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Special Report
May 29, 2012
Hellish conditions in North Korea’s prison camps enable the Kim dynasty to maintain its stranglehold on the impoverished country.
As far as anyone knows, the gates of North Korea’s notorious gulags, or kwalliso, do not have the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free”) emblazoned above them, as the ones to Auschwitz did, or, as did the entrance to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the admonition, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

No, the gates of North Korea’s gulag archipelago—which imprisons an estimated 200,000 men, women, and children at any given time—don’t have these inscriptions, but they may as well. For the authorities in the kwalliso will work you hard, and the “freedom” this brings is almost certain death. Indeed, for most inmates, there is no hope of seeing the outside ever again.

Percentage-wise, the kwalliso population—200,000 people out of a nation of 24 million—amounts to roughly the same as the percentage of American citizens who are incarcerated, that is, slightly less than 1 percent.

However, North Korea’s prison population includes many who have no idea why they are there. Some were taken in the middle of the night with no explanation, no arraignment, and no trial. It includes people guilty of crimes such as singing songs they didn’t know are forbidden, or speaking carelessly in a public place.  

It also includes people whose only crime is being related to an accused criminal, and children who innocently made politically incorrect remarks in public.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is that our American prison system does not experience an estimated 20-40 percent annual mortality rate. And yet, even with 40,000-80,000 inmates dying each year from starvation, physical abuse, disease, and execution, the population in the kwalliso (pronounced “kwah-lee-soh”) stays steady at 200,000. It has to. These camps are a critical piece in the totalitarianism puzzle that allows the Kim dynasty—the first dynasty in the history of communism—to stay in power.

History of the kwalliso

At the conclusion of the Korean Conflict (1950-53), Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), initiated a series of brutal purges to weed out both potential rivals and anyone who would actively question his vision or decisions.

By the late 1950s, most of those swept up in these internecine conflicts were either dead or in concentration camps. These institutions were not the same as today’s kwalliso, however. Their purpose simply was to segregate those who could undermine the regime by “infecting” the general population.

By 1958, however, Kim had decided this was not enough. So much did he fear any dissent in the “Hermit Kingdom” (so-called because of its utter isolation), he ordered a complete ideological profile worked up on every one of his nation’s 9,864,000 people.

Every friend, every family member, ancestry, family connections, their connections’ connections—each relationship was studied. Anything indicating imperialist, reactionary, or counter-revolutionary relations or tendencies was grounds for torture, and then execution or imprisonment.

To compile these extensive files, Kim’s internal security apparatus developed an almost unfathomably intricate spy network. The government assigned one resident spy—called a “guidance worker”—to every five households. The state paid these people to monitor everything their neighbors did, who they interacted with, their tastes, how they spent their leisure time, and, most importantly, what they said.

This spy network as it was originally designed by Kim is still in place today. If a guidance worker detects even the slightest trace of what might be considered ideological deviance, the suspect then receives a late-night or early-morning visit from the Ministry of Social Safety. If guilt is determined—there is no trial, for the DPRK courts assume one is guilty unless compelling evidence overturns that foregone conclusion—the suspect and his entire family are taken away. They take with them only the clothes they wear.

The gulags have become indispensable to the regime, says Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC). “North Korea can’t exist without the prison camps,” she says. “The most important thing North Korea needs is a means to frighten its people.”

What it takes to get arrested

Over time, the nation’s already very wary Christians took to meeting in ever-smaller groups and ceased catechizing their children. After all, what if a young child innocently spoke about what his family had taught him about the Faith? By the time children reach adolescence and are capable of more discretion, they might already be wearing the red scarves and Kim Il Sung badges sported by the Young Pioneers, the child’s division of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. Like the guidance assistants, these young people are taught to report any suspicion of bourgeois activity, even by their own parents, and no activity is more bourgeois than religion.

Of course, a crime against the proletariat doesn’t have to be a religious one, or one that is blatantly counter-revolutionary. In a land where malfeasance is in eye of the totalitarian beholder, a young lady named Ji Hae-nam received a three-year sentence after a neighbor reported her for singing a South Korean pop song.

