- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

With the world’s sights fixed on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, human rights organizations are working to raise awareness of the country’s human rights abuses.

“The United States should make human rights a major component of its relations with North Korea, equal with the demand that North Korea stop developing nuclear weapons,” Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said in testimony before the U.S. Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Human rights activists like Mrs. Liang-Fenton are working to keep lawmakers from forgetting the prisoners in Pyongyang’s network of brutal prison camps.

North Korean defector Soon Ok Lee, author of “Eyes of the Tailless Animal: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman,” detailed her experiences at a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) conference July 15.

Miss Lee said that during her time in prison she witnessed many atrocities, including public executions and the murders of newborns by doctors.

“I have witnessed people being publicly executed and I know that they have children at home,” Miss Lee said. “Like the Holocaust and Hitler of World War II, Kim Jong-il is doing the same thing today; he is killing his own people.”

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said Korean refugees are being brutalized by North Korea’s dictatorial regime.

“In the U.S. State Department’s most recent human rights report, political prisoners [in North Korea] are often tortured, including severe beatings, electric shock, prolonged periods of exposure, humiliation and confinement to small ‘punishment cells,’” Mr. Kyl said, addressing the NED conference.

The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that 400,000 people have died in North Korean prison camps since 1972. Some 30,000 North Korean refugees are estimated to be living in China.

A U.S. State Department report in 2002 said an estimated 200,000 North Koreans were in detention for political crimes in remote camps that were marked as military areas to prevent access by the local population. The North Korean government denies the existence of camps for political prisoners.

The total number of prison camps reportedly has been reduced in recent years from about 20 to fewer than 10, but the prison population was consolidated rather than reduced.

In addition to camps for political prisoners like Pyongyang Seungho Area Hwachon Dong Offender’s Camp, there are reportedly about 30 forced-labor and labor-education camps in the country for ordinary criminals serving shorter terms, says an NBC investigation into the North Korean gulag.

North Korea has two types of penal labor camps: “labor training centers” or nodong danryundae, for misdemeanor crimes; and Kyohuaso or “re-education centers,” for more serious crimes such as rape, robbery, murder and crossing the border more than three times. The re-education centers are located in the South Province of Hamkyong inside the life imprisonment and re-education sector.

Miss Lee also spoke in June 2002, testifying before the Senate that the 1,800 inmates at her camp in 1994 worked 16 to 17 hours a day. She described severe beatings and torture that sometimes involved water being forced into a victim’s stomach with a rubber hose and then expelled by guards jumping onto a board placed across the abdomen. Other defectors reported similar experiences. The State Department’s human rights report of 2002 said that the 50,000 prisoners in the Haengyong camp worked under conditions that reportedly resulted in the deaths of 20 percent to 25 percent of the prison population annually in the 1990s.

Miss Lee described the “guilt by association” rule, allowing Pyongyang to jail the criminal suspect as well as up to three generations of the suspect’s family.

Because of limited due process, many “criminals” are put into police camps without trial. Human Rights Watch, in its 2002 report “The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People’s Republic of China,” said, “Persons who commit crimes may be punished, but so may their parents, siblings and other relatives regardless of their individual innocence or guilt. Likewise, persons may be blacklisted, not just for their own political opinions or actions, but for the imputed opinions or actions of their relatives, even long-dead ancestors.”

In April, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted its first resolution condemning abuses in North Korea and calling for access by the United Nations and private human rights monitors in North Korea. The chief sponsors of the resolution were South Korea, Japan and the United States.

The Human Rights Watch report said the situation in North Korea is severe and requires China’s attention.

“Once [the North Koreans] make it into China, they are highly vulnerable to abuse, extortion and exploitation.

“Desperate women sell sexual services through prostitution or arranged marriage,” the report said. “Or they are sold or abducted into sexual slavery. Some are beaten by violent Chinese husbands after seeking shelter with church groups who tell them marriage is the only way to avoid detection.”

Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch wrote in the International Herald Tribune in March 2002 that the sensible first step toward a safe and free North Korea is diplomatic discussion between countries interested in the well-being of the North Korean refugees.

“Beijing should be urged to grant all North Koreans an indefinite humanitarian status and allow aid groups to operate in border areas without intimidation or arrest,” Mr. Jendrzejczyk wrote. “Giving humanitarian aid is one answer. Exposing North Korea’s human rights violations, now largely hidden, should also be a priority.”


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