Friday, December 30, 2005

The plight of North Koreans today

Kang Chol Hwan is a former North Korean prisoner and author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang.

The plight of North Koreans today, Kang says, is “very similar” to that of Jews during World War II. ...When I see photos of the Jewish genocide, my heart just breaks.”

Read more

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Indifference at plight of North Koreans

"Why, I wonder, do we express revulsion when reading of Stalin's gulag in the 1930s-60s; Mao's secret famine in the 1960s; or the killing fields of Pol Pot in the 1970s, yet show indifference at the plight of North Koreans today?"

--Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Testimony of North Korean defector

"At the camp [where I was held], I witnessed public executions, forced labor, and other inhumane atrocities.

"A new prisoner in the North Korean political prison camps is taught not to consider themselves as human beings. The prisoners cannot complain of beatings or even murders.

“Even the children are subject to forced labor, and about one third of them die of malnutrition and heavy labor. I also suffered from malnutrition three months after being imprisoned, lacking even the strength to walk.

“Because we were not given any source of protein, we would catch and eat snakes, frogs, or even worms in order to survive. At first, I did not want to taste these things. One day my friends caught some rats while working in the fields and roasted them on an open fire.

“That was the first time I tasted rat meat, and that one piece of rat meat sustained me. From then on I ate anything to survive: rats, frogs, snakes, and worms.

"Prisoners who do not do this could die in less than a year. People like me who are able to eat anything can survive longer."

Kang Chol-Hwan, North Korean defector and human-rights activist

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Fundraiser for North Korean refugees

Tim Peters has worked for nine years to find inventive ways to help North Koreans and their nation’s refugees.

He and his group, Helping Hands Korea, began by trying to send a ton of corn into the communist country each month to battle famine there. Corn is less valuable than rice, which might be redirected by North Korean officials to military bases instead of to elementary schools, he said.

About three years ago, he paired with a bakery in China that sends high-nutrient buns over the North Korean border each day to feed school children. Sending baked bread, instead of sacks of ingredients, provides more insurance students, rather than others, will get the loaves before they spoil, he said.

More recently, Peters has taken to raising money to help North Korean refugees who have made it as far as China, but need more help escaping to another nearby country where South Korean officials can offer help. The refugees often live in China for six months or longer.

Getting a refugee into China costs about $500. Getting someone out of China — where people are returned to North Korea if caught — costs about $2,000, rescue workers have said.

[Last year] Helping Hands helped sustain about 500 North Koreans living in China

[Excerpt of article by Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes]

Fundraisers for North Korean refugees (2)

Tim Peters is trying to … help North Koreans fight their poverty … by holding a fund-raiser to collect more money to help the refugees. The night will include a silent art auction.

“It’s not only for raising resources,” he said at an interview, “but to raise awareness about the North Koreans.”

Refugees typically … make it to China, Peters said. From there, they must travel to another country, usually Mongolia or through Vietnam to Cambodia, where South Korean officials can begin to help, he said.

Peters has lived and done missionary work in South Korea on and off for 30 years. He said North Koreans he helps know of his religious motivation but “our help is not contingent on their acceptance [of Christianity].”

Twice, Peters has testified before congressional committees about his work with North Korean refugees, according to the Family Care Foundation. He also submitted a paper last year to the World Economic Forum during its East Asian Economic Summit.

Peters talked Monday about some of the success stories — a child who received “clandestine medical assistance” while hiding in China, a woman who managed to cross the North Korean border although she had lost all 10 of her toes to frostbite as a labor camp.

Not all make it. Recently, a 12-year-old boy, caught in China, was returned to North Korea, he said.

“You get to know these people, even if you only see them for a day of two,” he said.

[Excerpt of article by Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes]

Friday, December 23, 2005

Christians under siege in North Korea

The persecution of Christians overseas continues and, in some countries, is increasing, specialists on international religious liberty said at a Dec. 14 briefing at the U.S. Capitol.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission told the audience of congressional staffers, activists and reporters, “We come here at Christmastime, and we can celebrate our religious freedom. We’re here to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves because they live in countries where they are not free to worship.”

