Open letter to Shin Dong-hyuk and Blaine Harden

Dear Dong-hyuk and Blaine,

You are going through hard times right now, and my heart goes out to you both. First, I want to commend you for trying to set things straight. Recanting is the most difficult thing to do for anyone, but you did it, Dong-hyuk, and we are all very proud of you. I have had an occasion to recant my testimony in a court of law some years ago, so I know a little about recanting. I think you have become a stronger person for having told the truth, and I hope you utilize this newfound strength to continue to fight for those in dire need. Hang in there, Dong-hyuk, keep fighting.

Blaine, I’ve met you only once in San Francisco, but I feel I have known you a long time as a good friend and colleague. I understand the disappointment you must feel right now, and it must be very difficult for you to see this event in a positive light, but I hope that you regard this adversity as an opportunity to investigate deeper into the story and delineate its root cause. I feel this story is bigger than all of us, and it goes beyond the discussion of reliability of sources in a journalistic pursuit. In my humble opinion, this Wapo article below and others that appeared recently address the woes that journalists encounter, and very little of the life-or-death situations that defectors must take into account as they reveal their lives.

I sincerely hope that the two of you consider writing a follow-up story to enlighten us of what had gone on to get us to the point we are in. Please let me know if I can do anything for you.

John Cha


Mother of All INTERVIEWS

Okay, I confess, I saw The Interview.  I took it in at the New Parkway Theater, the coolest movie house in Oakland CA. There, I felt like I was having a private showing, thanks to the new comfortable furniture, popcorn, beer, and the friendly smiling crew. Had I viewed the movie in a run-of-the-mill theater, I would have  given the movie a harsher rating than two thumbs down. The show was “much ado about very little.” I think the movie is more about what Sony is doing to proliferate cultural wasteland in America rather than anything geopolitically significant.

George Clooney was kind in saying, “It’s just a silly comedy.” But I am less kind—-the movie trashes everyone under the sun, women, gays, Jews, whites, Asians, and of course, Kim3. It is a typical lampoonesq treatment, a social satire, if you will, albeit a poor attempt at sophomoric humor with endless cussing and countless references to penis and bodily orifices. I am convinced that the movie would not have come on radar were it not for all the hoopla surrounding “Sonyhack.”

I suppose someone will write a book on Sonyhack someday and I ask the writer to be sure to analyze the contents of the threats that hackers posted on Sony’s website. My linguist friend Peter and I think that the language is so different from the usual style NK propagandists use that we had an inkling right away it was written by someone pretending to be an NK operative.

In all fairness to NK apparatchiks, I don’t see them mining through the tons of Sony’s data, mainly because I don’t believe they have the staff to read through all the emails or care about who said what about whom, Angela Jolie or not.

On the other hand, P’yang is justified in raising holy hell about the movie and its premise, that is, Kim3′s assassination, an unthinkable notion for an “almighty god.” I imagine P’yang is really afraid that the movie will be popular among the NK public, the hoi polloi, if you will, and I see a good possibility that it just might become very popular, sans the underlying cultural nuance, going by the reactions I have gotten from NK defectors. (“It’s boring in the beginning, but fun midway through.”) I am told that the movie’s memory sticks are in demand over there, as high as $50. We shall see exactly how popular. The movie was available on internet with Korean subtitles, and its Korean translation is quite colorful. I had a link to it, but no longer operable because it was taken down after a couple of days. I could have downloaded it, but I didn’t. I imagine tons of people did, however, and who knows how far the movie have reached already, but the NK officials have a cause to be concerned. (BTW, for this reason, I would suspect NK turned off its own internet for a week or two, contrary to reports that Washington/Beijing had something to do with turning off the NK internet in “proportionate response” to NK’s Sonyhack.)

The DailyNK, an online news group specializing in North Korean affairs, reports of intensified surveilance by the NK security and customs to search and purge CD’s, memory sticks, and smart phones. The NK authorities are intent in stopping the influx of the Interview, and time will tell whether they succeed in putting up the wall to keep out the movie. For now, the authority’s extraordinary concern over a movie seems to have alerted the border merchants (aka illegal smugglers) of a new opportunity to make money.

How about the movie’s storyline? I recommend reading Barbara Demick’s piece on New Yorker.  She does a wonderful job in analyzing the movie. She says that Randall Park is too handsome (even though he put on 30 pounds) to play Kim3, and I agree.

I might add that Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il (Kim2) was the one who created the god-like stature for his father Kim Il Sung (Kim1) and himself. How did Kim2 do it? Movies.

I am not one to plug my book so overtly, but it talks about how Kim2 created the empire through movies and other media. This insight comes from late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest ranking official ever to defect to the South. The most prominent juche philosopher and writer, he was an advisor to Kim1 and mentor to Kim2.

Pyongyang cadres and apparatchiks, the members of the Workers Party Central in particular, would be keenly aware of the power that movies wield. I am reminded of a phrase, “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” In the same vein, I would venture to guess that some cadres in P’yang are concerned that “those who live by the movie die by the movie.” In this case, the bumbling satire, The Interview.

the end


Stateless Orphans in China

North Korean refugees in China About 50,000 stateless orphans of all ages roam the streets in the northeast region of China, without proper care or food. They have no access to regular meals, clean clothes, a home, and basic schooling. They are in this plight because these children are born to North Korean refugee women, who are routinely captured by the Chinese authorities and forcefully repatriated back to North Korea. The refugee women are forced to leave the children behind under their fathers’ care. Their fathers, local Chinese men without economic means, often abandon their children, leaving the children fend for themselves, according to a study by Human Right Watch.

International human rights activists have been trying to find solutions for this problem since 1995, when a famine drove many North Korean residents to China in search of food. Three northeastern Chinese provinces that share 1,300 km of border with North Korea became popular destinations for the refugees because of the proximity and the two million Korean Chinese population who already lived in the region. Yanji, especially, was an ideal place for the refugees to hide. Good Neighbors, an NGO who has long operated in the area reported that there were up to 300,000 refugees in 1999.

