At Large

New Cruelties From an Old Despot

North Korea remains a hideous blot on the international community.

By 6.22.07

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The Korean soap opera plays on. North Korea has finally accessed its $25 million originally frozen at U.S. insistence. Pyongyang has run a new missile test but also invited nuclear inspectors to visit. The Bush administration continues to pray that the North will live up to the latest disarmament agreement.

South Korea has halted rice shipments to Pyongyang, a rare break in a policy of appeasement long coexisting with the North's nuclear push. But trade, largely on the North's terms, continues. Moreover, South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae- joung resorted to begging North Korean officials to be nice "so that we won't let down the expectations of our people."

Finally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues to murder and oppress its people.

The Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights has issued a new report written by Lee Young-hwan and entitled "North Korea: Republic of Torture." There is good news, after a fashion. After interviewing a score of defectors, Lee finds "some favorable changes in [the] human rights situation." But the report still makes for depressing reading. For instance, Onseong County borders China. It is the main escape hatch, "but also the infamous repatriation gate -- the Tumen bridge that connects Chinese border area to Namyang district in DPRK--for the defectors arrested in China." Needless to say, repatriation to the People's Paradise is not for the faint-hearted.

Lee reports on the case of Kim Hyuk, who in 1998 spent three months in the custody of the Onseong County Security Agency. During that time, writes Lee, "he had been tortured by the so- called 'pigeon torture' [prisoners were trussed up and beaten], heated hooks, shovels, etc." Accused of "committing the crime of espionage," he was sentenced to three years imprisonment, though he was released early in a general amnesty. Of course, as Kim told the Alliance, "There's no place to appeal to, even if they suffered from false charges."

EVEN THOUGH THE ALLIANCE'S interviews suggest that the worst tortures are no longer employed, no sane person would want to sample the tender mercies of the Security Agency. Prisoners were regularly beaten and sometimes forced to fight each other; some prisoners were executed. Moreover, writes Lee, "interrogations [were conducted] at night without allowing sleep and forced confession through prevalent violence [were common]. To extract money or other valuables, women were forced to be naked and do the so-called 'pumping,' repeatedly standing up and sitting down more than hundred times, and their wombs were searched by inserting hands."

Hoeryeong County also borders China. The local Security Agency, writes Kim, "was considered to be the most harsh and horrible place. They run the detention centers and other underground prisons to torture political criminals or other espionage criminals, which were known to be horrible beyond description."

The intensity of torture may have dropped some in recent years. However, according to prisoner Kim Gwang-soo, Lee writes, the guards "do not care whether the prisoners die or not. After a few hours of beating, the back of his head and all the teeth were broken." Kim complained to the Security Agency's prosecutor, and "was beaten more severely by the investigator." Kim explained in his formal statement that "I had to make a false confession due to the prolonged investigation and endless beating."

Another prisoner, Lee Gwang-il, reported beatings, "pumping," and coercion of prisoners to abuse each other. According to the Alliance report, "When prisoners die in the course of interrogation, they were reported to have died of heart attacks or of other diseases, thus making torturing unknown."

Lee Gwang-il made a formal statement, saying that the guards "were relentless to me. They were so young and accustomed to bad behavior, beating and treating people as animals."

Another border province is Musan. It was here, writes author Lee Young-Hwan, "that the inhumane practice of torturing to snatch money from women appeared for the first time."

In his statement escapee Kim Eun-cheol explained "the kneeling torture -- with a thick log fixed in between my knees and calves in a kneeling position -- I was positioned to kneel on a heated iron plate" and was beaten. He and other prisoners were forced to do punishment exercises in the summer covered with a blanket. For attempting to share a rice cake with another prisoner, Kim was ordered to bang his head on a wall and a toilet.

Shinuiju province also sits astride China. Thus, reports Lee Young hwan, "The Shinuiju City Security Agency bordering China along with the Yalu River also receives many defectors repatriated from the Dandong Detention Center in China, for it is located in the nearest city to China." Sixteen-year-old Park Eun-cheol reported that "he was forced to sit upright all day, beaten relentlessly and sent to the provincial level detention center after the investigation."