In a briefing titled “Christmas Under Siege Around the World,” Land, Chaput and five other experts on the issue described the conditions for Christians in countries such as North Korea, China, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and India.

Though North Korea is the “world’s most closed society,” a recently released USCIRF report based on interviews with refugees and escapees gives some indication of the ongoing repression of believers in that Asian country in which the late dictator, Kim Il Sung, is the object of a “quasi-religious cult of personality,” Land said.

The findings in interviews of the North Koreans included, Land said:
1) “There is no freedom of thought, conscience or belief in North Korea”;

2) North Koreans are required to attend indoctrination sessions at least weekly at Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Research Centers;

3) none knew of “any authorized religious activity;”

4) some reported on executions of people who participated in religious activities or possessed a Bible or other religious material.

[Excerpt from an article by Tom Strode, Baptist Press]

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Envoy to China: Treat Defectors Better

The U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz, urged China to improve its treatment of North Korean defectors and expressed hope the United States could also become an accessible haven for some refugees.

Lefkowitz said the issue of North Korean refugees was one of the "real personal human tragedies" of the situation around rights in the communist nation.

Michael Horowitz, senior adviser to the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said the U.S. has to push China to change its stance on defectors by threatening sanctions. Still, he said tough measures — like sanctions and campaigns to either boycott or switch the venue of 2008 Beijing Olympics — could grab Chinese attention but also backfire.

Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, said U.S. diplomats refused to accept North Korean defectors in China, Vietnam and Thailand over the past six months. "They told me, ‘Don‘t bring them here to the U.S. embassy, please take them to the UNHCR office,‘" Peters said.

[Excerpt from an article by Burt Herman, Brocktown News]

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

U.S. taking diplomacy route on N. Korea

A Bush administration official described the situation in North Korea as brutality and deprivation that "offend our notions of human decency," which Washington is trying to redress through diplomatic means.

"We want them (North Koreans) to have food, and at the same time we want them to have freedom," Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Craner quoted President Bush as saying, "No nation should be a prison for its own people."

Last year, about 300,000 North Koreans fled their starving homeland for China, where they live in fear of being turned in to authorities and repatriated. The Chinese government considers the refugees "economic migrants," though the panelists at the seminar said Beijing is violating an international convention on the treatment of refugees by forcing North Koreans to go back to their homeland.

Those who are repatriated may face execution.

[From an UPI article by Carolyn Ayon Lee]

Diplomacy route on North Korea (2)

Fifty-seven percent of the North Korean population is malnourished, including 45 percent of children under age 5, said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., in an opening speech [at a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute].

North Korea is enduring an eighth straight year of mass starvation due to the policies imposed by the government of Kim Jong Il.

A particularly telling statistic is that Pyongyang has lowered the height requirement for military conscripts to 4 feet 2 inches from 4 feet 11 inches, Brownback said.

In North Korea's notorious prison camps, nearly one-fourth of the population dies each year because of hardships such as hard labor, torture and withheld food, said Brownback, who has been active in developing U.S. policy on North Korea and North Korean refugees.

[From an UPI article by Carolyn Ayon Lee]

Diplomacy route on North Korea (3)

The panelists at at the American Enterprise Institute heard firsthand accounts from several North Korean refugees and from a South Korean pastor who was imprisoned by China for 220 days for assisting the refugees. During his detention in a Chinese prison, Pastor Ki-Won Chun received only a piece of bread and a cup of water, once a day.

Two other panelists, like Chun, are human rights activists helping the North Korean refugees.

"How many more testimonies, heart-wrenching testimonies, heart-breaking testimonies, mind-boggling testimonies before we act, as Senator Brownback has said, in a way that is commensurate with the gravity and the nightmarish quality of what is going on in North Korea?" asked Tim Peters, an American who is the founder of a Seoul-based famine relief program, Helping Hands Korea.