North Korean authorities severely punish those escapees recaptured by the Chinese authorities and returned to North Korea. Those refugees who manage to escape capture live in constant fear, while they search for escape routes to another country, including South Korea. Some of those refugees who were able to find their way into South Korea and other countries testified to the harsh, inhumane treatment they had received in North Korea. Labeled as “traitors,” they receive punishments ranging from light to severe depending on situations. Light punishment means incarceration for a short period of time during which they undergo re-education. Severe punishments include forced labor, torture, inhumane treatment, imprisonment in gulags, or open execution. The severity of the punishment is harsher for those who had stayed in China for a long time; those who have had contact with Christian missionaries; or those who had contact with South Koreans. Captured pregnant women are forced to undergo abortion, and any new born babies are terminated. These crimes against humanity have been occurring for decades and continue today.

Chinese Policy on North Korean Refugees

With respect to North Korean refugees, the Chinese government states that its official policy is to “treat the matter in accordance with the international and domestic rules, as well as the principles of humanism.” But in reality, the Chinese government does not recognize the North Korean escapees as refugees. Instead, the Chinese government regards them as illegal residents and arrests them, turning them over to the North Korean authorities. It also punishes its own Chinese nationals who protect the North Korean escapees. Recent build-up of patrol activities along the border areas has pushed the refugees deeper into Chinese territory, while decreasing the number of new incoming refugees. The refugee population is now estimated to be about 100,000, which is considerably lower than what it was during the 1990s. Nevertheless, the outflow of North Korean refugees continues because of the deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea.

China’s policy of arresting and repatriating the refugees is rooted in its concern that a mass exodus of the North Korean population would lead to a collapse of the North Korean government system. China fears that such a collapse would upset the balance of its own security plans, by way of losing its “buffer zone” to the south.

Meanwhile, the international community has begun criticizing China’s attitude toward the North Korean refugees. Various NGO’s engaged in North Korean human rights activities have been lodging protests against the Chinese policy. The US House of Representatives initiated a law denying entry visa for Chinese officials involved in the forceful repatriation of North Korean refugees.  The United Nations also reemphasized the “Principle of Prohibiting Forceful Repatriation” when it passed a North Korean human rights resolution in a 2010 General Assembly.

China’s Refusal to Assign Refugee Status to North Korean Refugees

China is violating the international rules for refugees by forcefully returning the North Koreans against their will. China does not recognize the North Korean migrants as refugees in accordance with the agreements it had acceded in 1982, i.e., The 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugee and The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees per UNHCR. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)  China is aware that the refugees it returns to North Korea receive harsh treatment, which means that their actions are in violation of Article 33.1 of the 1951 convention. This article states: “No Contracting State [China] shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” China acceded to the Convention in 1982 in order to protect the Chinese refugees who had fled Vietnam during the 1979 war between China and Vietnam. China engaged in refugee projects in cooperation of the UNHCR.

North Korean refugees are “mandate refugees” as indicated by UN practices related to refugees, and even could be classified as “convention refugees” per the stated definition of the article. The North Korean government persecutes the returnees who hold “imputed political opinion,” which is in violation of the Article 33.1 of the 1951 Convention. It also practices discrimination in food distribution (membership of a particular social group), which is again in violation of the said Article.

The ruling class of North Korea regarded the massive flight that began in 1995 as a threat to the integrity of its regime. Accordingly, the police have been punishing the returned refugees for committing a major crime of “illegal border crossing.” Also concerned about the integrity of the regime, the Chinese authorities have arrested the refugees and returned them in accordance with the various agreements they have made with North Korea over the years. As a result, China has been returning thousands of refugees every year. In 2000, for instance, China is said to have repatriated at least 6,000 North Koreans according to sources such as Migratory Information Sources and US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

This is in direct violation of the Convention and its Third Article, which prohibits practicing any sort of discrimination according to race, religion, or nationality. North Korean refugees living in China must be allowed to apply for the refugee status and be treated as refugees during the period of determining their status without being subjected to immediate expulsion.

Various estimates with respect to the refugees remain approximate partly because the Chinese government does not allow the UNHCR representatives to enter the area or contact the refugees freely, even though it guaranteed UNHCR’s unlimited access to the border area between China and North Korea as well as the refugees, as stipulated by the terms of the execution of the Convention.

China and International Human Rights Laws

In addition to the terms of the Convention, China is also violating various human rights treaties it has ratified and the obligations associated with the terms of the treaties. Of the six main human rights treaties such as ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Culture Rights, 1966), ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966), ICERD (International Covenant on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, 1966), CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, 1979), CAT (Committee Against Torture, 1984), CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989), China has ratified all the treaties with the exception of ICCPR.

All these treaties can be used as bases for guaranteeing the refugees their stay in China, rather than returning them back to North Korea. The terms of the CAT are especially important because its Article 3 is more stringent than the aforementioned Article 33.1 of the 1951 Convention.

The Article 3 of the CAT states: “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler”) or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

“For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant, or mass violations of human rights.”

It is apparent in this Article that the Committee Against Torture is more inclusive in protecting individuals than The 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugee. First, the CAT goes a step further and prohibits returning anyone who would face persecution in his or her home country regardless of their refugee status. Second, the CAT is independent of conditions stated in The 1951 Convention, such as race, religion, or political opinion. Third, the CAT covers extradition cases between two countries in order to protect the right of individuals. Fourth, the CAT does not list any exceptions stated in The 1951 Convention Article 33.2 with respect to national security or danger to national integrity.

Yet China continues to return North Korean refugees, despite the fact that they would be tortured, in violation of the Article 3 of the CAT. It can be said that China is negligent of its duties and obligations as a member state of these treaties.

