Commentary Magazine


Escaping from the North Korean Stalemate

On January 2, 2005, Shin In Geun, as he was then known, became the first person to escape from the North Korean political prison camp into which he had been born. He was 23 years old and had never set foot outside the high-voltage barbed wires that surround Kwan-li-so, more commonly referred to as Camp 14. Home to approximately 15,000 people deemed politically “unredeemable” by the North Korean regime, Camp 14 offers prisoners no trial and no chance to be paroled. Instead, until they die or are executed, inmates work in mines for approximately 18 hours a day and are given such meager food rations that they consider rats and insects found on the premises rare delicacies. And of course, there is the omnipresent torture.

It is difficult to overstate how awful things are for the citizens of this country. This past February, for example, North Korean authorities executed 15 people, reportedly as a warning to others, in public for illegally crossing the border into China. Trying to flee the country is not the only hanging offense in North Korea. Human Rights Watch reports that “the government periodically publicly executes citizens for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other ‘anti-socialist’ crimes.” Between 1994 and 1998, the regime was responsible for starving to death 2 to 3.5 million people, or about 10 to 15 percent of North Korea’s population—even though the international community provided billions of dollars in food aid during a famine. The regime simply diverted the food to its military or sold it on the black market for hard currency. North Korea is an utterly lawless, heartless regime that not only starves its people but also traffics in women, has kidnapped dozens of foreigners, and is the only nation since Nazi Germany to counterfeit U.S. currency.

In Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (Viking, 224 pages), Blaine Harden provides a searing account of Shin’s improbable escape from North Korea and recounts some of the horrific experiences of life in Camp 14. Shin witnessed many public executions, including those of his mother (by hanging) and his brother (by firing squad), for the crime of attempting escape. Once, when Shin was working in a garment factory in the camp, he accidentally dropped a sewing machine. His punishment for taking the machine out of service was to have his middle finger hacked off by the foreman. Shin’s most Kafkaesque experience came the day after he reported to the authorities that his mother and brother were planning an escape. In reporting on them, he was obeying the cardinal rule of camp life. Yet the very next day he found himself in an underground prison in the camp, stripped naked by guards who tied his hands, shackled his legs, and then hoisted him up by his ankles and hands until he was suspended in the air in the shape of a U. For four days, Shin was questioned about his presumptive role in the attempted escape, but he had no answers. At one point, the guards dragged a tub of burning charcoal beneath him, and jabbed a gaff hook into his stomach to hold his body only inches from the flame until he lost consciousness.

As Harden observes, “North Korea’s labor camps have now existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and about 12 times longer than the Nazi concentration camps, yet we know little about them.” But in addition to shedding light on a subject that only recently has begun to receive widespread attention,* Harden also tells a profoundly moving story about personal courage and the power of community. Elie Wiesel once wrote that after his entire family was killed at Auschwitz, he was “left alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.” Shin grew up knowing neither God nor love: “His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food.” On the day of their executions, Shin believed that both his mother and brother deserved to die.

Quoting the sociologist Elmer Luchterhand, who interviewed dozens of survivors after they were liberated from concentration camps at the end of World War II, Harden notes, “it was in the pairs that the prisoners kept alive the semblance of humanity.” He cites the example of Anne Frank: “Neither hunger nor typhus killed the young girl,” according to those who knew her while she was imprisoned in the

Bergen-Belsen camp. Rather, “she lost the will to live after the death of her sister, Margot.” For Shin, the path to freedom began when, at age 22, he developed the first genuine friendship of his life, a bond that gave him the will to live and the inspiration to escape.

By that time, Shin was a model prisoner who had proved his loyalty. He was often asked to take on sensitive jobs such as spying on fellow prisoners and at one point was given a particularly important assignment. Shin was ordered to spend time with an older political prisoner, Park Yong Chul, who “knew senior people in the North Korean government.” Shin was told to report back on everything Park told him “about his past, his politics, and his family.” When Park told Shin that he was from Pyongyang, Shin expressed his bewilderment, since, having lived his entire life in the camp, he knew nothing about the capital city. This broke the ice between the two men, with the sophisticated, older prisoner taking Shin under his wing and beginning a month-long seminar on life outside the gates of hell. “Intoxicated by what he heard from the prisoner he was supposed to betray, Shin made perhaps the first free decision of his life,” writes Harden. “He chose not to snitch.”

Shin had begun to realize what he was missing, and it was not long before he broached the subject of escape with the older prisoner. Although no one had ever successfully fled North Korea, the two made a plan and set off a short time later to execute it. Only Shin survived. Park slipped on the snow and fell onto the high-voltage wires. Shin was able to pass through the fence only because his friend’s fallen body was “siphoning off current and funneling it to the ground.” For a month, he wandered by foot and train until he finally walked across the Tumen River into China. A year-long sojourn in China ended quite fortuitously, when he met a journalist in Shanghai who took him to the South Korean consulate, where he was granted asylum.

