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Crimes Against Humanity in Prison Camps
in North Korea... Now What?

Speech by Sang Hun Kim, human rights activist

Chairperson, Distinguished Members of the International Community of Human Rights NGOs and Activists, Japanese Citizens, Members of the Media, Ladies and Gentlemen:

North Korea is still the most isolated country in the world today, a Cold War anachronism intent on maintaining its political power at the sacrifice of humanity, justice and the rule of law. Accordingly, reliable information on the human rights situation in North Korea is greatly limited, both inside and outside of the country.

However, in the wake of Communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, contact between North Koreans and the outside world has increased dramatically at all levels since the mid-1990s. As a result, the truth about the North Korean human rights situation has begun to slip through the cracks of the government’s tightly clenched fist.

As a result, convincing and consistent evidence has come to our attention from a variety of independent and reliable sources about the shocking existence of secret, illegal prison camps in North Korea today and the plight of some 200,000 innocent and ordinary people, including women and children, who are detained without judicial review or due process legal procedures such as arrest, prosecution and trial.

North Korea’s prison camps and ordinary prisons are the most abominable and horrifying examples of this- the crimes committed in these places are just as evil and pernicious as those of the Soviet gulag or the Nazi concentration camps, and even worse in that the North Korean camps have existed for years and years without broad international censure and action. These crimes have been perpetuated ruthlessly and systematically for decades in North Korea.

The existence of these camps and the bleak conditions and atrocities committed there are undeniable as they have been confirmed by many eyewitness accounts, including those of a former prisoner as well as a former guard who worked at several of the camps and a former senior official who was involved in actually overseeing them (these three men are in this room right now). They have all attested to the shocking crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean regime against its own people.

Out of moral obligation, I wish to introduce to you this morning Mr. Shin Dong-hyuk, a former North Korean prisoner at one of the camps in North Korea. In fact, he was born in a camp and spent the first 24 years of his life there. Thus he had no knowledge of the world outside the camp and even of North Korea. All he learned was to read, write, add and subtract, and he was taught only at the most rudimentary level. He never learned about the multiplication table, for example. His most important daily lesson was how to obey the camp’s rules- in other words, to live the life of a slave.

One day in January 2005, he miraculously defected from the camp and saw North Korean society for the first time during the 20 days he was on the run. He arrived in China in early 2005. He spent about a year in there working at a logging site high up in the mountains and eventually found a South Korean who helped him go to South Korea sometime last year.

The researchers at the North Korean Human Rights Database Center in Seoul (NKDB) have collected and analyzed over 2,000 testimonies taken during interviews with North Koreans. As such, the NKDB researchers are the most well-informed and incisive experts in interviewing North Korean witnesses as well as in studying and verifying the information gathered.

The NKDB experts conducted countless interviews with Shin Dong Hyuk over a period of several months to investigate and validate the information in his testimony. Based on these frequent and exhaustive interviews, we are convinced that Mr. Shin's identity and story are authentic. A medical report by Dr. Gill Hinshewood of the London University College Hospital Medical School, a senior physician for the care of torture victims for 16 years, further supports his testimony. She examined Mr. Shin in London on 22 June 2007, and this report is available to you should you care to read it.

You will have an opportunity to hear from Mr. Shin directly at the meeting tomorrow. He published his autobiography last month, and hopefully his book will be available very soon in Japanese as well. Other witnesses here include Mr. Ahn Myeong Chul, a former guard at political prisonor camps No. 11, 13, 22, and 26 between 1987 and 1994. He defected from duty in September 1994 and arrived in South Korea in October of that year. Mr. Kwon Hyeok, another witness, was a former special secret agent in North Korea and was on duty in the Camp No. 22 for a special task force assignment during 97-98. He defected from North Korea in July 1999 and arrived in South Korea in April, 2000.

Their accounts in general and Mr. Shin’s in particular will no doubt elicit shame in those who choose to turn their eyes away from the reality of the North Korean state’s crimes against humanity. At the same time, the truth of their life experiences serves as a stern warning to those who stand prepared to sacrifice the human rights of the ordinary and innocent people of North Korea in favor of preventing that country’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

Mr. Shin’s presence here today with his appalling life story puts to rest an old argument as to whether or not secret prison camps exist in North Korea. With his presence, before us we have a confirmed case of the worst and most deplorable crimes against humanity, a serious challenge to the peace of mankind.