Park Sun-Ja, writes Lee, "testified that the Shinuiju City Security Agency also executed various and routine torture methods such as inhumane treatment for women, 'pumping,' beating, kicking, etc., as other security agencies did at the time." Ji Hae-nam's story was even worse, according to Lee's report: "The security agents beat [prisoners] relentlessly and committed sexual abuses to pretty women after putting them in isolation cell. Though women were less severely tortured than men, sexual abuses and inhumane treatment of them seemed more serious."

The Alliance spoke with refugees jailed in Gyeongseong County, an inland province. Despite rumors that DPRK dictator Kim Jong-il had ordered better treatment of prisoners, writes Lee Young-hwan, "according to the recent testimonies, such inhumane practices in detention centers and prisons as sexual abuses or snatching money by force had never been changed for the better."

THERE'S MORE, MUCH MORE, in the Alliance report. Brutal, degrading, inhumane treatment of all sorts, including for offenders accused of theft and "disseminating indecent songs." Of Lee Kwang-cheol's experience at the hands of the Headquarters of Security Agency in Pyongyang, reports the Alliance, "he was tortured severely":

Being beaten standing on his head, being beaten lying on his face with his fingers cuffed, being beaten with logs with hands cuffed and tied to the water pipe. He was beaten mostly at night by several security agents by turns and also was beaten at daytime lying on his face with a blanket covered on his body, lest any noise should go out. Ten centimeter long scars are still remaining so vividly on both wrists and even at the present time he cannot keep himself seated for more than three hours due to the wound on his waste and spine caused by beating six years ago.

Escapees were constantly pressed to confess. Confess to espionage. Confess to planning to flee to South Korea. Confess to going to a Christian church. Confess, confess, confess. In her statement, Kim Chun-ae reported that "We were continuously questioned if we had had any relationship with South Korea or Christian church."

Confessions are particularly prized, since little effort is expended to determine guilt. Lee explained in his statement: "Even if there is no evidence of murder, if one reports him/her to the security agency and he/she confesses, he/she is considered to be guilty. Inversely, if one denies his/her charges and died, but some lasted to the end and survived in the long run. To extract [a] confession, the security agency relentlessly executes various tortures, but, if one denies to the end, one can get out of the charges. Yet few can survive the harsh tortures."

Sadly, mistreatment usually began on the Chinese side of the border. In her statement Ji Hae-nam said that "Chinese inmates were free to eat and idle away the day, but we two North Korean women were treated worse than animals: We were not given any meals for three days under the excuse of food shortage and were not given any toilet paper at all." The Chinese guards stripped and "pumped" the prisoners, looking for money.

Still, the North Korean prisons made China's jails look good in comparison. Lee Gwang-il commented that "The prison in China was quite better, compared with those in North Korea." Sometimes Chinese security forces told the North Korean authorities that escapees were only seeking work or traveling, and not planning to flee to South Korea, since the latter resulted in more severe punishments.

That people flee despite the abuse that, if discovered, they can expect to suffer on both sides of the Yalu River demonstrates the extraordinary desperation of average North Koreans. Shin Jung-ae made four escape attempts before finally succeeding. The first time she crossed the border safely, but was picked up by Chinese police and spent five months in a North Korean camp. Once released she crossed the border again--her husband had died and her daughter and son-in-law already had escaped. But Chinese public security agents picked them up. From there:

We were sent back to Cheongjin City Security Agency, but could come back home owing to some help from my relatives. In October 2001, I tried the third escape, but was arrested again by the Chinese public security agents in Yenji and sent to the Onseong County Security Agency. As the previous records of escape were not found out, I gave them all the money I had and they released me after tearing the document to pieces. In November 2002, I succeeded in the fourth trial of escape.

NORTH KOREA IS A HIDEOUS BLOT on the international community. The best that the Alliance can say is that "until 1999, it had been a rule to resort to torture in the process of the investigation of crimes," while now investigations are "more systematic."

The West's ability to influence the DPRK is limited, and America's most important goal is to dissuade Pyongyang from amassing a nuclear arsenal. Keeping the Korean peninusla nuclear-free will be hard enough; convincing Kim Jong-il to dismantle his dictatorship is well-nigh inconceivable.

Nevertheless, the U.S. and its allies should never forget the nature of the regime with which they are dealing. And the PRC, which aspires to global leadership, should be embarrassed in aiding such a regime. It is in everyone's interest, but especially that of the North Korean people, that the DPRK tyranny pass away.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).