Furthermore, by returning the refugees to face persecution in their homeland, China is violating the customary international law, jus cogens, which is the foundation for the principles of non-refoulement, and principles of prohibiting torture. Jus cogens connotes a body of preemptory principles of international law that are accepted as universal according to normal human practice, or compelling law. UNHCR deems that The Principle of Non-Refoulement contained in the Article 33 of The 1951 Convention satisfies the conditions of  the customary international law.

UNHCR also declared in the Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which was held in Geneva on December 12 and 13, 2001, the following statement: “…. the continuing relevance and resilience of this international regime of rights and principles, including at its core the principle of non-refoulement, whose applicability is embedded in customary international law….”

Gains and Losses by Refoulement of North Korean Refugees

The benefits China gains by propping up the North Korean regime appear to be more significant for China than the losses it experiences by violating the terms of the international treaties. China does this at the risk of damaging its image. A member of the UN Security Council, China enjoys its status as a major international power, but when it comes to issues on human rights, it has been on the defensive over the years. Notwithstanding its successful economic reform, it has exercised oppressive methods in dealing with protests.

The Tiananmen Square incident on June 4, 1989 drew criticism around the world, making China even more defensive about its policies on human rights. In explaining their human rights position, China emphasized cultural differences rather than subscribing to the principle of uniform and equal rights for people in general. But, its fast economic development and subsequent rise in stature accompanied by joining the WTO in November 2001, China had to become more active in the area of human rights. By 1995, China already had held the Beijing Conference on women. China showed more flexibility in the Pang Leez case and the Harry Wu case. Instead of ignoring international criticisms, China chose to deal with the criticisms by expelling them.

On March 14, 2004, Peoples Representatives revised China’s constitution to include in Article 33.3 the wording “Nation respects and guarantees human rights.” In recent years, China has issued “National Human Rights Execution Plan (2009 – 2010), and has pursued numerous domestic laws for protecting the rights of the people. China’s view on human rights is changing, but it is too slow, especially with respect to the problems concerning North Korean refugees. By sending the refugees to certain persecution in North Korea, China has made itself an accomplice in committing crimes against humanity.

International Opinion

In the event that China’s violation of its treaties becomes an international issue, China could stand to lose its face. When the loss of face by way of “naming and shaming” becomes serious, then China could change its position regarding North Korean refugees. However, China most likely would not carry out the terms of the human rights treaties any time soon. Because it had “reserved on hold” its acceptance of the inspection process required by the terms of the treaties with respect to individual rights. Also, the problems concerning the refugees and the orphans of the refouled women have not caught the attention of the Security Council and there is no indication that the Council will address this matter any time soon. It is up to the concerned parties to reach out to the international community and conduct an awareness campaign by way of “naming and shaming” China and its policies regarding the plight of the refugees.

The UN Charter and China’s Duties to Protect Human Rights

China is a member of the UN Security Council. Article 1.3 of Chapter 1 of the UN charter clearly states its purpose to “achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”

Article 55 states, “The UN shall promote….universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion. And Article 56 says, “All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 56.”

Should China continue to ignore its duties to uphold these principles, its political image will suffer as a leader. This is the leverage that the international community should use to demand that China comply with the protection clause of the UN Charter, its treaties related to human rights, and the customary international laws. With pressure, China will eventually have to grant refugee status to those people who flee from discrimination, slavery, torture, and persecution. That means the duty falls onto the international community to remind the Chinese government to secure and protect the rights of the people.

China’s Obligations Based on Its Treaties

The 1951 Convention Related to Refugee and The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees:  China has acceded to these treaties as related to human rights. Therefore, China is required to provide to those escapees, at the minimum, the right to freedom and right to exist in compliance with the terms of the treaties.  But China has been delinquent in providing minimum protection for these refugees, 80% of whom are women, by claiming that procedures for determining refugee status were deficient. No matter what the case, China must provide minimum basic rights to the refugees and must allow the local UNHCR staff and field workers free access to the border area and to the affected people there. In the event that the Chinese government fails to provide cooperation in solving this problem, UNHCR must invoke Article 16, which deals with conflict resolution, and submit to arbitration procedures to recover its good standing with the UN. If the problem persists, it could be stated that their failure to comply would impact other UN programs in which China is involved. China may exercise its option to give UNHCR 6-month notice to sever its relations with the UNHCR. But such action would bring attention to the fact that it is deliberately violating the rights of North Korean refugees, which again would further damage the Chinese image.

China’s duties related to human rights treaties:  China signed the ICCPR66 (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) in 1998. It has not ratified the treaty yet, but it is a member state in five major human rights treaties. This gives the international community the right to request that China execute its duties as a member state.

Every treaty requires a monitoring mechanism. (See table below.) The monitoring mechanism normally consists of national reporting system, an inter-state complaint mechanism, an individual complaint mechanism, and a confidential inquiry mechanism. However, China has refused to set up third-party monitoring devices involving petitioning complaints and confidential inquiry mechanism. In other words, China reserved its signing of all the conflict resolution devices with the exception of inter-State complaint mechanism.  It did not join the Optional Protocol to the conflict resolution, either.

Table 1 – 6 Major human rights treaties and monitoring mechanisms

Human Rights
Reporting System
Complaint Mechanism
Individual Complaint Mechanism
Confidential Inquiry Mechanism
Signed 1997 Ratified 2001
Signed 1998 Not Ratified
Joined 1981
        Yes Declaration of Acceptance, unnecessary
No Declaration of Acceptance
Signed 1980 Ratified 1980
Signed 1986
Ratified 1988
Signed 1990
Ratified 1992
Source: Jeong-hyun Cho, 2009
Reviewing the table above, the most realistic method to monitor the Chinese performance in carrying out its duties related to human rights treaties appears to be the national reporting system. The reports are to be filed every two to five years, and all the member States are required to submit the reports to pertinent monitoring committees. Upon completion of the committee’s review of the reports, the committee issues its comments containing its concerns and recommendations. Committee reviews on the Chinese reports have repeatedly expressed concern about the treatment of North Korean refugees and have recommended that China fulfill its duties according to the treaties.