Almost none of the estimated 200,000 inmates escape from North Korea’s prison camps. But for those North Koreans who are not in the camps, escape is becoming more common. Over the past decade, more than 20,000 have managed to reach safety, primarily in South Korea. A much greater number of North Korean refugees have made it as far as the Tumen or Yalu Rivers to China. There they are trapped and live in fear of repatriation until they are able to find a country that will grant them refuge and freedom. Some never do. Over the past decade, various human-rights organizations, Christian missionaries, and ethnic Koreans living in China have developed a loose infrastructure modeled after the pre–Civil War Underground Railroad in the United States that helped usher slaves into Canada.

The story of the conductors and passengers on this Underground Railroad is told by Melanie Kirkpatrick, a former deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal, in her first book, Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad (Encounter, 376 pages). The journey undertaken by the fugitive North Koreans is always perilous and the outcome uncertain. The “railroad” begins in Northeast China, the area once known as Manchuria, near the 900-mile border shared by North Korea and China.* It then sometimes moves north to Mongolia or Russia, but more often south through the Golden Triangle area of Southeast Asia. As Kirkpatrick describes, after “traveling thousands of miles across China, the passengers on the new underground railroad cross clandestinely into a third country, where they wait for months or occasionally even years for permission to settle in South Korea or the West.” Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma are among the Asian nations that provide sanctuary for fugitive North Koreans, although none advertises its hospitality for fear of antagonizing China.

China refuses asylum to North Koreans on the grounds that they are economic migrants, rather than political refugees. Indeed, over the past half-century, China and North Korea have cooperated extensively to try to stem the flow of refugees. In the 1960s, they concluded a secret agreement governing their shared border, and in 1986, China agreed to repatriate defectors, even though the refugees would face arrest, torture, and imprisonment.

As Kirkpatrick observes, China’s policy of repatriation violates international law. It is a signatory to the 1951 International Refugee Convention, which prohibits refoulment (the legal term for repatriation of refugees) and requires in its 1967 Protocol the humane treatment of refugees residing within a state’s national borders. Moreover, in violation of an agreement it signed in 1995 with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, China prevents the office of the High Commissioner from working along the border with North Korea, where it would be able to assist these refugees most directly.

Chinese officials react indignantly when human-rights activists and the occasional U.S. diplomat highlight China’s disregard for its international obligations. In truth, China’s policy of repatriation is peculiar. Should China want to crack down on the flow of refugees from North Korea and effectively shut it down, it could do so. Instead, it tolerates a fairly steady flow of refugees, although it affords them no legal rights. Only occasionally does China beef up its border patrols sufficiently to halt the tide or send North Koreans back.

Like Harden, Kirkpatrick humanizes a complex foreign-policy issue by highlighting some of the heroes and victims. One of them is Joseph Kim, who on February 15, 2005, ran across the Tumen River into China carrying nothing and wearing only sweatpants, a light jacket, and sneakers. Although Joseph had a few childhood friends in North Korea, he left no family behind, because all his relatives had died or disappeared. He had been living as a kotjebi (technically a term meaning “fluttering sparrow,” but used to describe street orphans) after his father had starved to death two years earlier. When he reached the other side of the river, Joseph just wandered until he finally encountered a Christian man who invited him into his home and gave him a meal. A few days later, as he was again wandering the streets in search of food, he met an old woman who spoke Korean and told him that if he needed help, he should go to a church. Having grown up in North Korea, where the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and where juche, the doctrine of self-reliance, has largely supplanted organized religion, Joseph turned to the woman and asked, “What’s a church?”

Told by the woman to find a building with a cross on it, he located one church and then another and eventually, through the Chinese Christian network, made it to one in Tumen City, where the pastor found him a home in which he was able to live in exchange for daily chores. Joseph was introduced to a South Korean missionary who linked him up with an American aid organization that helped him reach the U.S. Consulate in the city of Shenyang. He lived in the consulate for four months and then, in February 2007, one year to the day after he crossed the river, he boarded a plane to Chicago to begin a new life.

