Revealing dark heart of North Korea

I CAN pinpoint almost to the day when my interest in North Korea began.

In September 1993, I attended the Taejon Expo in the central South Korean city of Daejeon and spent some time in Seoul.

I was fascinated by just how close the demilitarised zone was to the capital but more so by the fact that beyond the heavily fortified fences and walls you could look into this strange, closed-off country - which I knew very little about at the time.

Since then I have read with interest, and increasing sadness, about the plight of the North Korean people under the totalitarian dictatorship.

The recently released book The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From inside North Korea paints a powerful picture of the bleak life in the one-party nation based around the cult of the personality of Kim Il-sung and his family.

The book of seven stories was written by Bandi, which means "firefly" in Korean, and is a pseudonym for the writer who is still living in North Korea. The copy was written in secret and smuggled out of the country.

While the work is fictional, the characters in Bandi's stories are very real - they include a young mother living among the elite in Pyongyang whose son misbehaves during a political rally; a former Communist war hero who is deeply disillusioned by the intrusion of the Party into everything he holds dear; and a husband and father who is denied a travel permit and sneaks on to a train in order to visit his critically ill mother.

Dr Jiyoung Song, director, Migration and Border Policy at the Lowy Institute, based in Sydney, said that while Bandi's Accusation may sound shocking and sensational to many outsiders, for someone like herself who's been almost obsessively following North Korean affairs for her entire career, little written about North Korea is new.

It is little wonder that so many North Koreans risk their lives by trying to escape over the border into China, despite the many dangers that lurk on the Chinese side and the fate that awaits them if they are caught and returned.

Dr Song, the author of the book Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Post-colonial, Marxist and Confucian Perspectives, said China and North Korea have a bilateral agreement to send back any illegal border-crossers.

"These two countries have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and do not feel obliged to comply with international human rights or humanitarian laws.

"The international community has put pressure on both governments for the past several decades. It's like hitting the rock with eggs ... it's a Korean expression."

She said helping people escape from North Korea is not a permanent or durable solution.

"A more realistic and pragmatic solution is that the Chinese authority turns a blind eye to allow North Koreans to stay in their country safely and allow them to work informally and temporarily, and when the condition improves, they can go back home in North Korea," Dr Song said.

She said she did not think helping North Koreans get out of the country was a durable solution.

"Helping North Korea open up its country is a permanent and more sustainable solution," Dr Song said.

"Where would North Koreans go when most Western states are closing their doors to refugees?

"Currently, the majority of North Koreans who left the country are settled in South Korea. North Koreans living in South Korea have the highest suicide rate, three times higher than South Koreans, and many live under the poverty line because they have no comparable skills to survive in a highly competitive South Korean society.

"What we need to do is to interact with North Koreans, whoever they are and whenever we can. Information and network is key for the 21st century.

"Escaping from this regime, or helping people escape from the regime is not a solution to the fundamental North Korea problem.''

Dr Song said the future of North Korea depends on us, living outside North Korea, as much as it does on North Koreans themselves.

 

"This is what the Kim regime is most scared of, a lot more than international pressure on its human rights records or the ROK-US joint military exercises. We need to be patient with North Korea."

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH DR JIYOUNG SONG:

As I mentioned I was given the book The Accusation by Bandi to review. Have you read it or are you aware of it, and how significant a publication is this, given that it is written by someone who still lives in North Korea? I haven't read the book; only read the reviews. I have stopped reading defectors' memoir after 16 years' of studying and observing North Koreans. Bandi's Accusation may sound shocking and sensational to many outsiders but for someone who's been almost obsessively following North Korean affairs for her entire career, little written about North Korea is new. Same stories, same accusations repeated over and over again.

Reading this book my heart goes out to those poor people living under the North Korean regime. The feeling I get from the book and from other articles I have read, is that most of the population of North Korea would leave the country if they could. Indeed, the fact that so many risk their lives to escape speaks volumes. What must be done to offer more assistance to those trying to escape across the border? Does the world need to put more pressure on China to allow these people safe passage over the border?

