North Korea’s Human Catastrophe

By Carl Gershman

The Washington Post, Page A23

The abandonment by North Korea of its demand for one-on-one negotiations with the United States is a welcome development. Pyongyang has understandably reconsidered the wisdom of its strategy of provoking the United States militarily in order to win economic aid and security guarantees. But while multilateral talks may follow, it would be a mistake if they were to focus exclusively on settling the nuclear issue. The security crisis can never be resolved in any lasting way without addressing the heart of the problem: the terrible crimes the North Korean regime is committing against its own people.

It will obviously be difficult to negotiate an end to these crimes. But multilateral talks offer an unprecedented opportunity to place the issue of human rights in North Korea on the international agenda.

They could establish a link between North Korea’s reckless external behavior and the ruthless character of its rule. This would start the process of ending Kim Jong Il’s reign of terror, which is the main obstacle to peace on the Korean peninsula and to the ultimate reunification of the two Koreas.

The human catastrophe that until now has been a sideshow to the controversy over nuclear proliferation has three interlocking dimensions. The first is the famine that has been responsible for anywhere from 1 million to 3 million deaths since the mid-1990s. The famine is not the result of drought or agricultural failure, nor is it the result of the absence of feedback mechanisms, such as a free media, that might alert governments to food shortages. In North Korea the government is fully aware of the famine, so much so that it uses it deliberately as a weapon against those parts of the population it classifies as least loyal to the regime. In keeping with this policy, it has prohibited relief agencies from monitoring food deliveries to the most severely affected regions.

The famine has caused desperate North Koreans to flee the country, thus producing a refugee crisis that is the second dimension of the human catastrophe from which the rest of the world has turned its gaze. Some 300,000 North Korean refugees are now hiding in China, fearful of being rounded up and forcibly repatriated. Because North Korea criminalizes the act of leaving without permission and subjects captured escapees to severe punishment, China is acting in violation of its treaty obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Additional Protocol, which prohibits a state from forcibly returning a refugee “to a territory where he or she fears persecution.” The Beijing office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is complicit in this violation of international law, because it has refused to insist on its right of unimpeded access to the refugees, who are likely to be sent to a prison camp or even executed after they are returned.

This raises the third dimension of the human catastrophe, which is the North Korean gulag. It is estimated that the system of political prisons and labor camps in North Korea holds more than 200,000 people, and that, given the harsh conditions in these camps, some 400,000 prisoners have perished in the past three decades. In keeping with North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s dictate that class enemies “must be eliminated through three generations,” parents, children, grandchildren and other relatives of prisoners are also sent to the gulag; and forced abortion and infanticide are standard practice, as prisoners are considered subhuman and are not permitted to have children. North Korea, of course, denies the existence of such camps, but in December the Far Eastern Economic Review published satellite photos of a camp in Hoeryong County that holds 50,000 prisoners, along with interviews of escaped prison guards who described what happened in the different buildings, including those where prisoners were tortured and executed.

The famine, refugees and gulag are not isolated problems but rather illustrative aspects of the most oppressive system in the world today. North Korea is a remnant of Stalinist totalitarianism at its worst, and its extortionate behavior has no purpose other than to perpetuate its existence.

If there is to be some process of negotiation to end the latest security crisis, prudence and simple morality demand that any agreement include measures to protect the refugees and end the famine. A more ambitious agenda would also include a requirement that all parties — including North Korea — demonstrate respect for human rights. Such an agreement would be modeled on the Helsinki Final Act, which linked Western recognition of the post-World War II borders of Central Europe to a set of human rights principles. This was one of the main recommendations last month from a conference on North Korean human rights that was held, appropriately, in Prague.

Few people in 1975 expected the countries of the Soviet bloc to honor the human rights provisions of the Helsinki accord. But the agreement set in motion a process that gave momentum to the movement for human rights and led eventually to the unraveling of communism. There is less reason to believe that North Korea would honor such an agreement, as it has gone through no post-Stalin thaw and lacks anything resembling a dissident movement.

But that misses the point, which is the need to start a process. A Helsinki agreement for the Korean peninsula would end the silence on North Korean human rights abuses, increase international pressure on the regime and commit the signatories to a different vision for North Korea from what now exists. Combined with a firm policy of containment, it could offer a way to curb Pyongyang’s worst abuses, open North Korea to greater international scrutiny and break down the isolation of the North Korean people. These are feasible first steps that could lay the foundation for more far-reaching changes in the future.

The writer is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company