The Telegraph, 16 February, 2017
The apparent assassination of a North Korean exile, Kim Jong-nam, most likely on the orders of North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, is the stuff of Cold War-era spy thrillers, an exotic tale that some treat almost as entertainment, not news. Sadly, it is far from fictional, and deadly serious.
It is also part of a pattern: the North goes to extraordinary lengths to murder “traitors”, who have managed to escape the country. One South Korean politician, Ha Tae-keung says that he has reliable intelligence that at least two North Korean assassins are currently in the South seeking to eliminate high-level defectors.
To many in the West, North Korea is all about global security. Missiles and nuclear weapons shape how we think about this hardest of hard authoritarian regimes.
But what about the North Korean people themselves? In an age of mass demonstrations against the recent US refugee ban, it curious how few in the West demonstrate on behalf of North Korean refugees.
Every year, North Koreans attempt to escape into China, eluding border patrols on both sides. If they survive that ordeal, they face another as they attempt to cross through China to a third country that will grant them passage to South Korea. Lee Hyeon-seo, a defector and author of The Girl with Seven Names, escaped China’s secret police by passing herself off as Korean-Chinese.
She was lucky. Many are caught and forcibly returned and according to a 2014 UN report, face “torture, starvation, forced labour and other gross human rights violations” by North Korean security services.
According to Shin Dong-hyuk, a former labour camp inmate interviewed by the UN Inquiry on Human Rights, attempted escapers are treated like “ploughing animals”. Many “are so weakened from malnourishment and disease that they are literally worked to death”.
North Koreans are increasingly being sent abroad as a modern form of slave labour. According to Marzuki Darusman, the special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, some 50,000 North Koreans work abroad. Most are in China and Russia, some others are sent to Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, and the UAE. Earlier this month, one such labourer, Choe Myong-bok, was caught hiding in Russia after two decades on the run, and now faces repatriation. He will most likely face the same fate as Ryu En-nam, another defector caught in Russia and sent home in 2008. He was tied to the back of a train and dragged to death.
Under the current leader, many in North Korea – even among Pyonyang’s elites – have begun to despair of things ever improving in the country.
Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power in 2011 was initially greeted with hope by many North Koreans. Under his father, the “public distribution system” of rationing had collapsed during the 1990s famine, leading to the growth of illegal food markets. Many hoped that Kim Jong-un would restore country’s prosperity, but unfortunately such optimism has gradually been dispelled by repeated crackdowns on the illegal markets and the funnelling of state money into crack-pot tourism schemes.
Consequently, a growing number of “privileged” North Koreans have begun to defect. Some allege that this was behind the defection of twelve waitresses from a North Korean state-owned restaurant in Ningbo, China in April last year.
The North Korean regime is a relic, the last of vestige of Stalinism in the modern world. Perhaps its leaders are aware of that; aware that as more of its citizens slip away, the closer the regime’s collapse comes. It is said that North Korea’s leaders watched the lynching of Romania’s last communist leader Nicholae Ceausescu on CNN in a country palace in 1989. Doubtless, that fate is what drives Kim Jong-un’s obstinate refusal to countenance economic reform, his drive for nuclear parity with the US, and his atrocities against his own people.
The geopolitics matter, but we should not overlook those crimes against humanity, or forget the North Korean who people continue to suffer as they strive for a better life