Lee Soon-ok was a procurement specialist. When she would not put aside extra goods for a manager’s personal use, he framed her for embezzling state property, and she received a 13-year sentence. Luckily, she survived, probably because she received one of the surprise amnesties the government sometimes awards in honor of, say, Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

Starving people who sneak into China simply for work or food without permission will also serve time if repatriated. And, of course, the prisons also hold your garden-variety rapists, thieves, murderers, and other bona fide criminals.

Additionally, the camps contain some who once counted themselves among the country’s top leadership. Whatever humanitarian offenses they may have committed for the regime, their more fatal crime was to come out on the losing side of some governmental power struggle.

There is also the case of the late Hwang Jang Yop, who served as a top aide to the deceased Kims. When he became North Korea’s highest-ranking defector ever in 1997, the regime imprisoned his entire family, even distant relatives.

Then there are those such as Sgt. Son Jang-nam, who served in the presidential security service. His pregnant wife was arrested in 1997 for saying Kim Jong Il had caused the famine then rocking the country. So badly did her interrogators beat her, she miscarried.

The next year, the couple defected across the northern border into China, where a Protestant group evangelized Jang-nam. After his wife died from disease, inspired by his newfound faith, Son snuck back into his native land. However, authorities caught him with 20 Bibles and some tracts on Christianity. After giving a torture-induced confession, Son was executed four years ago this November.

The guards

After you go through the tall, electric, barbed-wire-laced gates, and as you get off the bus, the first thing that is made immediately evident about life in the kwalliso is the absolute power of the guards. There are no limits on what they can do to you.

From day-one of their training, the guards are instructed that prisoners no longer qualify as human persons, but are instead to be considered “just tailless beasts.” After a while, the non-stop violence further desensitizes the jailers.

“At the beginning I was frightened when I witnessed [the violence], but it was repeated again and again, so my feelings were paralyzed,” Ahn Myong Chol, a former guard at Camp No. 22, told reporters for NBC. Ahn said that beating and killing prisoners was encouraged and even rewarded by prison authorities.

Ahn continued:

They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings. If someone is against socialism, if someone tries to escape from prison, then kill him. If there’s a record of killing any escapee, then the guard will be entitled to study in the college. Because of that some guards kill innocent people.

Sometimes, however, the guards’ abuse of power can backfire. At Onsong, near the Chinese and Russian borders, Camp No. 12—one of the largest kwalliso in the system—housed 15,000 inmates and spanned an estimated 155 square miles.

Sometime in 1987, a coal miner witnessed one guard’s particularly egregious abuse of another inmate. The prisoner grew enraged and killed the guard. Suddenly 200 prisoners were on the offensive, attacking a guard barracks. Five thousand political prisoners eventually joined in the uprising.

Guards from a neighboring camp soon gathered at the perimeter of Camp No. 12 with machine guns, and within a short while, more than 5,000 prisoners were dead. Soon thereafter, the camp was leveled to the ground, and all further mention of it prohibited.

Living quarters

In the kwalliso, camp officials will house anywhere from 30 to 100 individuals toe-to-toe in a room that can range in size from 10” x 15.5” to 18” x 30”—the latter being about the size of a two-and-a-half-car garage.

An inmate’s bed is the floor covered with straw or a bamboo mat, or perhaps a wood board with both straw and a mat. Few of the rooms have heating, and temperatures in the region can drop as low as -10° F. The question quickly becomes, how does one get used to frostbite?

Families sentenced together often receive small, ramshackle houses if sent to camps where separation of the sexes is not mandatory. However, it is just as true that in some cases, prisoners are required to dig holes in the cold, wet ground for shelter.

I spy…

In addition to the brutal living conditions, prisoners also have to get used to something else: any number of their roommates and workmates may be spies. Reports have indicated that roughly a third of each camp’s inmates are compelled by the guards to snoop on their fellow prisoners.

These spies must report everything, or else. If you complain, they report. If you grumble, they report. If you express a counter-revolutionary thought—probably not hard to do when the “revolution” has been anything but kind to you—they report.

The work day

After inmates receive their work assignments—timber harvesting, coal mining, shoe making—officials then place them in a first, second, or third degree facility. In third degree facilities, one can marry and have children, although the odds of a child surviving toddlerhood are not good. Second and first degree facilities, for the most part, are segregated by gender.

