The Contested Efficacy of Coloring Inside the Lines

December 1, 2015 5:30 AM

Steph and I have ambivalent views of efforts to improve North Korean human rights via the formal apparatus of the UN system. On the one hand it seems diplomatically de rigueur, on the other, one wonders if this activity has any actual impact on the ground. As a consequence, we have always been relatively comfortable with the “outside game” of going around the North Korean government directly to the North Korean people, even if doing so made progress on the “inside game” of state-to-state diplomacy more difficult. This past week we were treated to two dispatches that, at first glance, appear to reach opposite conclusions regarding the efficacy of coloring inside the lines.

The first is a piece by Lee Sang Won in the Daily NK titled “Marginal improvement at 'kyohwaso' amid international pressure.” North Korea has a fairly variegated set of penal institutions. The kyohwaso, literally, a “place to make someone better through education,” is sometimes translated as correctional or re-education centers, superficially resembling felony prisons. In the case of North Korea, though, felonies are defined expansively to include political and economic offenses such as “anti-state, anti-people crimes,” “crimes injurious to socialist culture,” and so on. In his pioneering work on the gulag, David Hawk provides the example of a woman imprisoned in a kyohwaso for disturbing the “socialist order” for singing a South Korean pop song in a private home. And these do not appear to be practices of the past: Radio Free Asia reports that three women were recently executed for distributing DVDs of a South Korean soap opera.

In terms of severity of treatment, the kyohwaso, would rank second to the kwanliso political labor camps; in both sets of institutions prisoners are compelled to perform hard labor and subjected to brutal treatment and torture and deprived of adequate food and medical care. In a survey that Steph Haggard and I conducted, 9 respondents reported having been incarcerated in kyowaso, and witnessed terrible rates of abuse including executions (78%), forced starvation (67%), and deaths from being tortured or beaten (56%). Many kyohwaso inmates reputedly do not live to serve out their sentences.

The lead paragraph of the Daily NK reports that “A continual number of deaths within North Korea’s kyohwaso [reeducation camps, which function as prisons] from torture and beatings has prompted leader Kim Jong Un to order penalization of safety officials who cause such deaths. The move is said to reflect the regime’s concerns about mounting pressure from the outside world on its human rights track record, but the mandate excludes those held for political crimes.” It goes on to say that according to two unnamed sources in North and South Hamgyong provinces, an order from Kim Jong-un was recently promulgated via the Ministry of People’s Safety, which administers the kyohwaso, to harshly punish officials responsible for deaths in the camps. The edict protects prisoners incarcerated for “financial crimes, violence, and even narcotics,” the source added. “However, this is not the case for those in because of political offenses such as watching South Korean TV dramas and other ‘non-socialist’ acts, so beatings and violence against them continue.” The source went on to speculate that pressure from the international community regarding human rights was starting to have an impact.

If this interpretation were correct, it would be the first time, to my knowledge, anyone has claimed that anything in the UN process actually affected human rights on the ground in North Korea. Even if the progress, were it not for the stakes, could be regarded as almost laughably small—an order to stop beating to death a particular class of criminals housed in the kyohwaso—the story, if true, is notable.

Yet the day after the Daily NK story appeared, the UN issued a press release titled “North Korea: “Nothing has changed” – UN expert says two years after key human rights report” in which the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Marzuki Darusman, was quoted as judging that “Regrettably, the human rights situation in the DPRK has not improved, and crimes against humanity documented by the Commission of Inquiry appear to continue. It is time to take stock of what has been done in the last two years and to move forward to pursue accountability for the crimes outlined in the report.” In some ways it is an extraordinary statement coming from a member of the justly praised Commission of Inquiry flatly saying that there had been no improvement. Yet Marusman also signaled the same second phase in the COI process that Justice Michael Kirby had intimated earlier, moving from documentation to possible criminal charges against individuals held responsible for crimes against humanity.

The two commentaries are not necessarily inconsistent: the Daily NK reports marginal progress and Darusman reports no fundamental change. But if the Daily NK is right, and North Korea is actually altering conditions on the ground in response to international pressure, then Darusman’s call to ramp up that pressure could elicit even greater improvements.

Add new comment