China would never allow that. The People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have a bilateral agreement to send back any illegal border-crossers. These two countries have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and do not feel obliged to comply with international human rights or humanitarian laws. The international community has put pressure on both governments for the past several decades. It's like hitting the rock with eggs (it's a Korean expression!). Helping them escape from North Korea is not a permanent or durable solution. There are many missionaries and NGOs doing that already in China. This religious or rather ideological approach to help North Korean escapees, however, has put North Korean escapees more in danger and in a precarious situation. Many North Koreans during their journey to the "free world' vanished. We simply don't know the scale of these vanished people who were trafficked by criminals, caught by the Chinese authority, or sent back to be tortured by the North Korean authority. 

A more realistic and pragmatic solution is the Chinese authority turns a blind eye to allow North Koreans stay in their country safely and allow them to work informally and temporarily, and when the condition improves, they can go back home in North Korea. In fact, many North Koreans have chosen this way.  

What dangers lurk on the Chinese side of the border once people are able to get over? My understanding is there are gangs who demand money and even then that is no guarantee of safety.

Exactly. Missionaries and NGOs believe that they are the "saviours" of the "poor" North Koreans. It is not much of the gangs who are running the underground railway for North Korean asylum seekers. It is Christian missionaries who employ private individuals and often Korean-Chinese or even North Koreans to lead 'refugee smuggling' for North Koreans, paid by their family members who already settled in South Korea or elsewhere. There is no safety guaranteed in the migratory journey to the free world. Most of them end up being in South Korea that has issues with North Korean integration into the South Korean society. 

Are people who escape often returned by China to North Korea and what fate awaits them upon their return?

You probably know the answer already. As I said earlier, PRC and DPRK has a bilateral agreement signed in 1968 to repatriate any border crossers without proper documents. And this is a standard border policy for any modern states. The difference between modern liberal states and North Korea is that those returnees face punishment which allegedly involved torture and arbitrary detention in North Korea. China is not a party to the Refugee Convention and they don't feel the obligation for the non-refoulement principle. We all know that neither China nor North Korea respect fully international human rights standards. Whether the international community should keep pressuring both governments, I'm doubtful of the effectiveness of this liberal moral approach to the regimes that don't believe in human rights as natural rights. We need a more practical, non-ideological, realistic approach. 

I understand there are a number of agencies/groups who try and help people trying to get out of North Korea. How can people help these groups?

I don't think helping North Koreans get out of the country is a durable solution. Helping North Korea open up its country is a permanent and more sustainable solution. Where would North Koreans go when most Western states are closing their doors to refugees? Currently, the majority of North Koreans who left the country are settled in South Korea. North Koreans living in South Korea have the highest suicide rate, 3 times higher than South Koreans and many live under the poverty line because they have no comparable skills to survive in a highly competitive South Korean society. 

Do you think more of a spotlight needs to be focussed on North Korea by the world, so there is more awareness of the conditions these people are living under?

Certainly, more awareness is needed to understand North Korea but what we know is so limited as the country has been isolated from the world for more than a half a century. What we need to do is to interact with North Koreans, whoever they are and whenever we can. Information and network is key for the 21st century. This is not an exception for North Korea. The country is deprived of information. That is the biggest crime of the Kim regime. Escaping from this regime, or helping people escape from the regime is not a solution to the fundamental North Korea problem. 

In recent days there has been the standoff and posturing by both North Korea and the US. How significant a threat is this given that it is reported that North Korea is preparing for nuclear tests?