Another activist, German physician Norbert Vollertsen, first went to North Korea as a volunteer doctor. For his work, the North Korean government awarded him the Friendship Medal, which gave him a rare inside look into the country.

"The military elite they are enjoying banquets and fashionable nightclubs; in contrast was the lifestyle of the ordinary people and children -- they are dying, starving," Vollertsen said.

[From an UPI article by Carolyn Ayon Lee]

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tales of Horror Falling Mostly on Deaf Ears

Theirs were compelling tales of privation, hardship, sorrow and unspeakable horrors of sexual slavery.

Kyeong-Sook Cha and Soon-Hee Ma, two defectors from North Korea, testified for the House Committee on International Relations, and provided firsthand accounts of widespread tragedy occurring in the Sino-North Korean border areas.

In order to avoid the massive starvation resulting from North Korea's failed economy, the daughters of these women had escaped to China to earn money for food. When their daughters failed to return, the women followed, braving the icy waters of Tumen River and the security forces on both sides of the border.

Kyeong-Sook Cha went to China with her younger daughter to look for her older daughter, who had disappeared. In the process, she witnessed widespread sexual slavery of North Korean women in China. Cha and her younger daughter were likewise kidnapped, sold as sex slaves, captured by Chinese police, repatriated to North Korea, abused by North Korean security agents, witnessed torture of pregnant women and babies, escaped to China and repeated the experience that would have broken most women the first time.

Despite horrible suffering, Cha miraculously found her older daughter and finally escaped to freedom together.

Soon-Hee Ma's oldest daughter also went to China when the food distribution ceased. Fearing reprisals for her daughter's defection, she and her two remaining daughters escaped North Korea to look for her eldest daughter. They were separated and sold off by human traffickers in China.

Ma, too, was eventually reunited with her daughters. Ma's oldest daughter had been sold to a Chinese "husband," and was able to convince him to buy her family back. Before Chinese authorities could repatriate them to North Korea, they bluffed their way into a South Korean consulate and to safety.

[Excerpted from an article by James Na in The Seattle Times]

Tales of Horror Falling Mostly on Deaf Ears (2)

Unfortunately, no one from the mainstream media was present to bear witness to [Kyeong-Sook Cha and Soon-Hee Ma’s] moving testimony.

Their misfortune was that the hearing took place on Oct. 27. The media in Washington, D.C., were in a feeding frenzy over the Harriet Miers withdrawal and the "Scooter" Libby indictments. Cha's and Ma's tragic stories were ignored.

Congress previously passed landmark legislation, the North Korea Human Rights Act, in 2004. The result of the legislation, however, has not been impressive.

Timothy Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a Christian relief project, complained that, despite the intent of the law to help North Korean defectors, the State Department has been "seriously out of step with the spirit and letter" of the act, and "not a single North Korean refugee has been assisted" in asylum-seeking since the passage of the law, leaving them to the mercy of Chinese police, North Korean agents and human traffickers.

Despite the collusion between the Chinese and North Korean governments to prevent North Korean defections, it is clear from the testimony of Cha, Ma and others involved in the North Korean "underground railroad" that neither government is able to stem the flow of the desperate people who seek to escape nightmarish North Korea, where millions starve and 200,000 languish in gulags.

It is possible, even likely, that aiding the outflow of North Korean defectors and spreading the news of the outside world — thereby encouraging a mass exodus — would do far more to bring down the repugnant North Korean regime and resolve its nuclear threat permanently than any amount of futile diplomatic talk with the regime could achieve.

[Excerpted from an article by James Na in The Seattle Times]

[Full testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific]

Monday, December 19, 2005

Medical conditions in North Korea

By the time a North Korean reaches age 7, the child most likely stands about half a foot shorter than were he living south of the 38th Parallel [in South Korea].

Famine, extreme climates and brutal work camps all contribute to devastating health conditions in North Korea, human rights and medical experts told military medical personnel at Yongsan Garrison.

Lack of food accounts for the stunted growth, according to Tim Peters, founder of a group in Seoul that helps North Korean citizens and refugees. Almost 40 percent of people assigned to labor camps in North Korea die from exhaustion, he said.