In some prisons, inmates only work 12 hours per day. In others, the average work day can extend to as long as 18 hours. An Amnesty International report on conditions in the Yodok camp described days of hard labor beginning at 4 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m., followed by two more hours of daily “ideology education.” Need it be said that there is no Sabbath day laid aside for rest?

The days are so long because the quotas each prisoner and their groups have to fill are so large. The inmates give the regime a source of the cheapest labor one can get—slave labor—and since it doesn’t value any one of their lives, it will squeeze as much out of each person as they can.

Labor camp officials do not adjust the quotas for the very young, either. Four, five, seven, ten years old—age does not matter. Journalist Kang Chol Hwan, who wrote the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang about his 10 years as a prisoner at Yodok, arrived at the camp at age 9 because the government accused his grandfather of being a Japanese spy. He recounts the following episode:

When I was 10 years old, we were put to work digging clay and constructing a building. And there were dozens of kids, and while digging the ground, it collapsed. And they died. And the bodies were crushed flat. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents, even though the parents came.

Labor camp officials do not adjust the quotas for the aged or chronically ill, either. As one report put it, you must “work until [you] drop—death is [your] only escape.”

And at the end of the work day, prisoners cannot count on returning to the barracks for some well-deserved slumber.

As former prisoner and defector Lee M. reported, “Once their arduous 12 hours have been worked, the children are allowed a one-hour break before being herded, along with adult prisoners, into re-education classes where [everyone] sit[s] from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. listening to ‘instructors’ lecture them on the compassion and benevolence of their ‘beloved and radiant Kim Jong Il.’”

The food

According to the Amnesty International report on conditions in the kwalliso, the average meal for prisoners consists of 200 grams of corn gruel. To this may be added some salty water, and, if the prisoner is very lucky, a small cabbage leaf. Former prisoner Kim Hye Sook told BBC Television in June 2011 that she received “50 grams [of corn] a day—only two small cupfuls.”

Starvation causes people to take desperate measures to survive. There are reports of prisoners capturing snakes, mice, fleas, and even rats for food, and eating weeds, grasses, roots, and bark. When times become really desperate and the coast is clear, prisoners might pick corn and beans out of livestock dung, according to Human Rights Watch.

We cannot attribute the lack of food to the famine sweeping North Korea alone, for the starvation rations were a feature of the penal colonies from the beginning, when North Korea was still a reasonably prosperous nation.

When prisoners are malnourished, they are weak. When they are weak, they are more easily controlled. Add the meager caloric intake to exhausting work, and you have a very compliant prison population.

Some prisoners in the aforementioned third level facilities and elsewhere use their limited personal time to attempt to grow potatoes or corn, which can typically thrive in the worst soil conditions. However, the soil in the northern and central parts of the country is so bad, even these crops produce little.

It is true that in some camps, inmates get cornmeal and a little animal fat with the Korean national dish kimchee (fermented cabbage). They might even get some cabbage soup. This is still not enough on which to live, and it does not take long for the workers to look quite skeletal. After six months of interrogation, former bodyguard to Kim Jong Il and attempted defector Lee Young-kuk dropped from 205 to 120 pounds, according to a Time magazine profile. Upon entering the camp at Yodok, his 4.5 ounce-per-meal diet took his weight down even more.

Diseases

After work accidents and starvation, the next biggest killer in the kwalliso is disease. Tuberculosis is common, as are a variety of chest conditions such as pneumonia. Many contract lung diseases from constantly inhaling coal and limestone dust, as well as diseases rare in the West such as paratyphoid (often caught from eating or drinking something infected with salmonella) and pellagra (a disease characterized by skin lesions caused by eating too much nutrient-deficient corn to which women are particularly prone).

For most of these diseases, cures are readily available. Pellagra, for instance, merely requires the introduction of fruits and vegetables into the diet, plus maybe a little brewer’s yeast to make up for the corn’s lack of niacin.

Even so simple a remedy, however, is too good for “tailless beasts.”

Fortunately for prisoners, though, camp commandants sometimes grow concerned that they are accruing too many deaths or executions. They have to slow it down a bit.

Therefore, they will often send a prisoner who they think is close to death home, believing he cannot possibly recover. Once he reaches his family, he may regain his health, however. When this happens, many of these will attempt to defect. It is because so many have achieved success in this that we know what little we do about the kwalliso. Without their testimonies, all we would know is what we see from satellite images.   

