One year ago, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry released a damning indictment of human rights abuses in North Korea. The 372-page report documented chilling evidence of forced starvation, torture, slavery, and sexual violence.
The criticisms, not new, were presented in their most comprehensive form to date, drawing on extensive interviews with North Korean escapees. In the year since its release, the report has created momentum for increased international coordination on the topic of North Korean human rights, including a U.N. General Assembly committee resolution recommending North Korea’s leadership be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Pyongyang quickly responded that it “categorically and totally rejects” the findings, calling the report an “instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system.”
The Kim regime must have concluded that its tired, blanket denials wouldn’t be enough to withstand the rising pressure.
In February, Michael Kirby, a retired judge and academic, remarked on a change in North Korea’s approach to outside criticism at a forum in Washington to mark the anniversary of the report’s release: “Their whole strategy, for decades, was silence. But now, because of what’s happened over the past year, they realize that that strategy cannot be maintained.”
North Korea attempted to force a cancellation of the Center for Strategic and International Studies forum. The official news agency asked the participants to call off the event and “mind their own business,” while North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations asked the U.S. State Department to cancel the event. The State Department responded that it did not have authority to cancel the forum, as CSIS is not a government organization.
North Korean official propaganda rarely mentions escapees, except to dismiss them as traitors, and rarely addresses their specific claims about life in the North. Now, the government has changed tactics with its own campaign to target and discredit the homegrown critics, particularly high-profile defectors with horrific stories of life in the North, using video and state media.
For outsiders interested in North Korea, defector testimonies are an essential resource, and the tales generally contrast sharply with the government versions. North Korean refugees have described a country with a vast archipelago of prison camps where human rights abuses including starvation, beating, and sexual violence are common. In everyday life even for those outside the camps, freedoms of movement, speech, and association are scant.
Some of these defectors have been the subject of books and documentaries and travel the world speaking out against the abuses. Such testimonies embarrass the Pyongyang government, which denies human rights abuses.
Their first target was Shin Dong-hyuk, the only defector known to have been born in and escaped from one of North Korea’s political prison camps. His story, as told by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden in the bestselling “Escape from Camp 14” describes torture and seeing his mother and brother executed in front of his eyes, after he had snitched on them for plotting to escape.
Young, handsome, with an extraordinary tale, Shin had become the most recognizable North Korean defector and a driving force behind ongoing efforts at the U.N. to refer North Korea’s leaders to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Late last year, Shin was shocked to find a video uploaded to a North Korean propaganda site featuring a man claiming to be his father, whom Shin had thought was dead. The man described Shin as a liar. He said Shin had fled North Korea to avoid being held responsible for the rape of a young girl.
The attempt to discredit Shin may have been successful. The video led to a chain of events that ended with Shin admitting to changing parts of his story. Shin was born in Camp 14, one of North Korea’s most brutal prison camps. He told of having witnessed his mother and brother’s executions there. Shin later admitted having been transferred, with his mother and brother, to Camp 18, described as a less harsh environment. His credibility in shambles, Shin said he would step back from activism. Shortly after Shin announced the changes, Harden told the Washington Post, “From a human rights perspective, he was still brutally tortured, but he moved things around.”
The North Korean government targeted another highly visible defector Yeonmi Park. A video appeared on the same North Korean propaganda site with people claiming to be her relatives who explained that Park lived an affluent life in the North and her stories of hardship were fabricated. The video called both Park and Shin “puppets,” used by the United States to defame North Korea.
After deciding to flee, North Koreans typically make their way north across the border with China, the country’s only active land border and passageway for goods and ideas from the outside world. Leader Kim Jong Un appears to have made controlling the border a priority.
South Korean government data shows that in 2012, the first year of Kim Jong Un’s rule, the number of refugees arriving in Seoul dropped to 1,509 from the 2,706 arriving in 2011. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, its body for relations with the North, recently announced that 1,516 arrived in 2013.
In late 2014, the United States accused North Korea of contributing to the hacking incident that wrought havoc on Sony Pictures, apparently in retaliation for “The Interview,” a film depicting assassination of Kim Jong Un. Film is traditionally a propaganda medium valued by North Korea’s leadership. “The Interview” hit a nerve with North Korea’s top brass as a mocking portrayal, going as far as to show an actor playing Kim appearing to have his head blown off. The thought of millions of people abroad chuckling at a violent depiction of Kim’s death was more than they could endure.
Despite that hack and the studio’s initial cancellation, the film was seen by large audiences, in theaters and online, purchased or rented by more than 2 million by the end of the year.
Nowadays, anyone seeking evidence of North Korea’s human rights abuses can use a smartphone to look up satellite images of prison camps. With another shift in strategy, North Korea’s Ambassador to the U.N. Ri Tong Il made the first official admission of the camps’ existence in 2014, suggesting that the camps were used for “reform” and “re-education” of criminals.
It’s unlikely Ri convinced anyone. North Korea may succeed in poking holes in some stories told by defectors, yet a more vocal strategy probably won’t win the PR battle. The efforts to neutralize criticism of their human rights record are not sophisticated or substantive enough to turn the tide.
Reflecting Poorly on China
Consensus is growing that North Korea’s rulers are exceptionally malign in dealing with their own people, and there’s increased international coordination to name and shame North Koreans. Such increased coordination will reflect poorly on China, North Korea’s only major ally and benefactor. China has customarily shielded North Korea from international efforts on sanctions for its nuclear program and human rights abuses. With the COI report providing compelling evidence of abuses and international pressure growing, it will only get harder for China to remain, however reluctantly, in North Korea’s corner.
Within the country, the report suggests, small signs of resistance may be emerging. The famine that hit North Korea in the 1990s caused a collapse of the state system of rations. North Koreans had to find ways, often through small-scale capitalism, to provide for themselves: “Women gained confidence and began networking and this alarmed the government and they have since begun cracking down on women,” the report noted.
Few believe the myth that the country is a happy and successful place, and denials, no matter how loud or creative, will do little to stop that.
Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul covering North and South Korea for the Los Angeles Times. © 2015 YaleGlobal Online and the MacMillan Center at Yale.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.