Now what? Are we going to sit and do nothing about it simply because the victims today are in no way personally related to us? Are we going to commit the sin of silence in the light of strong prima facie evidence for the crimes against humanity by the North Korean state?

I am fully convinced that unless we halt the inhumane and criminal practices perpetrated in North Korea today, such atrocities are bound to spread and occur elsewhere in the world and in the generations to come. This is precisely why crimes against humanity are deemed an international crime and are no longer limited to the sovereignty, jurisdiction or territory of a single nation. We must learn the lessons of history given to us by the great disaster of World War II, which could have been avoided if Hitler was stopped earlier. I am of the strong conviction that action in regard to North Korea is urgently needed. It is time for the international community to respond to and put an end to these ongoing and serious violations, and to rescue the ordinary people of North Korea from mass killings, arbitrary imprisonment, torture and related international crimes.

Under the circumstances, I wish to take this opportunity to urge the international community to intervene in the situation as a matter of global responsibility, and to marshall its resolve toward these crimes against humanity. We believe that international intervention works.

To this end, I wish to take note of the landmark report published in August of this year by Christian Solidarity Worldwide in London, entitled, “NORTH KOREA: A CASE TO ANSWER A CALL TO ACT,” and call for the organization of an international network of legal experts, human rights NGOs and activists for the purpose of coordinated action and the exchange of information. Such a network should also consider, study, collect and examine evidence to determine the exact nature and scale of violations and to recommend what further action should be taken in order to bring the case to the attention of UN Security Council and International Criminal Court.

Let us make it a living reality for innocent North Korean prisoners to realize that they have not been forgotten by the free people of the world; indeed, that there are people of uncompromising principles who have sought and will continue to seek their freedom.

Before closing my speech this morning, please allow me to add my own views on the role of the South Korean government regarding the issue of North Korean crimes against humanity.

Korea has remained divided over the five past decades, a most tragic and deplorable situation that has led to the malignant growth of the Kim family’s regime in the North and military regimes in the South, constituting the major hindrance to the peaceful development of Korea as a nation. Sadly, all the powers surrounding the Korean Peninsula have remained content with the status quo, with little regard to the sufferings of the Korean people on both sides of the 38th Parallel. The ultimate goal of the Kim regime in the North, not unlike the past military regimes in the South, has been to keep itself in power. Few realistic efforts for unification have been undertaken under the mutual defense pacts concluded between North Korea, Russia and China on one hand and South Korea and the US on the other, thereby rendering any military options out of the question. Meanwhile, Koreans have been committed to the reunification of their nation, a nation that has remained homogeneous for thousands of years.

Thus, South Koreans are understandably no longer interested in repeating the decades-old policy of confrontation with North Korea that never worked, or in relying on outside help regarding this most crucial national issue for all Koreans. It must be understood that, under the circumstances, the most obvious and realistic choice for Koreans is to seek the reduction of tensions and hostilities as a first step to reconciliation. To this end, South Koreans are committed to bringing hard-line North Koreans to the negotiating table and out of their longstanding, stubborn isolation.

In this effort to open up a more constructive dialogue with North Korea, the South Korean government is trying desperately to maintain if not warm at least cordial relations between the two countries. Clearly, this is no time to expect the South Korean government to take up issues forcefully that may jeopardize its efforts toward peaceful unification. Therefore, it appears unrealistic at the present juncture to expect the South Korean government to play any significant role in the direct condemnation of the North Korean regime pertaining to its crimes against humanity.

Furthermore, if South Korean government raised this issue publicly with North Korea, it would run the risk of a return to the dirty propaganda that characterized the North-South relationship in past decades, with the North condemning South Korea and the West for spreading lies and interfering in North Korean internal affairs. This would do no good for the long-term prospects of combatting the human rights crisis. Thus, in reality, the value or efficacy of the South Korean government’s raising the North Korean human rights issue is highly doubtful at this stage.

That said, I wish to suggest today that a strong and clear message be given to the South Korean government- though it cannot show open support, it must not and cannot hinder the international efforts to help the innocent victims of the North Korean crimes against humanity. Thank you.