Death

Of course, most inmates aren’t this fortunate. For most, it would take a miracle for them to leave alive. Most only ever leave by being carried outside the gates for burial, or to become food for the guards’ dogs or the birds in the fields.

The dead get buried wearing nothing. According to one man interviewed by Human Rights Watch, death is so common in the camp that one of the first things the guards make a new inmate do is bury a corpse. The prisoner is then compelled to wear the clothing directly off the dead person’s body.

Combine malnourishment and dangerous occupations such as coal mining, and it’s easy to see why deaths among laborers are common. Former prisoner Kim Yong told the non-governmental organization Freedom House that in his unit of 500 miners, five to six deaths per month were typical.

Another former prisoner estimated that during her two years of incarceration, 20 percent of the prisoners in her camp perished. Some say the rate is 20-40 percent per year; another report published by Freedom House estimates that the annual rate is one-third to one-half.

A 1997 study by the University of Virginia titled Statistics of Democide states that in North Korea from 1950 to the time of the document’s writing, “710,000 to slightly over 3,500,000 people have been murdered, with a mid-estimate of almost 1,600,000.” Keep in mind, this was prior to the full effect of the North Korean famine being known. The true figure would be much higher today.

Death by execution is also common. Some executions are public. Former prisoner Kang Chul Hwan told the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof,

Those [escapees] who were caught easily were shot to death in front of the other inmates.… But those whose escapes had been troublesome to the guards, or who had beaten guards during their escape, they were hanged slowly from a gallows so that it took them a long time to die. And while they were dying, the guards made us inmates line up and throw stones at them.

Not all executions are public, however. The public ones happen when someone violates a rule or attempts escape. Secret ones occur when the person is deemed to have a “bad influence” on the other prisoners. This would presumably include (although it is impossible to know) evangelization.

More and more executions are being conducted in secret. After one public execution in 1990 at Camp No. 14, the inmates rose up in anger and took the lives of eight guards. Authorities retaliated by killing 1,500 prisoners, but public executions were reportedly less frequent after that.

Sexual assault

While guards can prey upon anyone, conditions are particularly brutal for female prisoners due to widespread sexual violence. Is this treatment against the rules? Absolutely. Then again, if the commandant doesn’t observe the rules, why should the rookie guard? Yes, there have been a few reported cases of officials being disciplined, but these are in stark contrast to the many instances where such abuse is just a normal part of life.

There are numerous accounts from escaped prisoners of female inmates being ordered to completely disrobe and then being beaten by prison guards. Gang rapes and other forms of abuse are sometimes so extreme, the women die afterward. It is also common for guards to offer female prisoners better jobs or more food in exchange for sex.

According to a Freedom House report, women who conceive after sexual relations with guards are usually forced to have abortions. Former prisoner Kim Yong told Freedom House that he was aware of “several women prisoners made pregnant by guards who were taken away to the fields and never returned.”

 

Another tactic is to ensure a pregnant woman transfers to a very strenuous, physical job that will hopefully cause a miscarriage. Or the guard will simply enjoin his comrades to practice their soccer kicks on her abdomen, which accomplishes the same end.

Human experimentation

After World War II, records revealed that the Nazis did not confine their atrocities to murdering several million Jews, Catholics, gypsies, and other groups. The Nazis had also used the concentration camp prisoners, whom they deemed untermensch (subhuman), for various experiments with chemical and biological agents.

That frightening legacy lives on in the DPRK, as has been confirmed by former prisoners, an ex-Camp 22 manager named Kwon Hyok, and various original documents smuggled out of Camp 22.

Lee Soon Ok, author of Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, was one of an estimated 6,000 political prisoners in Camp No. 1. She reports that during her captivity, authorities particularly singled out Christians. If they refused to apostatize, their captors would pour molten metal on them or down their throats. Christians were especially used for nuclear, biological, or chemical testing. The North Korean state sees Christians as the lowest of the low.

Im Chun-yong says the DPRK carries out such experiments on mentally or physically handicapped children as well. Im was a captain in the Korean People’s Army’s Special Forces who defected with a handful of his troops. One of his soldiers told him how he had helped force a group of people into a glass room that slowly filled with gas. The doctors used a stopwatch to measure how long it took the agent to kill everyone in the chamber.

