U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un sign documents as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the North Korean leader's sister Kim Yo Jong look on at a signing ceremony during their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP)
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their historic summit in Singapore on June 12 last year, the first time the leader of the free world and the leader of the world’s most repressive dictatorship had met face to face.
That encounter also took place on the anniversary of a famous speech by another American president addressing a nuclear-armed communist dictatorship — Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech, 32 years ago on that same date.
Ahead of the Singapore summit, I argued that President Trump should follow his predecessor’s example and put human rights clearly on the agenda alongside security. I said that he should paraphrase President Reagan and tell the North Korean dictator: “Mr. Kim, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Korean Peninsula, if you seek liberalization: Come to the prison camps! Mr. Kim, open the gates to the gulags! Mr. Kim, tear down the walls of the gulags! Mr. Kim, free all your political prisoners.”
To the best of my knowledge, and without being privy to what was said in their private discussions, Trump did not do this. A year on, what is there to show for it?
Not only has there been little meaningful progress on the question of denuclearization, with the follow-up summit between the two leaders in Hanoi eight months later collapsing, but there has been no sign of any progress on human rights in North Korea. Rumors that Kim had executed his envoy, Kim Hyok-chol, and four other negotiators, and sent another, Kim Yong-chol, to a forced labor camp, appear to be wrong, but the mere fact that major international media initially reported them as fact is a sign of what we have come to expect from this regime.
It is five years since a United Nations Commission of Inquiry, established by the Human Rights Council and ably chaired by Australian judge Michael Kirby, concluded that the North Korean regime was committing crimes against humanity. It said that the “gravity, scale and nature” of the violations of human rights in North Korea “reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and it called for North Korea’s leaders to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.
Five years on, and the gravity, scale and nature of the crimes against humanity which the U.N. inquiry documented have not changed, but no action has been taken. Every one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ 30 articles is denied or violated in North Korea, yet no one has been held to account.
Towards the end of last month, the United Nations published a new report, which claimed that the people of North Korea are “trapped in a vicious cycle, in which the failure of the state to provide for life’s basic necessities forces them to turn to rudimentary markets where they face a host of human rights violations in an uncertain legal environment.” The U.N. accuses the North Korean regime of violating the rights to food, health, shelter, work and freedom of movement, making such basic liberties dependent “on the ability of individuals to bribe state officials.”
According to the U.N., in 2019 about 10.9 million North Koreans — more than 43 percent of the population — are undernourished and suffer from food insecurity. Almost 10 million have no access to safe drinking water, while 16 percent of the population have no access to basic sanitation. The 2018 Global Hunger Index classified the level of hunger in the country as serious” and “bordering on alarming.”
Meanwhile, as the U.N. notes, “huge resources continue to be directed towards military spending.” North Korea has one of the world’s largest standing armies — as a ratio of military personnel to population, it is the largest. More than a million young people are taken from the workplace into the military. How can anyone claim that security and human rights are separate issues?
Abuse of North Korean women
Earlier this year, a major new report exposed one particularly under-reported human rights issue — the abuse of North Korean women and their trafficking into prostitution, cybersex and forced marriage in China on a vast scale. The report, by Korea Future Initiative and titled “Sex Slaves,” describes a catalogue of “systematic rape, sex trafficking, sexual slavery, sexual abuse, prostitution, cybersex trafficking, forced marriage and forced pregnancy.” North Korean woman are forced into China’s sex trade “where they are exploited and used by men until their bodies are depleted.”
China’s criminal underworld, according to this new report, makes annual profits of at least US$105 million from the exploitation of North Korean women. Victims are prostituted for as little as US$4, sold as wives for US$146 and trafficked into “cybersex dens for exploitation by a global audience.” Girls as young as 9 years old are forced to perform graphic sex acts and are sexually assaulted in front of webcams livestreamed to a worldwide audience.
Some of China’s police officers are also complicit, sometimes carrying out direct sales of North Korean women and girls themselves.
But it is not only women who are abused. North Korean men and boys are trafficked into forced labor on farms and construction sites in China and threatened with violence, according to Korea Future Initiative’s report.
Those who are not exploited in China are forcibly repatriated by China, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian norms and the principle of non-refoulement. A recent case of a family of seven from North Korea, including a 9-year-old and a 17-year-old, has drawn attention. A relative of the family has issued an appeal for help, and Justice for North Korea, a Seoul-based NGO, has said that “international organizations and the international community are the only way to save the lives of these seven at risk.”
Under North Korean laws, departing the country without permission is a criminal offense. North Koreans who have previously been forcibly repatriated have faced imprisonment in political prison camps or other detention facilities, or in some cases execution. Ji Hyeon-A, for example, escaped from North Korea three times and each time was arrested in China and sent back to face severe torture. She had become pregnant in China, and when forcibly repatriated to North Korea she was forced to abort her baby. Only on her fourth attempt did she make it to South Korea. The fact that she kept trying, despite the dangers and the trauma of torture, is an indication of how desperate the situation is.
Ji Hyeon-A fled North Korea because of her Christian faith. In North Korea there is no religious freedom — full stop. As CSW’s most recent report found, while there may have been some other changes in North Korea, the one area where there’s absolutely no change is in the basic right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. Any divergence from utter loyalty to the Kim dynasty is punished severely. One interviewee told us that a person found to be a Christian “would be immediately shot.” Another said that when it comes to religion, North Koreans “just shudder because punishment is very severe.”
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry concurs, noting that “there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” The regime “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and, as a result, “Christians are prohibited from practicing their religion and are persecuted.” Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practicing Christianity.”
In his speech at the Berlin Wall 32 years ago, President Reagan noted that “there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds … Freedom is the victor … Freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”
Germany’s President Richard von Weizsacker said that the divide represented by the Berlin Wall affected “the question of freedom for all mankind.” The same is true of the division on the Korean Peninsula. That division is not one marked only by the question of nuclear capability but also by human dignity and freedom.
Justice Michael Kirby, who chaired the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, said in an article last year that “I am glad that President Trump and Chairman Kim met in Singapore … But I cannot put out of my mind the people who came to the public hearings of the United Nations inquiry. They told their stories of suffering. They trust the world and the United Nations to right the wrongs. Their testimony is on the internet. It haunts our world. But not North Korea where it is inaccessible to all but the elite around Kim. I will begin to respect his word when he opens up his isolated country to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the mass detention camps. Let him do this immediately and then I can join in the rejoicing for the self-proclaimed triumph of the Singapore summit of June 2018.”
A year on from the Singapore summit, there is no cause for rejoicing whatsoever. Let us hope that talks resume, that bridges are built and that with human dignity the Korean Peninsula, north and south, will pursue a new world.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia team leader at human rights organization CSW and co-founder of the International Coalition to End Crimes against Humanity in North Korea.