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.


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

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).