“If you are born mentally or physically deficient,” says Im, “the government says your best contribution to society…is as a guinea pig for biological and chemical weapons testing.”

Kwon Hyuk was head of security at Camp No. 22, the nation’s largest concentration camp. In a 2004 BBC documentary, he said, “I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber. The parents, a son, and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save the kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing. For the first time it hit me that even prisoners are capable of powerful human affection.”

Did this brutality trouble him in any way? Not at all, he said. “I felt that they thoroughly deserved such a death. Because all of us were led to believe that all the bad things that were happening to North Korea were their fault. It would be a total lie for me to say I [felt] sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.”

Former prison guard Ahn Myong Chol reports that prisoners provide practice for young surgeons who were learning to operate. Inmates were not given anesthesia beforehand. Authorities also deliberately starved inmates in a “deliberate effort to study physical resistance.”

Furthermore, he says:

The people who carry out these executions and these experiments all drink before they do it. But they are real experts now; sometimes they hit prisoners with a hammer on the back of the head. The poor prisoners then lose their memory, and they use them as zombies for target practice.

In a 2004 article, the British newspaper The Guardian reported:

Defectors have smuggled out documents that appear to reveal how methodical the chemical experiments were. One stamped “top secret” and “transfer letter” is dated February 2002. The name of the victim was Lin Hun-hwa. He was 39. The text reads: “The above person is transferred from ... camp number 22 for the purpose of human experimentation of liquid gas for chemical weapons.”

Official denial

Despite the numerous reports from defectors, former guards, and former prisoners, the DPRK officially denies the very existence of the camps, much less what is happening behind their fences.

Ben Rogers is East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a United Kingdom-based non-profit working to heighten awareness of human rights violations around the world that would otherwise go unreported.

In an interview with CWR, he told of a diplomatic trip to North Korea he took with Baroness Caroline Cox and Lord David Alton. According to Rogers, whenever they met North Korean officials and the British delegation brought up the subject of the camps, “[the North Korean officials] listened impassively, the temperature in the room dropped a bit, their body language dropped a bit, and they silently received documents we brought.”

“One meeting, however, took on a different nature when we were in their Supreme Court,” Rogers said. The delegation was being given a tour of a courtroom by the DPRK’s equivalent of a Supreme Court Justice.

Rogers says at one point, Lord Alton, who is Catholic, seized on something this gentleman said and started to raise issues about the prison camps.

Our host initially denied the existence of the camps, but then Lord Alton raised specific examples, such as Yodok.

The man answered, “I’ve been to Yodok, and we don’t execute anyone there except for crimes like murders. Where have you got these stories? Did you get them from the Americans? From the South Koreans?” “No,” Lord Alton answered, “we got them from many survivors.”

“Oh, well, these people, they are criminals who’ve escaped from the prison camps.”

At that moment, Alton said to him, “How can you say they’re criminals when we know the case of Shin Dong-Yuk, born in prison camp and spent his first 23 years in camps, escaped when 23, witnessed his mother and brother executed in the camp, witnessed torture—how can somebody be born a criminal?”

After that, there was this kind of electrifying silence for probably 30 seconds, although it felt like longer. And then the law officer simply, “Please kindly, shall we continue with our tour?”

In the documentary Welcome to North Korea, a former guard reports how one “concentration camp was moved further inland, [because] in the present situation [authorities would] rather hide these matters. They’re scared of the international community. That’s why they lie about how many people are in jail.”

Dr. Lee Sung-Yoon, who teaches international politics at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, tells CWR, “They are quite sensitive to world public opinion. For instance, when the UN General Assembly passes a resolution condemning human rights abuses, they don’t like it. North Korea is the only country in the world that claims it has no human rights problems at all.”

The situation today

Many had hoped that having spent his adolescence in the West, Kim Jong Eun—Kim Jong Il’s son and successor—would have eased the situation in the concentration camps.

If anything, the exact opposite has happened, for several reasons. To start, he is so young. Some reports put him at 28 or 29, since no one knows the exact year of his birth. Thus, unlike his father, he had very little governing experience before assuming power, at most two years. It is reported that many in the upper echelons are disgusted with the idea that a socialist country would allow power to pass from father to son, just as in a monarchy. Because of this, many are hoping Kim will slip and show he is too weak to handle the job. Then they will pounce.