In 2005, the ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) committee pointed out the Chinese exclusion of North Korean defectors from the process of determining refugee status. In 2008, the CAT (Convention Against Torture) committee expressed concern about the lack of protection for refouled North Koreans in danger of torture. The CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) committee in 2006 requested that China include clauses related to women’s protection in the process of determining refugee status.

The latest review came from the ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) committee on the national report. The Chinese government had filed a report which stated that it was handling the refugee problem in an adequate fashion in accordance with international laws and in the spirit of humanism. It added that the government was in the process of legislating domestic laws with regard to the refugees as requested by the committee. The committee issued its opinion in 2009 that North Korean defectors were systemically denied refugee status and refouled to North Korea, which were causes for concern. The committee requested that the Chinese government move quickly with the legislative process.  The committee further requested that the Chinese government allow free access to the process for any and every person who asks for protection.

Thus, the five UN committees have pointed out the violations by the Chinese government with respect to the North Korean refugees. The committees do not have the authority to enforce these points, but they should at least expect that China would explain its non-action in subsequent reports. The committees should continue to pressure the Chinese government via the review process, and in return, the Chinese government must find a way to address the committee’s repeated requests. In the meantime, the international community can apply pressure by “naming and shaming” the Chinese government to abide by the principles of human rights in earnest.

Utilization of Human Rights Protection System Mandated by the UN Charter

Aside from the committees engaged in monitoring the progress of human rights activities by the member States, UNHRC (UN Human Rights Council), established by the UN Charter, is itself a human rights protection agency. It consists of 47 member nations and it can examine all aspects of human rights issues. UNHRC, in addition to the basic “special procedures” and “petition procedure,” has organized the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) system. The following paragraphs summarize the functions various UN agencies perform in bringing human rights issues to the attention of the international community.

Special Procedures:  As of 2011, UNHRC is in the process of carrying out special procedures on 8 nations, including North Korea. Also, 33 separate topical matters are under review. The North Korea Human Rights Special Reporting Agency was formed in 2004, headed by Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn and followed by Marzuki Darusman in 2010. This agency repeatedly reported a range of refugee problems without much result. It is important to reiterate and reemphasize China’s responsibility on this issue.

Special procedures organized by topical matters such as torture and human trafficking are often connected with North Korean refugees. Here, the role of NGO’s is very significant in urging the special rapporteurs and their staff to effect reform and deal with human rights violations. On December 19, 2005, the migrant human rights special rapporteur, the torture special rapporteur, the human trafficking special rapporteur, and the violence against women special rapporteur together submitted a letter to the Chinese government to explain its report on the human trafficking of North Korean women refugees as well as their sex slavery conditions. On March 24, 2006, the special rapporteurs from various departments such as human trafficking, violence against women, children’s rights, joined to send a letter to the Chinese government for refoulering a North Korean woman refugee. The response from the Chinese government was superficial. Even so, it is believed that continued pressure will produce more positive results.

Common petition: Apart from the “individual complaint mechanism” as set forth by ICCPR or ICERD, a petition by an individual or a group is not prohibited. For example, countless number of petitions regarding human rights violations prompted the economic social committee to initiate the special procedures in 1967. Common petitions can influence discussions in UNHRC. North Korean refugees and related NGO’s can petition special procedures department through the office of UNHCHR (United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights). This can lead to constructive discussion between the State in question and the international community. NGO’s must utilize this avenue extensively to get results.

Resolutions of the HRC: In the event that serious human rights violations occur, the UN Human Rights Council can issue resolutions openly criticizing the violating party. This can put the offending party in a politically awkward position. In China’s case, its membership in the Security Council can trump any effort to formulate a resolution against China. There were two attempts to formulate a resolution with respect to its human rights violations and one case related to the human right violation in Tibet, but all these attempts failed. China was under tremendous pressure during these attempts. If the same tactics were applied in pressuring China with respect to the North Korean refugee problem, China would be more prone to persuasion.

UPR (Universal Periodic Review): This is an instrument for all of the 193 member nations to file a report every four years. For instance, the inspection process that began in April 2008 finished in 2011. North Korea was inspected in November 2010, and China was inspected in February, 2009. Canada and Netherlands pointed out the North Korean refugee problem to China, which was quite significant. China responded in a superficial manner and managed to escape further reprimand. However, the actions by Canada and Netherlands are very significant because they provided a new venue for discussing the refugee problem and subjected China to more pressure politically and morally. China will receive a UPR for the second time in 2013 and at that time must follow up with a report on the “areas of concern,” in particular the status of the North Korean refugees that were called out in the 2009 inspection.

The UN General Assembly and the Security Council: The General Assembly plays the role of receiving and reviewing the reports issued by the Human Rights Council and the various monitoring agencies. The General Assembly passes resolutions on human rights issues based on these agency reports. It has adopted a North Korean human rights resolution every year since 2005.

The Security Council mainly deals with maintenance of peace and security per Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and it doesn’t get involved in domestic matters of a particular sovereignty. But if human rights conditions would deteriorate to the point of presenting danger to security on the international level, the Security Council can take specific measures to solve the problem.

In 2005, it was resolved that a sovereignty was not a privilege but had a responsibility to protect (R2P) its population, which meant that the Security Council could sanction governments that resort to violence such as genocide, racial cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

If the condition of human rights in North Korea is deemed dangerous to international security, which it is, it becomes a matter of discussion for the Security Council. In 2006, Vaclav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia, Kjell Magne Bondevik, former prime minister of Norway, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel urged the Security Council to deal with the North Korean human rights problem. Here, it should be noted that the report could include refoulement issues as related to North Korean refugees in China. The possibility of the Security Council filing a law suit in The Hague international courts should also be examined on the basis of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government.

