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Experts, former prisoner discuss North Korean humanitarian crisis

For nine months, Guang-il Jung was confined to an underground cell, beaten with a wooden club until his teeth fell out, handcuffed to an iron bar to prevent him from sleeping, hung upside down and denied a toilet and clean clothes.

Former North Korean political prisoner recounted his story at the panel Saturday. “Just to survive, I had to make a false confession,” he said. The panel explored the issues fueling the humanitarian crisis within the country. (DEVIN BANERJEE/The Stanford Daily)

“Even if I screamed, nobody heard,” he told The Daily through a translator on Saturday. Jung’s was just one of many tales of human rights abuses discussed at a conference held over the weekend at Stanford on “The North Korean Crisis: Human Stories & Taking Action.”

Jung was joined by David Hawk, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, Dan Chung, communications director of Chicago-based NGO Crossing Borders, and Sharon Perry, a senior researcher at Stanford School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases.

Jung, 47, relayed his harrowing story as a political prisoner in North Korea. He was arrested in his home in July 1999 and sent to the underground quarters of the city’s security agency, where he was charged with spying–likely because he had several business contacts in South Korea, he said. For nine months, Jung denied the charges, even as investigators told him he wouldn’t get out alive if he didn’t confess.

“Later, I became too weak,” he said. “Just to survive, I had to make a false confession.” By then, Jung’s weight of 165 pounds had dropped by half.

In April 2000, Jung was sent to the infamous Yodok concentration camp, where he spent the next three years performing hard labor–and watching an estimated 200 of 400 prisoners die of starvation. Several prisoners attempted to escape, Jung said, but they were either impaled by spears dug into the ground or dragged back to the camp by guard dogs and then publicly executed as a warning to others.

In April 2003, Jung was deemed acceptable for release if he swore not to tell anyone about the camp. Twelve days later, upon finding his former house taken away and his family kicked out of the country, Jung defected to China. A year later, he entered South Korea, where he now directs a Seoul-based NGO called NK Gulag for Democracy.

The other speakers at Saturday’s conference spoke of the lack of food security, the state-controlled repression of market-based economics, the prevalence of human trafficking and the dire health conditions, including high incidences of tuberculosis (TB), that exist in North Korea.

These conditions constitute what Professor David Straub, who moderated the conference, called “one of the very worst human rights situations in the world.” Straub, the associate director of Stanford’s Korean Studies Program, accompanied former President Bill Clinton on his August 2009 trip to Pyongyang to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from North Korean captivity.

“I think it was one of the great scandals of the second half of the 20th century that nothing was effectively done in the North Korean humanitarian crisis,” he said.

Hawk called the current global response to the crisis only a “response-to-provocation phase.”

“On the ground, in the area of human rights, nothing much has changed,” he said, noting later that more NGOs are becoming active in the crisis, but that their effects are slow. “The repression grinds on.”

A confluence of events that took place 10 to 15 years ago brought more attention to the humanitarian crisis, Straub said. These included the breakup of the Soviet Union, which engaged heavily in trade with North Korea, the global demise of communism, the rise of Internet-based communication and the move to full democracy by South Korea.

“The result is we’ve seen much more access to the world of North Korea and information about it,” Straub said. “We’ve seen the rise of many organizations, NGOs, around the world, and we’ve seen the development of global networks of these organizations.”

The regime in North Korea, Hawk said, may be beginning to lose its footing for the same reasons. Three legs normally prop up the government–ubiquitous police surveillance, punishment of counterrevolutionary thought and strict control over outside information–and of those, the control over information has broken down, Hawk said.

“As of 2004 and 2005, some 20,000 North Koreans have made it through China and into South Korea, and an awful lot of them remain in contact with their friends, family and neighbors through their cell phones,” he said. “North Koreans are learning that South Korea is free, democratic, prosperous, even rich.”

Several thousand North Korean women make it across the border to China each year but are victims of human trafficking, Chung said. While trafficking has usually been done by kidnapping women or brokering them between North Korea and buyers in China by telling the women that jobs awaited them, Chung said a third method is now arising: matchmaking, or telling North Korean women that potential husbands await them across the border.

“It’s the same thing, just dressed up in different wrapping,” Chung said.

Perry, who returned from North Korea earlier this year after working with Pyongyang’s Ministry of Public Health to initiate installation of the country’s first diagnostic laboratory for drug-resistant tuberculosis, lamented the incidence of TB there.

“Health care indicators in DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea] show that it has fallen out of the developed world,” Perry said. “TB incidence is similar to that in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Still, Perry said the work being done by her group and by the many NGOs involved in the North Korean humanitarian crisis are steps in the right direction. Quoting from the 1919 Korean Declaration of Independence, she told the audience in Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center, “To begin is to succeed. We only need to march in the direction of the light.”

Jung, who has traveled the world speaking about the years of torture and repression he spent in North Korea, had a different idea: “Let’s talk about when Kim Jong-il is going to die.”

The conference was organized by the Stanford Korean Students Association.

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