first published in Korean by New Focus on September 21st]

Fiona Bruce MP is Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.