UN Secretary General and High Commissioner for Human Rights: Former Secretary General Kofi Anan made the human rights issue his centerpiece during his tenure at the United Nations, revitalizing the human rights programs. The UN Secretary General chairs operational meetings of the department heads, where human rights issues are regularly discussed under the leadership of UNHCHR.  The general assembly in 1993 resolved to create the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in order to organize and coordinate all the activities associated with human rights issues. The office of UNHCHR plays an important role in garnering international cooperation with respect to the North Korean defectors.

ILO (International Labor Organization) and UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization):  These agencies cooperate closely in human rights matters. The ILO has strict rules for protecting the rights for children and women.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 begins with the following: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world; Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people….”

Currently, China continues to refouler the North Korean defectors (refugees) according to its border treaty with North Korea emphasizing its perception that a mass exodus would affect the stability of the North Korean government system. China does not want a collapse of the North Korean government.

As it was pointed out earlier, the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees is a violation of human rights as defined by the UN Charter, as well as the regulations of the conventions that were organized to protect refugees. China is a member of these conventions but it fails to perform its duties. Also a member of the UN Security Council, China continues to keep the North Korean refugee problem off the Council agenda.

China now must look deep into its conscience and examine the true meaning of human rights and find a way to apply its principles universally. It must handle its people problem: violation of human rights for the orphan children that are stranded without proper care. It must stop repatriating the refugees back to North Korea and stop policies that allow human trafficking, sex slavery, and torture proliferate.

Written by Kim Suk-woo and John Cha

Related UN Documents:

Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on its eleventh session (UN Doc. No. A/HRC/11/25).

Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review – China (UN Doc. No. A/HRC/11/23).

Human Rights Council, National Report submitted in accordance with Paragraph 15(a) of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1 – China (UN Doc. No. A/HRC/WG.6/4/CHN/1)

Human Rights Council, Compilation prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in accordance with Paragraph 15(B) of the Annex to Human Rights Council

Resolution 5/1 – People’s Republic of China (UN Doc. Doc. A/HRC/WG.6/4/CHN/2).

Human Rights Council, Summery prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in accordance with Paragraph 15(C) of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1 – People’s Republic of China (UN Doc. No. A/HRC/WG.6/4/CHN/3).



Unification Junction

“Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” are the words I remember most from the Schoolhouse Rock series back in the 70s when my children were growing up. It was such a catchy tune. We would sing it together over and over—“hooking up words and phrases and clauses/ conjunction junction how’s that function?”

To me, this song is a metaphor for what’s going on in the arena of Korean unification, especially the crucial, conjunctive role the former residents of North Korea play. They inspired me to write this essay, “Unification Junction, What’s Your Function?” and a series of essays about unification that are to follow.

Although…unification junction is not as catchy as “Conjunction Junction.” But unification and conjunction do share a common theme. They both connote “together as one.”

Unification, or reunification, has been a word often quoted in the Korean peninsula over the years, sixty-nine years, to be exact. Ever since the victors of the Pacific War, the U.S. and former Soviet Union, divided the peninsula at its waist. The line drawn at the 38th Parallel, in order to facilitate the surrendering of Imperial Japanese forces, then occupiers of the peninsula, became permanent, at the expense of ten or so million Koreans who experienced forced separation from their loved ones.

For sixty-nine years, these separated families pined for unification. With unification, lay their only hope to see their family. Alas, most of them have died waiting. The DMZ stood in their way, fortified on both sides of the line with canons, missiles, tanks, and countless land mines, making for an impassable wall to negotiate. Only a handful have crossed the DMZ and continue to do so, provided that governments both sides of the fence agree to their passage.

That is not to say that the border between the two Koreas is completely sealed. People manage to escape the North and enter the South via China and Southeast Asia. About 26,000 exiles reside in the South now with more to come. Many of them have accomplished that which neither government is willing to do, or capable of doing. They stay in contact with their relatives and friends back home. They even send them money.

Thus, people in the North are learning about the outside world, and in the process, people in the South are learning about the people of the North. Southerners interact face-to-face with newcomers from the North and hear about life in the North first hand.

Up to now, communication in the North has been a top-down model, a highly centralized, one-way communication from the party central to the plebeians in the countryside. The party elites use Karl Marx’s model of communication to control the flow of information, thereby advancing their agenda only. Kim Jong-il, an admirer of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, built his propaganda machinery in kind to exercise his absolute control over the population. His modus operandi was to “isolate the people from the outside; feed them only the information we want them to have.”

People-to-people communication across the DMZ, once unthinkable, is happening now and growing, courtesy of the newcomers from the North. This is a very significant development. Most likely, this phenomenon will continue even though Pyongyang is trying very hard to stem the tide. Pyongyang apparatchiks, the loyal members of the controlling party, rely on their usual fear tactics to discourage the North Korean people from communicating with those outside. These elites, however, must realize by now that they have a huge battle on their hands. They are fighting against cell phones, internet, and memory sticks. No amount of wireless detectors can patrol those ubiquitous, invisible electronic waves. The days of top-down communication are fading quickly. People have new tools for telling their stories, and story telling is the first step to building a community. Koreans are now standing at a new junction on their way to unification.

Communication breeds understanding, which leads to exchange, then community building in earnest. At present, a three-way communication spearheads the effort, comprised of the people currently residing in the North, former residents of the North now residing in the South, and the people of the South. The former residents of the North form a bridge to both sides of the DMZ. A hard road to hoe remains; building a community that would transcend the hardened reality of such entrenched geopolitical division. Yet, these former residents have overcome their familial division despite the stubborn political division; an accomplishment never before imagined. The political division did not deter them from uniting their families, and this feat should not go unnoticed. In fact, it should serve as the roadmap to uniting the rest of the families that remain separated by the DMZ.

When they have achieved an unfettered three-way communication, the former residents of the North will have fulfilled their function as the “conjunction,” no ands or buts. They will have hooked up words and phrases and clauses of union and linked that train of words to take us to a new junction. That junction will be the “Unification Junction,” a place to form a consensus about their future. Then they can sing their new chorus together, as one.

