Forum Focuses on N. Korea’s Rights Abuses


North Korean defectors and human rights advocates called on Western countries Saturday to take a tougher line against North Korea, saying the Communist regime is misdirecting humanitarian aid and keeping political malcontents in nightmarish labor camps.

On the opening day of a two-day conference here, the participants said they hoped that President Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil” formulation will generate more global attention to the country and its abuse of human rights.

“The human rights situation in North Korea is the worst in the world,” declared Haruhisa Ogawa, a representative of an organization in Tokyo that helps North Korean defectors.


The first day of the International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees focused on testimony by North Koreans who have escaped across the porous border with China.

Lee Young Kuk, who served in the personal guard of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, described a labor camp known as Yodok political prison No. 15, to which he was sent after failing in a previous attempt to escape to China. Lee said that prisoners were beaten daily as punishment and that some were tortured and killed for trivial offenses, such as carrying food in their pockets. Lee said he witnessed one man being buried alive and another dragged to his death by a military car.

The prisoners were fed one small bowl of corn soup a day, and those who survived ate snakes, rats and grass and sometimes picked undigested kernels of corn from their own feces, Lee said.

Lee and other conference participants said that some prison camps hold entire families, including children, because one family member committed a political offense.

“There is increasing public discontent, but if somebody says a word, the whole family will be taken away to political prison camp,” Lee said.

In some women’s camps, particularly those for women who tried to escape to China, pregnant prisoners are subjected to abuse designed to induce abortions, conference participants said. Newborns reportedly are killed as a matter of routine. Willy Fautre, president of the Belgian organization Human Rights Without Frontiers, read testimony from former female prisoners who said they saw other prisoners forced to smother newborns.


But for all the alleged abuses at the labor camps, delegates said North Korea’s worst human rights violation is the widespread food shortages caused by a regime unwilling to reform its shattered economy or to distribute humanitarian aid fairly. It is believed that more than 1 million North Koreans--and possibly as many as 2 million--out of a population of 24 million have died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses since the mid-1990s.

“This catastrophe is not the result of an act of God. It is the appalling product of a cynical act of man. It is a tragedy made possible only by totalitarian repression unparalleled in the world today,” said Marcus Noland, a Korea specialist at the Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Human rights advocates at the conference said that much of the humanitarian aid donated by the West does not reach the people most in need but instead is reserved for the North Korean military and the leadership. They said that after aid is distributed, often in the presence of international monitors, officials return to collect it, saying it should be donated to the military in the form of “patriotic contributions.”

“Food only enriches the leadership. Even food distributed under the auspices of the U.N. was sent to a kindergarten and then taken away,” said Lee Jae Kung, 63, who escaped North Korea in 1998.

Lee, a former South Korean fisherman who lived for nearly 30 years in the North after his boat was captured by a North Korean patrol, said: “It is almost impossible to believe what is going on in North Korea. If you go to Pyongyang [the capital], everything appears orderly, but when you get into the villages, the conditions of life are beyond what anybody can imagine.”

The conference was organized by a conservative South Korean newspaper and the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonpartisan U.S.-backed organization that promotes democracy. Although the participants were united in their criticism of the North Korean government, they disagreed about how to approach the problem.

Varied Responses Urged

Some defectors said that humanitarian aid is counterproductive--that it only prolongs the existence of the regime--while others said enough food aid is getting through to people in need to make it worthwhile. A few participants said South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of dialogue with the North will eventually help, while others argued that such policies are no better than were attempts to appease Adolf Hitler.

“Those who keep silent about what is happening in North Korea are guilty too. Maybe that is the real axis of evil,” said Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician and aid worker.

To the extent that there was any consensus Saturday, the delegates recommended that Western aid organizations make sure that distribution of food in North Korea is closely monitored. There also was widespread agreement that the international community should do more to help the more than 100,000 North Korean refugees living in China. Defectors and aid organizations said the female refugees are often subjected to abuse, sold by human traffickers into prostitution or forced into unwanted marriages.

In addition, North Koreans who are illegally in China live in constant fear of being arrested and returned to the North, where they would probably be sent to prison camps. Human rights advocates are lobbying for the creation of refugee camps along the Chinese-North Korean border that would provide shelter for the defectors until they can be resettled in other countries.

Fautre, the Belgian human rights expert, said he and others hope that Bush’s branding of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq, will mean a greater focus on the regime in Pyongyang.

“I don’t believe the sunshine policy is working anymore. I think we need to do something more subversive to topple this government but in a nonviolent way. Maybe smuggling in radios to the people. I think with the ‘axis of evil’ speech, others are beginning to see it in the same way,” Fautre said.

Fautre’s dream and that of others lobbying for camps along the border is that an outflow of defectors would eventually weaken the regime.