Not all efforts of the underground railroad are so successful. Kirkpatrick tells the story of the Shenyang Six, who were being assisted by three American human-rights activists working for Liberty in North Korea (LINK), an organization founded in 2004 by Adrian Hong, then a Yale undergraduate. On a Friday in December 2006, Hong and two colleagues were sitting at a restaurant across the street from the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang with six North Korean defectors whom LINK had helped bring from the northern city of Yanji. Hong called the consulate on his cellphone and, as he had done on prior occasions, told the American on the other end of the line that he had “more packages to deliver.” He knew something had changed when the consular official asked for Hong’s number and said someone would call him back. When the phone rang, Hong was brusquely told that his group was not welcome and that he should “take the North Korean refugees and go to the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] in Beijing.” The United States claimed it refused to open the consulate doors because they were concerned about jeopardizing the safety of other refugees the consulate was sheltering, but the more likely explanation is that, with senior U.S. officials in Beijing that very week for the fifth round of the Six Party Talks, the U.S. simply didn’t want to antagonize China.

What followed was one of the darker moments in recent U.S. consular affairs. Hong’s continued efforts to communicate with American officials were frustrated, and eventually more than 100 uniformed law-enforcement personnel showed up to cordon off the U.S. Consulate. Although Hong and the North Koreans set off for Beijing in the hopes of making it to the UNHCR headquarters, they were all arrested en route and returned to Shenyang, where they were thrown in jail. Eventually, after spending a full week in jail, and only after the U.S. government finally interceded, Hong and his two LINK colleagues were deported to the United States, and a few months later the six North Koreans were repatriated to South Korea.

The story of the Shenyang Six highlights the schizophrenic U.S. policy toward human rights in North Korea. Consistent with the intent of the North Korea Human Rights Act, which was passed by Congress in 2004 and reauthorized by huge bipartisan majorities in 2008 and again this year, the Obama administration regularly maintains that human rights are a top priority of our North Korea policy. Last winter, on the eve of his trip to South Korea, President Obama declared that “improving human-rights conditions is a top U.S. priority in our North Korea policy, and it will have a significant impact on the prospect for closer U.S.-DPRK ties.”

Despite such rhetoric, human rights have not been a central focus of U.S. North Korean policy. Rather, for the past decade, the U.S. has focused on the Six Party Talks, a multilateral dialogue aimed at addressing the security concerns caused by North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.* But after 10 years, there is no indication that the talks have halted North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or prevented the proliferation of its nuclear technology. In 2006, a few years after the Six Party Talks commenced, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in an underground explosion. Three years later, it conducted another test, and today, experts believe that North Korea has six to eight nuclear weapons. And while its efforts to develop a delivery system do not yet appear to have been successful, North Korea has not given up trying. Both in 2009 and again this past year, the regime launched a series of missiles and satellite rockets in an effort to demonstrate its military readiness. In addition, we now know (thanks to the Israelis) that throughout much of the time the United States was engaged in the Six Party Talks, the North Koreans were secretly helping the Syrians build a nuclear reactor.

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

Consider the following chronology: In October 2003, two months after the Six Party Talks began, Pyongyang claimed it had reprocessed 8,000 nuclear fuel rods and obtained sufficient material for up to six nuclear bombs. Then, in September 2005, after two years of talks, North Korea agreed to give up its weapons in exchange for aid. A small amount was provided, but then the same cycle started anew, with North Korea testing its first nuclear weapon in October 2006. The international community responded sharply with more talk of sanctions. In February 2007, North Korea promised to end its nuclear program in exchange for aid, which began to flow in significant amounts in 2008. During the waning months of the Bush administration, in response to North Korea’s agreement to let inspectors visit certain nuclear facilities, North Korea was rewarded by being removed from America’s official list of state sponsors of terrorism. But in January 2009, as the Bush administration came to an end, North Korea reneged on its 2007 agreement.

The advent of the Obama administration changed nothing. Despite President Obama’s calls for direct engagement with North Korea when he was a candidate for president, the North Koreans welcomed him into office by conducting a second nuclear test only four months after he was inaugurated. Then, in March 2010, North Korea raised the stakes regionally by sinking the South Korea warship Cheonan, which left 46 sailors dead. Suddenly, in February 2011, the food situation took a turn for the worse as foot-and-mouth disease spread throughout the country, and once again the regime was willing to talk about making concessions. This led to the agreement in February 2012 that, in return for food aid from the United States, North Korea would cease nuclear activity at its main facility in Yongbyon. Yet no sooner was the ink dry on this agreement than North Korea launched a missile in April, leading to the suspension of food shipments.

It is time to consider a new approach. The first step to developing a coherent U.S. strategy in North Korea is to identify the key objectives and interests of the major players and to recognize that the United States doesn’t hold all the cards. For America, there are two main concerns: promoting regional stability and preventing nuclear proliferation. These objectives are shared by China and South Korea (the two nations who actually have the most influence over events in North Korea). But U.S. policymakers must recognize that neither China nor South Korea shares the other persistent objective of our North Korea policy: reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Kirkpatrick, who is generally astute in her assessment of the region, suffers from the conceit of many U.S. policymakers who see the world only through American eyes when she suggests, “U.S. policy should be to encourage China to see the wisdom of reunification.”

