How bad are the conditions inside North Korea’s political prison camps? Holocaust survivor and former judge at the International Court of Justice, Thomas Buergenthal, says that he believes that they are as bad, possibly even worse, than concentration camps of Nazi Germany. North Korean political prison camps, which contain an estimated 120,000 individuals today, are among the worst, but not the only severe human rights abuses committed by North Korea.
Just this past week, the U.S. House of Representatives heard testimony from two North Korean refugees, Hyeona Ji and Han Ga Hee, and three experts on human rights challenges in North Korea, including the former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, Robert King.
Even North Korean defectors who never experienced life in North Korea’s modern-day gulag decry conditions inside the country. After defecting to China, Hyeona Ji was forcibly repatriated by Chinese officials to North Korea where she was sent to Jeungsan Reeducation Center No. 11.
Hyeona Ji recounted:
“Not many made it out alive from this place. Everyone was subject to harsh labor, and meals were so lacking that we ate raw locusts, discarded cabbage leaves, and skinned frogs and rats. People died withered and dehydrated…”
The reeducation center that Hyeona Ji was sent to is a cousin of the political prison camps and is usually referred to as an ordinary prison camp. What distinguishes an ordinary prison camp from a political prison camp is that prisoners sent to the former are usually eventually released (if they don’t die beforehand), whereas political prisoners are effectively sent to these camps to die.
Hyeona Ji was repatriated three times by China. On one such occasion, she was three months pregnant and upon repatriation was forced to abort her child in a North Korean police station without anesthesia. This is common practice in North Korea. The UN COI documented “widespread prevalence of forced abortion and infanticide against repatriated mothers and their children”. Given the well-founded fear of persecution, China’s policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees violates the principle of “non-refoulement” outlined in the UN Refugee Convention to which China is a signatory.
The UN COI found that these human rights abuses committed by North Korea constitute crimes against humanity. The Commission also warned the Government of China that certain actions taken by Chinese officials with relation to North Korea could constitute “aiding and abetting of crimes against humanity where repatriations and information exchanges are specifically directed towards or have the purpose of facilitating the commission of crimes against humanity in the DPRK.”
Due to the closed nature of the country, international intervention to stop outright the crimes committed in North Korea are next to impossible. While the U.S. has developed strong policies to address many aspects of North Korea’s human rights challenges, policies to address political and ordinary prison camps are limited. While many of the policies in place will not shutter the doors of these Nazi Germany-like camps, they can help North Koreans flee to freedom.
All of the speakers at the congressional hearing referenced the need to increase information access in North Korea. At present, grants are limited for organizations using a variety of methods to get information into the closed North Korean society. Just last week, the reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act, which would enhance grant funding for organizations promoting information access in North Korea, passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The U.S. government should seek to develop creative options to improving information access in North Korea – especially since many North Korean refugees cite access to information as the catalyst behind their decision to defect.
Access to information was the principle reason why defector Han Ga Hee fled. She originally thought that information access efforts were a scheme concocted by the South Korean government to trick North Koreans into leaving, but her mind changed after listening to a defector-led radio station based in South Korea:
“…[A]s I listened to the programs of Free North Korea Radio every day, listening to my fellow North Koreans speaking from Seoul to their friends and family in North Korea, my suspicion melted away and I finally decided to defect to South Korea.”
While improving information access in North Korea will not eliminate prison camps, it might enable individuals who would otherwise face harsh conditions inside North Korea flee the borders of the regime to safety. It’s the least that the U.S. and other governments can do to alleviate the plight of North Korean refugees. Hyeona Ji at the hearing closed with these words:
“The Dutch poet Job Degenaar said, “The doors to prison must be open from the outside.” I appeal to you to find many ways we can open the doors to North Korea.”
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2017/12/15/the-need-to-develop-policies-to-end-north-koreas-nazi-like-prison-camps/2/#21221a6464e0