So much for the talk about junctions… I will explore specific steps and options about Korean unification in the upcoming series of essays.







Korean Unification Redefined

The word Tong Il 통일, unification, has been around forever, as long as I can remember. My parent’s generation sang a song called “Our Wish Is Tong Il”, composed by Ahn Byung-won in 1947, then a 22-year-old music student. Here is a rendition of the song played at Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2012, conducted by Ahn, 65 years after he first released it in Seoul. Our Wish is Tong Il.

His father, Ahn Suk-ju, wrote the lyrics. He originally had named it “Our Wish Is Dok Lip 독립”, meaning independence, during the time when independence was the priority issue for Koreans who were forced to live under Japanese rule. The Japanese rule ended when the Imperial Japan surrendered at the end of the WWII. Thus, “independence” was no longer an issue. Then came the division of Korea. This unwanted division prompted Ahn Sr. to replace Dok Lip with Tong Il. The song became very popular and remained so over the years, first in the South and later in the North. When southerners and northerners get together, they hold hands and sing this song on top of their lungs, tears glistening in their eyes.

The song evokes different feelings/meanings for different people, but mostly, the singers are consumed with a longing for one Korea. For 65 years, millions of those who were separated from their wives, husbands, parents, grand parents, siblings, children, and friends imagined being together with their loved ones as they sang this song. For them, the word Tong Il represented hope. Hope to sit together and share meals and catch up. Hope to laugh, cry, and sing together. But alas, a good majority of them have passed on while they waited. Only dried tears speak for them.

Ahn said in a recent interview with a Korean newspaper, “We shouldn’t sing this song any more. When we wrote this song, we thought Tong Il would come sooner.” The song has come dangerously close to becoming anachronism. A symbol of false hope, perhaps.

While the original intent of the song is losing its steam, the word Tong Il is still alive and well. First, a brief history of the word’s meaning—

Historically, the concept of Tong Il was centered around political unification—one nation, one flag, that sort of a thing. Following the division of the Korean peninsula, Kim Il-sung of the North rolled his Russian made tanks southward across the 38th Parallel in 1950. That is, in the name of unification. Kim’s unification drive did not work out, needless to say. The UN forces drove his troops back, followed by a truce in 1953.

Subsequently, Kim Il-sung and his son, Jong-il, continued to hold the view that by unifying the two Koreas they would “free” southern brethren from the U.S. and its puppet regime in Seoul. They have been quite consistent in their Tong Il concept. Meanwhile, in the South, the Tong Il concept has undergone a series of adjustments as its electorates voted new administrations into power through the years.

The respective government’s unification methodology did not match up because of the differences in political ideology. Nevertheless, the North and the South have made attempts to bring about unification. During the Park Chung-hee era, they held secret talks and issued “7.4 Joint Communiqué” in 1972. In 1992, they issued “South-North Basic Agreement” after about 160 meetings, which included the language such as reconciliation, non-aggression, economical and cultural exchange and cooperation. Then came the “6.15 Joint Declaration” in 2000. In these talks, both sides agreed to a peaceful unification on their own, without outside interference. This unification process would encompass all of Korean people and  transcend ideological differences. So have been agreed and said, but to little effect.

In 2014, we are still having to look at barbed wire fences along the DMZ. There is no free travel; no free correspondence; no free commerce. What exchanges there are between the two Koreas, they are heavily controlled by both sides. The two continue to spend ungodly sums of money in weaponry.

Yet, people continue to sing “Our Wish Is Tong Il”. Because it is a good song, a song about hope and love. However, it seems that people sing this song less frequently now, and with less fervor in their voice than before. Polls indicate that young people are not interested in unification. It may be that they are more realistic than their predecessors about the viability of one happy nation concept. All the hype about unification have not made differences that really matter.

The young do not know what Korea was like before it was divided. Nor do they care. Therefore, it is pointless to insist on “re-unification” of the two Koreas and go back to the old days when Korea was one before the division. Rather, they need to see where they are going. They need to see that new unification will bring new opportunities and new prosperity for them.

Young people who have left the North and settled in the South are doing things that respective governments are incapable and/or unwilling to do. They are communicating with their relatives and friends back home. They have figured out ways to send money back home, as implausible as it seems. Their resourcefulness is uncanny. These young, committed, people are making a difference in the North-South equation, and we need more of them. A lot more.

Then, together with the young people of the South, they will need to discuss and create a new world for themselves. Their new world—one that will allow them to sing about their future beyond Tong Il.

I sense among the young people today a great deal of uncertainty about their future. I think Tong Il would be a good platform for them to explore their future together. There is a movement to build a coalition among them, and I think this is a positive development for the young. President Park Geun-hye is on the move—to get young people involved in the process of bringing the two Koreas together. After all, they are the ones who will have to decide what to do about unification. The rest of us can help them prepare for that eventuality.









Korean Unification, an Evolutionary Process

“Like it or not, the Korean unification process has begun. Because it must.” These words belong to late Teacher Hwang, whom many consider the progenitor of the long-waited reunion of the two sides, North and South. A philosopher and author of twenty-seven books, Teacher Hwang Jang-yop was a former International Secretariat of the North Korea Workers Party, advisor to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. He defected to South Korea in 1997 and died in 2010.

By “Korean unification,” he was referring to the then twenty thousand North Koreans who have fled the North and settled in the South. Once settled in the South, they somehow are finding ways to communicate with their family and friends back home, and spreading word that life in the South is very livable. Majority of them even find ways to send money back home. As a result, they are closing the gap that exists between North and South, that is, in anticipation of their reunion.

Teacher Hwang viewed this phenomenon as a process that would lead to a better understanding among the North Korean people about the life beyond their borders. More important, he believed that this phenomenon would inspire the people of all levels and give them hope. He said, “All they need is an opportunity. After all, they are Koreans, too. They too can achieve what South Koreans have achieved, given proper circumstances.”