In order to show he has what it takes, Kim has actually increased the number of people in the camps, increased public executions, and increased the manhunt for those who escape to China. In concert with Chinese police, North Korean security agents have swarmed the cities along the DPRK-PRC border and remote surrounding countryside looking for defectors.

Tim Peters, a US human-rights activist who operates along the China-North Korea border, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “We cannot say with absolute certainty what their fate will be, but definitely, since the death of Kim Jong Il, the message is that punishment for defectors is extremely harsh.”

“I don’t want to say all will be shot, but the consequences are graver now than they were three or four years ago,” Peters said.

This cannot happen without Chinese complicity. The Chinese, who call these escaped persons “illegal economic migrants,” say there is no proof that they will face the harsh conditions described in this piece. Given their unparalleled access to North Korea, however, that claim is disingenuous at best.

Between January and March of this year, English-language Korean news outlets have regularly reported on efforts to get the Chinese to recognize these individuals as refugees, as they most definitely are under Chinese-signed UN treaties, and to allow them safe passage to South Korea or any other country that will take them.

The concern for China, however, is two-fold. One, they do not want a flood of people pouring across their border À la the East Germans in 1989, who came across the Hungarian border with Austria in huge numbers when given half a chance to do so.

This leads to their second concern, the destabilization of the regime. If the DPRK falls, absent China sending its PLA forces across the Tumen and Yalu Rivers into the peninsula and resurrecting the Korean Conflict, the Chinese would have an America-friendly neighbor on its border. It was to prevent this that they became involved in the Korean Conflict to begin with back in the early 1950s. Clearly, this is not an option with which they have grown comfortable in the intervening years.

Does anyone have George Clooney’s number?

Furthermore, the South Koreans are not crazy about more defectors coming into their country. Since life in the south is so incredibly different from the north, many newcomers have a terribly difficult time adjusting. Some even find themselves pining for home where, instead of busing tables at age 67 in some dingy restaurant, they at least had jobs that carried with them a measure of respect and decent salaries. Also, southerners consider defectors hicks, in part because even the educated ones generally are not as well-educated as South Koreans. Another reason for this perception is that those from the north speak a form of Korean that has none of the English words the south has adopted since 1950. This initially makes communication very difficult.

Additionally, the refugees receive very generous government-paid job training, housing, and financial assistance to help them get on their feet. Even so, a good number never quite manage.

Nonetheless, despite South Koreans’ ambivalence toward the defectors when they actually arrive, many are now taking an active interest in the plight of refugees in China and in keeping them from being repatriated back to the DPRK.

A steady series of demonstrations organized by Scholte’s NKFC and others have taken place outside of Chinese embassies and consulates around the world since late February, not only in Seoul, but in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

Korean film star Cha In-pyo and his wife, actress Shin Ae-ra, have created a group called “Cry With Us” to help those caught in China. On March 4, Cha and his wife hosted a concert featuring 50 Korean musical acts and movie stars. Cha says this is not a one-time effort, and that he would try to enlist the help of Western artists and celebrities, including Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2.

The Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported on March 6, “Opposition is growing [even] within China against the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors who were arrested there, with columnists, novelists, and other intellectuals posting comments on social media criticizing Beijing’s policy.” Furthermore, numerous recent posts on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, were against the government’s repatriation policy.

Indeed, movement on this front has recently increased. Just before the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March, unnamed sources said China would allow those North Korean refugees who had attained asylum in the South Korean embassy and its consulates in China to discretely leave for South Korea. Coupled with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s remarkably unusual statement prior to the DPRK’s failed April missile launch—“North Korea would be better off focusing on improving the lives of its people”—this could mark a significant change in the situation of North Korean defectors. And if that happens, it could mark a turn for the kwalliso. Any or all of this, however, may be hoping for too much at present.

A growing number of members of Congress are also taking up the cause of the North Korean people, as are members of both houses in Britain’s parliament. The effort is small so far, but perhaps with the additional attention and God’s grace, these forgotten captives might one day see the proclamation of their release and liberty from their oppression.

After 60-plus years, that would be a good thing.

 
About the Author
Brian O'Neel 

Brian O’Neel writes from Wisconsin.
 

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