North Korea has been testing nuclear and missile tests. Many security experts say it's a threat to international security. I don't think it's a threat. Nuclear threat is about both capabilities and motivations. North Korea may have the capabilities now, which is debated. P5 have capabilities. So do India, Pakistan and Israel. Does North Korea have motivations to use nuclear weapons against the South, Japan or the US? It's suicide for them. Some might say they have nothing to lose so they may attack South Korea or its allies. I disagree. Pyongyang knows they have every possibility to lose once they strike. China may not help to the same extent they did in 1950. Russia won't care. North Korea says it has nuclear for self-defence as South Korea and the US annually conduct joint military exercises in the West sea in preparation for a war. That is a threat to North Korea. Both Seoul and Washington have capabilities and motivation to destroy North Korea. It's been discussed many times in the past and is being discussed now. 

The recent fake propaganda video released by North Korea claiming to show a US aircraft carrier being destroyed by North Korea is almost laughable if it wasn't so serious. I presume this is done to simply to continue the deception and lies to the people? How much do people in North Korea really know about what is really going on in the outside world or are they really in the dark? Do they know that a lot of what they are being told is lies?

It may be laughable to you but is not to most ordinary North Koreans. They don't have the Internet we have; they don't have access to foreign books or foreigners as we do; they can't travel to other countries unless they're diplomats; even if they're diplomats, they live in a compound together as they can't afford separate housing. We may keep laughing about them, or help them to open up. How we do it is a delicate question and a highly difficult mission to achieve if you're sincerely interested in helping North Koreans. 

Also recently the rocket testing caused international concern, as similar incidents have in the past. Is this done so Kim Jong-un gets the attention of the world? And so they possibly open a dialogue with him?

This tactic has worked in the past during Kim Jong Un's father's era. North Korea shoots something to the sky and it means they want to talk. A subsequent dialogue happened. However, it's no longer the case. The Obama administration has been pursuing 'strategic patience' for its North Korea policy. It basically means let's ignore North Korea and wait until it collapses due to its own internal problems. This is not happening in North Korea. Jong Un is doing well to remain in power by getting rid of his political opponents, including his uncle who was a pro-reformer. 

I can only go off what I have been told or I have read, but how bad is the human rights abuse in North Korea?

There are numerous allegations of human rights violations. The UN Commission of Inquiry led by a retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, published a report about the allegations. We can all imagine human rights conditions are one of the world's worst, if not the worst. 

What do you thing the future holds for North Korea? Will it just continue to be a pariah state supported mainly by China? Is there any hope for change and freedom for its people?

It depends on us, living outside North Korea, as much as it does on North Koreans themselves. If we engage, the country will slowly and very slowly open up and they'll realise their system is not going to work and have to keep up with the rest of the world. This is what the Kim regime is most scared of, a lot more than international pressure on its human rights records or the ROK-US joint military exercises. We need to be patient with North Korea.

One thing I want to add is that the Korean War didn't end with a peace treaty. The armistice is signed by the UN, led by the US, on the one hand and North Korea and China on the other. South Korea didn't sign the armistice as it wanted to carry on fighting and unify under its rule. The US didn't support that. The two Koreas ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953 are at war technically. There have been tensions always in the Korean Peninsula. Outsiders only hear about us when North Korea shoot missiles. North Korea bombed South Korea in Yonpyong island and killed South Korean soldiers. Even during the so-called Sunshine Policy toward the North by late President Kim Dae Jung, there were naval battles. Policy toward North Korea requires much patience, persuasion, and persistence. It also requires many behind-door dialogues focusing on practical/pragmatic solutions, and technical assistance which will have to involve financial resources. Not many were happy about money going into North Korea. But it would still be cheaper than tantamount unification costs out of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime. Sunshine Policy was a clever policy to buying up North Korea bit by bit through engagement and people exchanges. Pyongyang knew about it. And both Koreas had a consensus that's the only way to unify the divided nation. We don't have any consensus at all today. 

Dr Jiyoung Song, Director, Migration and Border Policy at the Lowy Institute, based in Sydney.

She is a Global Ethics Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York and the author of the book: Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Post-colonial, Marxist and Confucian Perspectives



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