China may not like a nuclear North Korea, but it certainly likes having a North Korean buffer between it and South Korea. China views reunification, which would leave a vibrant free-market democracy supported by approximately 30,000 U.S. troops on one of its most porous borders, as a potentially destabilizing threat to its national security. China is also concerned that the collapse of the North Korean regime might lead to a massive influx of North Korean refugees that would exacerbate an already tenuous economic situation in Northeast China. It is China’s interest in maintaining the status quo that best explains its erratic approach to border control: It wants to permit just enough refugees to leave North Korea to prevent too much internal unrest, yet not enough to open the floodgates. But if China is not prepared to accept a unified peninsula anytime soon, then the sooner the United States makes clear that unification is not an objective, the more likely China will be to work with us in other areas related to North Korea.

Nor does South Korea, despite its official position in support of reunification, really want such an outcome, at least for the foreseeable future. South Korea is a nation of 50 million people. North Korea has almost half as many. The last thing South Korea wants is to absorb 25 million of the poorest, least educated people in the world. The South Koreans remember all too well the economic troubles that Germany faced after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That is the principal reason why South Korea remains, along with China, the largest donor of food aid to North Korea and why South Korea has generally resisted imposing any conditions on its aid, including even international monitoring.

A policy that linked the U.S. interest in human rights with its interest in security issues could be a step in the right direction. The last century has shown that human rights correlate to peace and stability. The logical outgrowth of a nation that does not respect the rights of its own citizens is a nation that does not respect the rights of its neighbors.

There are those who argue that including a focus on human rights in our North Korea policy would forestall an agreement that resolves more immediate security concerns. That was the rationale for keeping human-rights issues out of the Six Party Talks. But the facts prove just the opposite. In one notable example, after a significant lapse in the talks, the North Koreans suddenly announced that they were willing to resume discussions only four days after President Bush met in June of 2005 with Kang Chol-hwan, the most prominent North Korean defector and human-rights advocate at the time. Bush’s highlighting of human-rights abuses reinforced for the North Koreans the United States’s commitment to the issue and made clear that only by returning to the table would the North Koreans have a chance at international legitimacy.

There are others who argue that the United States has no business intervening in the domestic affairs of another country. But history has shown that there is nothing contradictory or incoherent about making human rights part of a broader national-security dialogue with a hostile foreign country. Speaking with clarity on this issue neither prevents nor even discourages progress on immediate security concerns. Recall the Helsinki Final Act, an agreement signed by 35 governments in 1975 in the midst of the standoff between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Helsinki placed issues in three primary baskets: political-military, economic, and human rights. Initially the third basket did not receive much attention. But it would play a decisive role in opening up the Soviet Union and its client regimes. Cultural exchanges of people, high-level visits between the United States and the Soviet Union, and public U.S. support for those who wished to emigrate from the Soviet Union all helped to link the three baskets more tightly together. The resolution of political-military, economic, and human-rights issues became integral parts of the U.S.-Soviet negotiation effort.

There are key differences between conditions that led to Helsinki and the situation today on the Korean Peninsula. The Soviet Union had significant trade with the rest of the world, and it was viewed as beneficial to all parties that this be expanded. There also was a pre-existing diplomatic relationship among the parties. These conditions and incentives are not all present in the case of North Korea. But the Helsinki Accord nonetheless shows that the United States can and should address security and human rights at the same time. The United States should offer North Korea significant economic help, including development assistance, World Bank loans, trade access, and food aid, but only in return for tangible and verifiable progress on military and human-rights issues. After all, even if there is improvement on security issues, genuine change in North Korea will come only after that nation reforms itself. And a focus on human-rights issues is critical to bringing about such a transformation.

In humanizing the plight of North Koreans, Harden and Kirkpatrick have made clear in their excellent books that the phrase “North Korean human rights” is today an oxymoron. Both authors make a powerful case that as a moral imperative, the United States should seek to use its influence and power to help the people of North Korea. But the best way to do that is not to make human rights either an end in itself or an unrelated component of our foreign policy, relegated to ineffectual statements. Rather, a coherent and viable North Korea strategy would incorporate human rights as a means to an end—as part of a comprehensive U.S. policy to bring greater freedom to the North Korean people and greater stability to East Asia and perhaps the world.

About the Author

Jay P. Lefkowitz, a lawyer in private practice in New York, served in the George W. Bush administration as Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea from 2005 to 2009.




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