North Korea’s lack of concern for upholding the international commitment to human rights and security became clear once again after it rained an artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, killing four South Koreans including two civilians.
In response, the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, was prompted to declare the incident “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.”
However, while many are quick to brand the latest provocation by North Korea a separate crisis, North Korea’s decades-long disregard of human rights requires our attention as well.
The most pressing issue that must be addressed in North Korea is undoubtedly the inhumane treatment of its people behind the walls of its secret internment camps. Indeed, there are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people in a total of six concentration camps operated by the government in the central and northeastern areas of the country.
Testimony delivered in November at the Japanese Diet Building by Kim Hae Suk, 49, one of the lucky few people known to have escaped from North Korea provided the world with a rare glimpse of the situation in these camps.
Kim was sent to the Bukchang Concentration Camp (Re-education Center No. 18), situated along the Taedong River in Bukchang County. Erected in 1958, the camp is one of the oldest prisons in North Korea and is said to hold around 50,000 prisoners, according to estimates published by Human Rights Watch and No Fence, a nonprofit watchdog for human rights abuses in North Korea.
At the concentration camp, Kim was one of thousands of prisoners who were forced to work in coal mines. According to Kim’s testimony, coal miners in the Bukchang Concentration Camp are not given masks or safety gear. They are also chronically malnourished.
A family of six is given a ration of seven to 10 kg of corn a month. Many coal miners do not live past their 40s as a result of malnutrition and inhalation of coal particles. Satellite images have confirmed that several coal mines operate within the camp.
The Bukchang Concentration Camp is one of the six camps operated by North Korea. These camps force detainees to perform hard and often dangerous work. Prisoners must work regardless of age. Children are sent to push trolleys in coal mines without safety gear. Nor do the elderly get a reprieve.
In addition, beatings, torture and public executions for the pettiest and most trivial reasons are commonplace. Many instances of corporal punishment are executed solely at the whims of prison guards. To make matters worse, prisoners in such camps lack basic necessities such as food, clothing and medicine, which are either rationed or nonexistent.
Voices such as Kim’s are hard to hear today as the world concentrates on the atrocious acts of late committed by North Korea’s top brass. We cannot forget that North Korea’s dictatorship is practically a one-party show. Meanwhile, millions of North Koreans are victims of the oppressive regime, being starved, denied basic human rights and put to death without trial or due process.
For citizens of North Korea, being killed by the state without reason is just business as usual. Although it is difficult to get a sense of the apocalyptic humanitarian situation in North Korea, morsels of information that leak from the hermit state indicate that many in the country are barely subsisting.
Such a humanitarian crisis cannot be alleviated through “strategic patience” — the strategy currently being adopted by the United States and other countries. It is important for the international community to recognize this longtime second crisis in North Korea.
The belligerence of the North Korean government, the most recent example of which being the shelling of the South Korean island, makes it difficult for the international community to focus on the real humanitarian crisis occurring within the country. Furthermore, North Korea heavily restricts humanitarian relief programs; aid packages cannot be traced to ensure that they have been properly distributed to those in need.
While such realities beg the question of what can be done to address this second crisis, bringing the issue to the fore in multilateral talks will make decision-makers more conscious of the plight of North Korean citizens, in particular those imprisoned by the North Korean government.
Concerned NPOs such as Human Rights Watch, NoFence, and LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) are just a few of the many civilian groups that are working to help North Korean citizens however they can.
Although current forms of help such as rescuing escapees hiding in China, ballooning money to the North in hopes that the currency will fall in the hands of those in need, and voicing concern in an effort to raise global awareness of the human rights crisis in North Korea may seem meager, this kind of increasing global concern has proven to be effective — such as when Amnesty International successfully pressured Pyongyang to close down one internment camp where human rights abuses were known to have taken place.
Resolving the rights issue remains a long and grueling task. It is only through external pressure that these internment camps will be closed down. An increase in global concern about this issue will help speed their closure.
Ryo Takahashi is a Human Rights Watch activist leading a research team on North Korea. He is the founder of JapanCommentator and attends The University of Tokyo.