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North Korean human rights crisis
Victor Fic
2/13/2004

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The following is a paraphrased version of the interview that Victor Fic gave to Channel Islam International on Tues, Feb. 2 regarding the North Korean human rights crisis. Fic is a Canadian writer and broadcaster based in Seoul who also reports for CBS News radio and others. His email is vfic@hotmail.com. Channel Islam International, based in Johannesburg, broadcasts to 120 countries. The interview was for Fic's live weekly show called "Asian Horizons."

Ebrahim: Victor, we have read about a recent BBC report alleging that awful human rights abuses are going on in North Korea. What did the report say?

VF: On Sunday, the BBC aired a story that claims that the North Korean dictatorship is killing entire families in inhumane experiments to test deadly gas. A family is put in a chamber and gassed to death while scientists watch from above through a glass floor. The mother and father try to revive their kids as they suffer, but everyone eventually dies. A stranger might be put in there also. If so, the family members huddle in the middle while the stranger stands in the corner.

That seemed to be the key aspect of the report.

Ebrahim: Do you think that the report is true?

VF: I cannot say for sure. After all, recently the BBC was caught engaging in some shoddy reporting related to Tony Blair's claims on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. And of course the U.S. itself seems to have exaggerated the same issue. All this indicates that mistakes get made when we are dealing with closed dictatorships. It is hard to verify accusations. But many people are inclined to accept the charges against the North because its track record is so bad. We know that a famine there has killed about a million people, and that maybe 200,000 prisoners are in labor camps or gulags. As a result, many critics of the North will likely accept the BBC report. What we have to do is follow up as best we can.

Ebrahim: Who are the victims? Who gets persecuted up there?

VF: It is known that the regime classifies society into three groups. The first groups is made up of people who are very loyal, the second of waverers and the third is one for enemies of the state. The first bunch have top jobs and get food rations, the second group is under constant watch, while the third category really suffers the most. They are people who come from suspicious class backgrounds; maybe their grandfather collaborated with imperial Japan when it occupied Korea before the dictatorship came to power in 1948. Or they publicly criticized the government. It is possible that 200,000 or more inmates have been sent to the gulag because an entire family is punished when one member is accused of wrong doing.

Ebrahim: Was the BBC story reported in Korea?

VF: I think so. One English newspaper, the Korea Herald, carried the story on page one, and Korean friends tell me that the vernacular newspapers also ran it.

Ebrahim: What is the reaction there?

VF: Well, that is the strange and even disturbing part. The story is not having much impact here. We can count on conservatives to point out that the report shows how evil the North is, and that we cannot negotiate an end to the nuclear crisis because it cannot be trusted. But the silence from progressives is noticeable. In the past, many Koreans protested against the U.S. for supporting reactionary dictators here, during the Cold War. The two dictators in question killed maybe 10,000 people in total. That is not acceptable, but the North Korean record is far worse. Yet the left here is not engaging the issue. Instead, some progressive leaders are saying that we have no real proof, or even that we are hearing propaganda. It is like the 1930's when some people insisted there was famine under Stalin, even though about 25,000 Ukrainians were dying every day. And out here we have the Japanese right wing denying that they killed thousands of Chinese in Nanking in 1937.

Ebrahim: What about the South Korean government?

VF: Its behavior is also questionable. President Roh Moh-hyun is a liberal. He was a human rights lawyer once opposing the right wing here. But he is not pressing the North either because he seems worried that it will upset Pyongyang and jeopardize his detente policy.

Ebrahim: Who are the human rights activists on this issue?

VF: Many of the leaders are actually Korean-Americans, often missionaries or lay people, and Koreans connected to the Christian church, plus NGO's. One online site related to the subject is the Chosun Journal. It is at www.chosunjournal.com. You can read a lot about the human rights abuses in the North there, and find links to other sources of information.

Ebrahim: Are the activists in any danger?

VF: It does not appear that they are. But there is one German doctor named Norbert Vollersten who was once a hero in the North. They gave him a medal for helping North Korean patients. But then Vollersten found out about the abuses, and he turned against the regime. Now he is trying to fight it. Not long ago, he tried to release balloons with radios tied to them to the North. But a squad of policeman grabbed him and knocked him to the ground. You can see a now famous picture of him being shoved downward. Those police were ordered to act by the Roh government, which is ironic.

Ebrahim: When apartheid was still in existence here, and when the Soviet Union was around, many people felt it would be hard to make changes. But now they are gone. Can anything be done to improve the North Korean situation?

VF: I think so. If we do not act, then we betray our own principles and look like hypocrites. Or we seem weak, and the regime does not respect us. But the concern is that if we really lash out at the dictators, they will crack more heads, so the innocent will suffer more. The challenge is to craft a policy that addresses human rights but that does not blow up. It was done with South Africa and Russia, and rightly so. John Stuart Mill once said that the only thing for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

Ebrahim: It would be more effective if the West were more consistent on human rights, for instance with the Palestinians. We have seen so many U.N. resolutions against Israel fail to pass.

VF: Yes, that is a good point. It often looks like the U.S. and the West are too close to Sharon and the Israeli right wing. We read that he will dismantle the illegal settlements, but so much damage has been done already by him. So credibility is important, and if the West wants to reproach certain dictatorships, that is great, but we have to remember to be as fair as the situation allows for.

This interview was featured on Korea WebWeekly.

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