And it’s common for young boys to develop liver problems, he said, because they drink large quantities of liquor in the winter in hopes of feeling warm.

“Just getting across the river is not the hardest obstacle” for North Korean refugees, Peters told a group of about 100 medical professionals gathered at Yongsan to learn about the latest developments in military medicine.

[Excerpt from an article by Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Children Without a Future

Humanitarian workers reported to Human Rights Watch a significant and growing problem of North Korean street children in China. The migration of children is caused by similar factors to that of adults, with the additional element of a breakdown in the school system and absenteeism in the provinces of North Korea most affected by food shortages.

These young people are known in Korean as kkot-jebi (child vagrants) and sometimes are described as "orphans," but it is more precise to say they are unaccompanied minors, some of whom have lost one or more parents, or whose parents are incapable of caring for them. Most appear to be boys, aged ten or older.

Typically the most mobile of migrants, the children cross frequently to conduct trade or bring their small earnings across the border to families in North Korea. Some take refuge in shelters established by missionary or humanitarian groups; others sleep on the streets.

For the few lucky enough to make it into third countries, their eventual social integration is made more difficult by their previous life of wandering between the relative freedom of life in China and their families in North Korea, and the `survival skills' they had to learn on the run. Some that arrive in South Korea are found to have serious psychological trauma from being raped, confined, or beaten while in China.

[From a Human Rights Watch report]

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Tale of Human Bondage

The majority of North Korean women who venture into China fall into the hands of human traffickers of the sex trade. Although a victim of such depravity, Lee Mi-ja considers herself providentially protected to have survived to tell the following story.

Lee Mi-ja’s father died when she was still very young, leaving her mother to grapple alone with the hardships of a famine-racked North Korea. Unending work, privation and shrinking government distributions combined to take a fatal toll. Three years ago, her mother, a victim of utter fatigue and despair, surrendered in her daily life-and-death battle for survival in the hardscrabble economy of Hamkyoungpukto, “the Siberia of North Korea.”

In her 20’s, Mi-ja suddenly found herself unshielded from the economic facts of provincial life in the wake of eight years of man-made famine. A middle-aged woman from a nearby town … confided in whispered tones that her relatives lived in China. Furthermore, she had decided to take pity on Mi-ja’s family tragedy expressing a willingness to accompany her personally to China and arrange for Mi-ja to live with relatives described as prosperous. The grieving young woman accepted readily, never suspecting anything but goodwill from her elder.

The harrowing river crossing of the Tumen River went undetected by both North Korean and Chinese border guards. However, Mi-ja’s elation was short-lived.

In a matter of only a few hours, she watched with disbelief as a coarse Chinese farmer stuffed a wad of Chinese bills into the ajumma’s fist and glared at the young woman as if he’d struck a bargain for a fattened pig.

Mi-ja’s heart sank yet again upon discovering she would not even attain the dubious status of a ‘mail order bride.’ Instead she was relegated to a ‘concubine’ for a violent married man, who would burst into a rage and rain blows on her face and arms at the slightest sign of protest to his advances, leaving her face bleeding and swollen.

To endure such dehumanizing treatment would scar the life of even strong individuals. However, Mi-ja is quick to point out that she counts herself fortunate. She escaped her sexual servitude in less than a year. She explains ruefully that many North Korean girls, as young as 15 and 16, have been bought and sold in China up to four times.

[From a testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations]

Full testimony: The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

Friday, December 16, 2005

US Envoy Wants Rights Pressure on North Korea

The U.S. envoy for human rights in North Korea argued that the lack of basic liberties in the communist nation was an international issue and called on the world to pressure Pyongyang. Jay Lefkowitz, speaking at a U.S.-supported international conference on the issue in the South Korean capital, said a campaign to improve human rights in North Korea - which he labeled a "deeply oppressive nation'' - would boost regional stability, not shake it.