He envisioned that a community of one hundred thousand settlers could sustain this phenomenon and eventually turn it into a popular movement. Now twenty-six thousand strong, the community continues to grow.

This growth has hit a snag in recent years, however.

North Koreans entering South Korea, by year. Source: Korea Ministry of Unification








The number of North Koreans entering South Korea shrank dramatically beginning 2011, as shown in the graph above. This trend coincides with the advent of the Kim3 era and his stringent policy to eliminate the egress of the people. Kim has a standing order to fortify the walls along the Chinese border and shoot anyone who attempts to cross it.

The Chinese government apparently agrees with Kim’s policy, albeit for a different reason. China is building walls along its border to keep out North Korean refugees, while Kim builds walls to keep them in. Still, people continue to cross the border despite the harsh conditions.

“There is nothing they can do to stop the flow of the people,” Teacher Hwang used to say, “people will always seek to improve their lives. That is the law of humanity.”

Notwithstanding Teacher Hwang’s determinism, however, his vision of building a community of one hundred thousand North Korean settlers appears to be in jeopardy. The reality is that the walls are hampering the flow of the people, and increase the risks for those who are compelled to cross them.

They need help. There is no point in asking Kim3 for help–for obvious reasons. But the Chinese President Xi Jinping is a different story. He is scheduled to hold a summit meeting with Park Geun-hye in Seoul on July 3, and he should be made aware of the plight of the border crossers, if he is not already aware of the hardships they endure.

He should also be made aware of the important service these brave souls provide, that they are agents of peaceful Korean unification. I emphasize the word “peaceful.”

No doubt Xi realizes that a peaceful Korean unification is good for China and the region, and he is in the position to help with this evolutionary process. All he has to do is to let the border crossers reach South Korea. Then, a community of one hundred thousand settlers will promulgate and facilitate a true dialog between the two Koreas, people to people, and continue on with the business of Korean unification.


Pyongyang’s cause for concern: Kimilsungism on the brink of the abyss

Is the Worker’s Party of North Korea (KWP) losing its grip on the people of North Korea? I bring up this question because there are signs that KWP propaganda machinery is faltering, and those signs come directly from the Rodong Sinmun, the official mouthpiece of the Worker’s Party (the only political entity that has been in power since 1948).

Namely, I want to direct the reader’s attention to an article The Daily NK printed on May 30, a piece that went with very little notice. It describes Pyongyang’s intense campaign to emphasize the importance of the “revolutionary ideals.”

KWP has been openly expressing its concerns about the dwindling presence of socialist ideology in the minds of the population, the “infiltration of capitalist culture,” in particular. The Rodong Sinmun’s exhortation that “our socialist revolution will face a crisis if its ideological foundation became ill” is noteworthy. Clearly, this is a statement of warning that the Party is not going to idly sit and watch the capitalist culture do a number on “the most perfect system known to mankind.”

When Teacher Hwang Jang-yop was alive, he often lamented that South Koreans were “weak” in terms of their belief in the democratic system; and that they didn’t realize how good they had it, compared to those who suffer under the monolithic suryong ideology in the North. Had he read the Rodong editorial today about “the revolution in crisis,” he would have smiled at the signs that North Koreans are becoming weak as well in their belief system.

The Rodong editorial goes on to say that “our enemies are attacking us with arrows containing reactionary ideology and psychological schemes in order to muddy our revolutionary spirit.” No doubt it is referring to the barrage of information that are flowing inward via cell phones, USB sticks, CD’s, radio broadcasts, and other networks.  This unwanted “infiltration” is real and vast, and it is no wonder that the Party feels imperative to ramp up the effort to educate the population in matters of ideology and spread the revolutionary spirit, pronto.  The Party’s urgency stems from the fact that “only a few first-generation revolutionaries remain.” Thus, they must teach the younger generation the true meaning of the socialism (aka Kimilsungism/Kimjongilism) before it’s too late.

Meanwhile, the Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) in charge of “educating” the southern population has done pretty well. A poll from several years ago indicated that 60% of the South Korean school children believed that the South and the US had begun the Korean War, contrary to all the facts that point to the northern invasion. This is the type of trend that Teacher Hwang worried about because he knew how the PAD worked and that such trends were a direct result of the northern infiltration into the minds of the southern population.

Perhaps the PAD should now shift their attention inward and fix the ills that so dangerously undermine the foundation of the republic. Whether it decides to help the Party with the task of educating the people to repel capitalist culture, it faces a long, hard road to pull the population back to the Kimilsungism of the old. More prominent in the consciousness of the people is the famine that had claimed three million lives in the mid-1990s and the hardship that continues today. Better yet, it should use its resources and talents to fix the real ills of the society rather than perpetuating the 60-year-long battle for the ideological supremacy, which is fast becoming a moot point for the people both sides of the DMZ.






Laos 9 Reported Alive and Well

North Korea rarely sends out good news. But DailyNK is reporting a piece of good news, relatively speaking, about orphan kids who have been repatriated to North Korea back in May last year. They had been intercepted by nine (9) North Korean secret agents in Laos while making a getaway to South Korea.

Many people have asked me about the fate of Laos 9 kotjebi kids, and I am happy to relay a report from the DailyNK. Here it is:



Park Geun-hye Asks Xi Jinping

SK President Park Geun-hye is said to have asked China’s President Xi Jinping whether there was a plan for China to annex North Korea as the 4th province of the Northeast (Dongbei) in the event that North Korea’s governance structure completely breaks down. Xi is said to have answered, no.

Presumably, the new leaders of the respective countries had vetted this question/answer prior to their summit (Beijing, June, 2013). Nevertheless, it is a loaded question, and it had to have caused stir among policy wonks in Beijing.

