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Nuclear bond

North Korean defectors say joining together national security negotiations and humanitarian concerns is the key to unraveling Kim Jong Un’s abusive regime

Nuclear bond

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam (AP)

In North Korea, the sin of a single family member can condemn the next three generations to fearful suffering. Many transgressions can lead to arrest and imprisonment in the regime’s political prison camps, but perhaps the cardinal sin is attempting to escape to China or South Korea.

Kim Hye Sook learned this in February of 1975, when authorities dragged her family off to a political prison camp in Bukchang-gun. She was 13. Her family, previously members of the elite in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, did not know what they had done wrong.

Kim would not learn the truth until her release from the camp 28 years later. An older relative told her that during the Korean War her paternal grandfather had gone missing, and the event finally caught up to the family. That suspicion doomed Kim’s family to prison camp, where her parents, grandmother, husband, and one of her brothers would die.

I met Kim, a diminutive woman with kind eyes and a softly waved bob, in March. She and another North Korean defector had testified that week before a United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. We talked with the help of an interpreter, and Kim showed me pictures that brought to life the heartbreaking details of her story.

She lost her father first: Authorities dragged him away for asking why they had been locked up. The family never saw him again. Three years later, while scavenging for food on a mountainside, Kim’s mother missed a step and fell to her death before her children’s eyes.

Death visited the camp often. Sometimes workers, like Kim’s brother and later, her husband, would die from accidents in the dangerous coal mines. Sometimes prisoners died from malnourishment, like Kim’s grandmother. Sometimes, guards publicly executed inmates. Kim remembers the execution of one woman who, so desperate for food, had killed and cooked her 9-year-old daughter. Everyone in the camp had to attend the execution, where guards tied the prisoner to a wooden stake and blindfolded her. A firing squad fired round after round until the stake holding the bullet-hole-ridden body cracked.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Kim Hye Sook testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington during a hearing on human rights in North Korea. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Death visited but hunger never left. After the death of her parents, Kim became the primary caretaker of her four younger brothers. The authorities only provided food for coal miners, so Kim would save her lunch ration—a small packet of jasmine rice—until she got home so she could make it into a thin porridge for the whole family. After she got married and became pregnant, she could no longer work in the mines and instead had to find her own food.

While nine months pregnant in May 1991, she went up the mountain to gather acorn sprouts. On her way down, she unexpectedly went into labor and ended up giving birth. Afterward, unable to walk or even stand up, she wrapped her baby in the sack with the sprouts. She crawled around 50 feet, pushing the backpack in front of her. Eventually, an old man herding goats and sheep found her. He couldn’t lift her, but he fetched her husband.

Even when she earned release from the camp in 2001, her hardships continued, and both her daughters died during a flood. Kim decided to defect. But during her first attempt in 2005, border guards caught her and sold her to a Chinese broker for 3,000 yuan. Because she looked so much older than her 43 years, he found he could not sell her to sex traffickers. He sold her instead to a restaurant owner for 2,500 yuan, where she worked until authorities repatriated her in 2008. In 2009, Kim escaped for a second time and successfully made it to South Korea.

But even for ordinary North Koreans, who never experience the political prison camp, life is often unbearable. I also spoke with Pak Tae Kyeong, a woman in her mid-30s who defected in 2008.

Pak was a teenager during the so-called “Arduous March,” the severe famine that from 1994 to 1998 resulted in the death of an estimated 3.5 million North Korean people.

“There was nothing to eat,” Pak said through the interpreter. “You will never understand that someone will basically starve to death without having a bowl of rice, or a handful of rice to feed themselves.”

Kim remembers the execution of one woman who, so desperate for food, had killed and cooked her 9-year-old daughter.

To escape the famine, Pak’s older brother defected to China. But within a few months, Chinese authorities repatriated him. He spent seven months in a reeducation camp. After his release, he returned home a shell of the “very tall and big” oppa (brother) she remembered. He couldn’t recover from the starvation and torture and died two days later.

When that happened, Pak realized North Korea offered her no future. Even though she had a respected job as a schoolteacher, she did not make enough to support herself. She began to ask, “What’s the purpose of my life? Is it just an everyday struggle to find the food … or can I do something other than seek my own survival?”

One day, she was talking on the phone with her sister, who had successfully defected to South Korea. As they spoke, she could hear a crisp sound of her sister chewing. “What are you having?” Pak asked. “An apple,” her sister responded.

Apples are Pak’s favorite food, so half-jokingly, she asked, “Can you just send a box of apples to me?”

“If you come to South Korea—I’ll get you a truck filled with apples,” she promised.

The image of a truck full of apples began haunting her thoughts. Eventually, Pak decided to defect. Her sister hired a broker, and six months later Pak made it to South Korea. While she has not gotten a truck full of apples, she eats at least one every day.

Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean soldiers carry out training exercises in the North Korean town of Sinuiju opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

SINCE KIM AND PAK DEFECTED, they have shared their stories to decry North Korea’s human rights abuses. Both have found it discouraging that for years, America’s foreign policy on North Korea has often focused primarily on the regime’s nuclear threat and relegated human rights to the back burner. They believe that solving the regime’s nuclear threat will require jointly addressing the two issues.

Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, called human rights the “Achilles’ heel” of the Kim regime. She said the United States must prioritize human rights to combat what she calls Kim Jong Un’s “Art of Deception.” For years, the regime has falsely promised to give up its nuclear program, winning concessions and aid from the international community while conceding almost nothing.

The regime also deceives its own people, using propaganda to brainwash them into believing that all Americans are “Yankee imperialist wolves” bent on the country’s destruction. This threat is how the regime justifies depriving the North Korean people of their human rights.

“We are told we must sacrifice so that we have nuclear weapons to protect the people,” Pak said.

An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people are laboring in the political prison camps, where their work is used to ‘support the missile and weapons program.’

So for 70 years, the North Korean people have sacrificed everything: Like Pak Tae Kyeong, they have witnessed their friends and family members die of starvation. Like Kim Hye Sook, hundreds of thousands of people have labored in the political prison camps, where their work is used to “support the missile and weapons program,” policy analyst Olivia Enos noted in an analysis for the Heritage Foundation.

“We feed into the lie of the regime when we don’t talk about human rights … when we show up at the negotiating table and all we talk about is the nuclear program,” Scholte said.

Kang Seo with the Defense Forum Foundation agrees that the United States should emphasize human rights, but she sees why Trump doesn’t confront Kim directly on human rights abuses. It may be, she says, part of his “Art of the Deal” strategy: “Businessmen don’t say bad things to your face, but his tactic is to keep negotiation and momentum ongoing.”

Seo noted that the administration has demonstrated its commitment to North Korean human rights in other ways. The State Department recently increased funding earmarked to address North Korean human rights issues from $1.5 million in 2018 to $6 million in 2019. The funding is awarded to organizations that support defectors and seek to get information to the North Korean people.

In the meantime, Scholte wonders whether Trump’s “Art of the Deal” will best Kim’s “Art of Deception.”

At the 2018 North Korea–United States summit in Singapore, Trump showed Kim a four-minute video on an iPad that contrasted scenes of prosperity and plenty with images of rocket launches and mushroom clouds. The voiceover says the North Korean leader has a choice whether he will be a “hero” and “shake the hand of peace.”

“Trump was basically saying, door No. 1 or door No. 2?” she said. “He’s showing the regime, you have a choice.”

Harvest Prude

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 04/15/2019 07:32 am

    Heart breaking. The depths of evil seem bottomless. Oh for God to move in NK and in this world!

    Thanks for this article.