"We do not threaten the peace by challenging the status quo,'' Lefkowitz said in his first public appearance in South Korea. "Indeed, failing to follow this path and take steps towards liberalization is a far greater risk to the long-term security and economic prosperity in the region.''

Lefkowitz's remarks appeared to be directed at South Korea, which has pursued a path of reconciliation with the North and refrained from openly criticizing the human rights situation there. South Korean officials say their policy of maintaining stability on the divided peninsula takes precedence over public demands for improving human rights.

Lefkowitz, whose job was created this year by Congress, has been charged with raising the human rights issue and providing assistance to refugees fleeing the North.

North Korea has railed against any criticism of its human rights record as a U.S.-backed effort to seek the overthrow of Kim Jong Il's regime. But U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, who introduced Lefkowitz, said Washington was just seeking to urge the North to reform and live up to its obligations under the U.N. charter and other international treaties.

Calling on China to stop sending North Koreans back to their homeland, Lefkowitz said Beijing should also allow the U.N. refugee agency access to the defectors.

Fumiko Saiga, Japan's newly appointed special envoy on North Korea human rights who was attending the conference, also called for international cooperation on the issue.

[Associated Press]

Thursday, December 15, 2005

CNN: Undercover in the Secret State

Throughout the latter half of November, CNN repeatedly aired Undercover in the Secret State a documentary which follows Korean-American journalist Jung Eun Kim as she tracks down a new breed of dissident in North Korea. These dissidents are using small digital cameras and cell phones to show the world the brutal life inside North Korea.

Images include a video smuggled from North Korea showing a public execution and what appears to be a concentration camp housing political prisoners. In one clip, the residents of a village gather on a hillside to watch the firing-squad execution of a man accused of helping a defector cross into China.

North Korea is the last Stalinist regime, a closed one-party state founded on a personality cult, a rogue regime known for repression of its people and a menacing nuclear arms program, a nearly bankrupt nation, where, in the 1990s, the U.S. government says more than 2 million people starved to death during a famine. Kim Jong Il denied the famine even existed.

Images from the film include emaciated children begging and stealing on streets littered with dead bodies and a nearby market selling bags of rice that had been provided by the United Nations for famine relief.

Human Rights Watch has estimated there are 200,000 political prisoners inside North Korea; Pyongyang denies any camps exist.

The documentary shows dissidents used new technology like small digital cameras and cell phones to get the images and to set up their escapes to China and a safe house in Bangkok, Thailand.

In one scene, a man in North Korea defaces a poster of Kim Jong Il and then flees the country. He tells Korean journalist Jung-Eun Kim he wants the world to know of the growing opposition movement within North Korea.

In the Bangkok segment, Tim Peters of Helping Hand Korea is shown escorting a North Korean who is part of the resistance movement in North Korea. Tim Peters prays fervently for protection against "hit squads" that might attempt to prevent the refugee from applying for refugee status from the UNHCR agency.

Sarah McDonald, who produced and directed the documentary, said, "Some of [the dissidents] are motivated because their families actually starved to death in front of them, and they realized that they just had to go out and seek a way of ensuring that their lives were changing in the future."

[CNN - Undercover in the Secret State]

North Korea Decries CNN Documentary

North Korea criticized CNN for airing footage purporting to show a public execution, accusing it of being part of a U.S. government-organized slander campaign.

CNN aired a documentary with footage defectors claimed to have smuggled out of the North, including a public execution of a person who had helped someone defect to China. The network had said North Korea declined to respond to a request for comment.

In commentary by its official Korean Central News Agency, the North said the footage was "full of sheer lies'' and accused CNN of airing the tape at the instigation of the U.S. government as part of an alleged psychological campaign to overthrow the regime.

The North said it would "not show any mercy to those who are hostile'' to the country, and that its people would rally around leader Kim Jong Il "in order to frustrate the hostile forces' ever-more undisguised moves to isolate and stifle'' the North.

[Associated Press]

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tim Peters' Thailand Testimony

Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea testifying before U.S. Congressional committee:

I learned in June of this year that a North Korean refugee had made his way to Thailand. All indications suggested that he belonged to a nascent resistance movement within North Korea.