Park’s question goes directly to her initiative in unification of two Koreas under the leadership of South Korea. She sought consensus among neighboring countries, and appears to have persuaded Xi, Putin, and Obama that Korean unification under the South Korean leadership was good for the region.

I have asked the same question to late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest official ever to defect North Korea and former president of Kim Il-sung University. Hwang said, “China is not interested in inheriting a load of problems associated with North Korea. Why would China want to deal with the starvation issue, the energy shortage issue, broken infrastructure, and so forth? China has enough problems already.”

In that light, Park found an enthusiastic supporter in Xi for her unification initiative. Xi now has a partner in dealing with North Korean issues. He can pursue his own interest without the headaches. China has long sought a solution for economic development for its Northeast region, formerly known as Manchuria, encompassing three provinces, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning.

China's Dongbei

Though rich in minerals and agriculture, the lack of ports in Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces has hampered their development over the years. China has found their needed ports in North Korea and made a long term agreement to develop Rajin harbor with its eyes on becoming the main player in trading in the Far East, as well as improving its domestic flow of goods between Dongbei and southern China. ( p.76)

Dongbei and Southern China connect through Rason harbor/KINU연구총서 10-07

Accordingly, China’s interest is in the strategic importance of Rajin in terms of economics, vis-a-vis an outright annexation scheme. So, when Park proposed her unification initiative to Xi, he would have welcomed her idea with open arms. Truth is, Park’s question to Xi has been on the minds of many South Koreans because of North Korea’s symbiotic relationship with China. Whether or not Xi satisfied the wondering minds in South Korea remains to be seen, but Park has been steadfast in her unification drive.

Her latest statement containing the words “unification bonanza” (aka jackpot) is no doubt intended to appeal to the young people of South Korea, whose support for unification has been lukewarm at best. Time will tell if Park’s unification initiative catches fire, but she has launched an outreach program to convince the young.

On February 23, 2014, a South/North Korean family reunion  took place in GeumGang Mountains between long lost kins, who had had no contact since the Korean War (1950 – 1953). For 60 years, they and millions of other separated family members have dreamed of unification of two Koreas. Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters saw each other for the first time in 60 years, and they parted their ways again after two days. They returned to their respective homes in the North and the South, never knowing when they would see each other again. They can only hope for unification. They know that is the only way they can see each other again. Some resort to prayers. All of them shed tears. How much tears is enough before they get their wish?

For this reason alone, President Park has sufficient motivation for her unification initiative. She will need a plenty of domestic and international support from all sides to make this dream a reality. For the first time in decades, I sense a glimmer of genuine hope for the people.


Pyongyang Purge 2013_2

As a follow-up to my previous post entitled, Pyongyang Purge 2013, here’s more excerpt from Exit Emperor Kim Jong-il, a book about Kim Jong-il and North Korea seen through Hwang Jang-yop’s eyes. Hwang Jang-yop, a former mentor to Kim Jong-il and advisor to Kim Il-sung, was the highest ranking defector from North Korea.


Then came the Yong Sung Spies incident, an event that would clear out all the holdovers from the Kim Il-sung era. The great purge began with Suh Gwan-hee, then the minister of agriculture, who otherwise was a loyal subject of the state and Kim Jong-il. He was made a scapegoat for the failed crops and was dragged to a busy intersection in Pyongyang and executed in front of a large crowd. “South Korean spy” was the justification for his execution, and many original partisans would suffer the same fate. They even dug up the remains of the former chairman of the agricultural commission of the Party, Kim Man-geum (dead since 1984), and shot him to pieces. Kim Jong-il praised the members of the Yong Sung group as heroes for rooting out the enemy spies.

People in general were made to believe that South Korea and the United States were taking advantage of the absence of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and conspiring to start a war. They also believed that South Korea and the United States were plotting to starve the people in preparation for war. It was in this atmosphere that the original partisans were “exposed” as South Korean spies. People were angry about the South Korean ploy to starve the masses and wanted to get to the bottom of it. As it turned out, the majority of those accused as spies were the remainders from Kim Il-sung’s staff.

Kim Jong-il initiated the so-called Shim Hwa Jo, an identification system to add supplementary information in the ID card to include work experience, political history, and list of relatives. About eight thousand investigators were mobilized to facilitate the new system, with Chai Moon-dok in charge (under Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s brother-in-law) and, in the process, they arrested and tortured many innocent people in search of “spies.” Torturing became rampant, and one of the most painful tortures was called the “pigeon torture.” Victims were hung off the ceiling by their hands and feet folded back together, which made their chests pop outward and turn white like the chest of a pigeon.

The interrogator would ask the victim, “You’re a spy, right?”

If he said no, the interrogator kicked the “pigeon” in the chest once, cracking ribs, and asked again, “You’re a spy, right?”

Most of the people gave up at this point and “confessed” that they were indeed spies, unable to withstand the pain of cracked ribs jabbing into their heart. The tough ones hung on the second time, but never made it past three kicks before they admitted that they were spies.

Chai’s zealous investigators went overboard performing their duty, incarcerating altogether about twenty-five thousand people, many of whom were innocent of the charges, including Jang’s political opponents. Jang had used the occasion to purge his opponents, who secretly taped the torture sessions and sent the recordings to Kim Jong-il, along with evidence of negative public sentiment. The situation deteriorated to the point that Kim Jong-il needed do something to calm the masses. He formed a commission to look into the matter, and the commission, with Jang Song-thaek in charge, “discovered” that the investigators were corrupt and usurped their authority for their own personal gain. He ordered Jang to discipline the investigators in question, and Jang promptly arrested most of the investigators and conducted the public execution of Chai, following a public airing of the recordings of the tortures. Thus, Kim Jong-il became “the hero who saved the country from corrupt officials.”

This notorious Shim Hwa Jo incident would go down as the most vicious purge in North Korean history, according to those who witnessed it. If there were any questions about who was in charge of the country after Kim Il-sung died, the Shim Hwa Jo incident answered that question.