Due to political developments in South Korea that this refugee deemed to be overly submissive to Pyongyang, he hesitated to ask for resettlement in South Korea, worrying for his own personal safety there and the possible impediments to his continued liaison work with fellow resistance members in North Korea.

He specifically requested assistance from activists to obtain entry into the United States. I immediately called a US Embassy official in Seoul, whom I had found to be both knowledgeable and helpful in refugee matters. Outlining this refugee's remarkable situation, I asked the embassy official if he could coordinate communication with the State Department and his colleagues in Thailand to consider this man's exceptional situation, for which the North Korean Human Rights Act seemed particularly well-suited. He did so promptly.

But again, the relayed responses from Washington and the US Embassy in Bangkok were both opaque and equivocal. We were urged NOT to take him to the US Embassy in Bangkok, but instead to the UNHCR office in Thailand to determine his status as a refugee and which country would be best suited for his resettlement.

I was assured that if the UNHCR were to recommend his resettlement in the US, then the US would be willing to accept him. I agreed to take him to UNHCR and immediately communicated with the Bangkok office of the UNHCR

However, I also notified the State Department via the US Embassy in Seoul. that there was a high likelihood that this man's movements were being monitored by North Korean agents in Thailand. Therefore, I requested a non-contact security escort for this North Korean refugee, a fellow activist and myself, as we physically escorted this resistance figure to the UNHCR office in Bangkok. I was told that the US Embassy in Bangkok would not provide such security for us as we were not diplomats.

On the day we took him to the UNHCR office, we simply invoked the power of prayer and the time-honored promises of Psalm 91 for our protection. I'm happy to report that no untoward incident occurred despite our obvious vulnerability.

What has transpired in the past four months was nothing short of a Catch-22 scenario between the UNHCR office and the US Embassy in Bangkok. .. This brave North Korean refugee fell between the bureaucratic cracks and, at one point, ended up on the streets of Bangkok, working as an illegal construction worker to make ends meet.

In my estimation … this prolonged stiff-arm of Mr. Park makes a mockery of the State Department’s claim in its recent report to Congress that “resettlement of North Koreans in the United States is available in cases where this solution is deemed appropriate.”

To the best of my knowledge, the refugee in Thailand continues to await processing and remains vulnerable in that setting. This refugee's story and our attempts to assist him through this extended ordeal are explored in a U.K. Channel 4 /CNN documentary entitled "Undercover in the Secret State."

[Excerpts from a testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations]

Full testimony: The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

PDF version

Monday, December 12, 2005

Going Home… to Die

850 North Korean refugees were being held after capture by Chinese security forces in five separate Chinese detention centers in the Yenbian region. Well-informed sources reported that the refugees were being repatriated ... to North Korea at a rate of roughly 100 per week

Why does the prospect of repatriation incite terror within North Korean refugees, to such a degree that many testify to carrying a small cylinder of poison as a contingency for suicide in the event of capture by Chinese security patrols or North Korean secret police operating in China?

For those refugees who convert to the Christian faith during their fugitive life in China, forced repatriation to their own home country constitutes a particularly grim fate. Such was the case of a family of four refugees whose faith flourished for over a year in the care of an undercover missionary in China. In May of 2002 the family was discovered and detained by Chinese police; shortly thereafter they were sent back to the North Korean border town of Namyang. The repatriated family members’ attempt to keep some portions of their religious reading hidden in their clothing was discovered by investigators from the North Korean State Security Agency.

Countless refugees have testified that the very first question asked repatriated refugees by interrogators is, “Have you had any contact with Christians in China?” or “Do you believe in Jesus?”

Although many newly converted refugees choose discretion as the better part of valor, this family was firm and forthright in their profession of faith. Following their bold declaration to authorities, a number of eyewitnesses testified that the four were led to so-called “Hepatitis Street,” a small courtyard adjacent to the liver ward of a hospital in Namyang City.

As a five-soldier firing squad was hurriedly assembled, the residents of the neighborhood were summoned to observe the execution. Gunshots rang out and all four fell with mortal wounds to the head. The message to the stunned cluster of neighbors was unmistakably clear: anyone who attempts to exercise a religious belief other than the worship of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, would meet the same fate.

[From a testimony by Tim Peters before The House Committee on International Relations]

Full testimony: The House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Where the Right Is Right

Liberals took the lead in championing human rights abroad in the 1970's, while conservatives mocked the idea. But these days liberals should be embarrassed that it's the Christian Right that is taking the lead in spotlighting repression in North Korea.

Perhaps no country in human history has ever been as successful at totalitarianism as North Korea.

Koreans sent back from China have been herded like beasts, with wires forced through their palms or under their collarbones. People who steal food have been burned at the stake, with their relatives recruited to light the match. Then there was the woman who was a true believer and suggested that the Dear Leader should stop womanizing: after she was ordered executed, her own husband volunteered to pull the trigger.

"The biggest scandal in progressive politics," Tony Blair told The New Yorker this year, "is that you do not have people with placards out in the street on North Korea. I mean, that is a disgusting regime. The people are kept in a form of slavery, 23 million of them, and no one protests!"

Actually, some people do protest. Conservative Christians have aggressively taken up the cause of North Korean human rights in the last few years, and the movement is gathering steam.

Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a bipartisan and secular group, agrees that the religious right is more active on this issue, but she wants more liberals to join the campaign as well. Her group is a good place to start:

[From an op ed by Nicholas Kristoff ,in The New York Times]

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

North Korea's food problem

North Korea struggles to feed itself due to a mixture of geography and economic policy. Photographs which depict a lush, rural environment are misleading. The country needs an average of 1m metric tons in food aid a year.

"North Korea is not an agrarian country," said Kathi Zelleweger, a frequent visitor to the country with aid organization Caritas. It is mostly rugged mountain terrain, and only about 18% is arable.

It is dependent on fertilizer and machinery to make that land productive, both of which are expensive.

Politics compounds topography. Agriculture in North Korea was collectivised in the 1950s, in line with its Stalinist philosophy of self-reliance.

This means farmers have a low incentive to work hard, said Paul French, a writer on North Korea.

"If their farm produces five times as much, they don't get five times as much food," he said. Instead, they concentrate on their own private plots, which they use to feed themselves and to produce food for the markets.

The problem with this system is that market reforms, instituted in 2002, have sent prices soaring at a higher rate than wages. "Who can afford this stuff in the markets?" asked Mr. French.

The answer: only the elite. Government officials, senior managers of state enterprises, security forces, and the leadership of the army are all unlikely to go hungry.

But a typical urban family can now only afford to buy 4kg of maize - the cheapest commodity - a month.

[Excerpted from article by Sarah Buckley, BBC News]

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

North Korean Diet

The UN's World Food Program estimates that an average urban North Korean's guaranteed diet is around 280g of cereals a day.

However, spokesman Gerald Bourke points out that North Koreans are very adept at foraging for wild food, and may also be given gifts from relatives.

The internationally recommended minimum is 550-590g a day, provided this is nutritionally balanced. But dietary balance is difficult to achieve in North Korea, where foodstuffs such as oil are prohibitively expensive.

The urban diet is partly made up of a ration provided by the government, but this has dropped from 300-250g of cereals per person per day. North Korean officials have told the WFP they expect it to slump to 200g a day.

"The rural folk have already learned how to cope," said Tim Peters, director of aid agency Helping Hands Korea. "But the urban people are so dependent on the government for distribution."

As a result, foreign donations that have helped to prop North Korea up in previous years are doubly important this year.

To date, only 270,000 of the 500,000 tons of food needed for 2005 has arrived, the WFP says.
And there is always the risk of natural disaster.

Floods exacerbated the extreme food shortages 10 years ago, and North Korea's ability to cope with them "is now probably worse", said Mr. French.

[Excerpted from article by Sarah Buckley, BBC News]