North Korea: Will winter shortages intensify rights abuses?

North Korea rights advocates in South Korea turned to international courts for aid in challenging abuses. They are trying to keep the issue in the public eye as a tough winter and a drastic currency revaluation raise the prospect of more crackdowns.

Jacky Chen/Reuters
A North Korean soldier guards the bank of Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, Friday.

When it came to circumventing the devastating impact of North Korea’s program to reform its nearly worthless currency, two North Korean black marketers had a scam they were sure would work .

As activist Ha Tae-keung described it, the two had far more of the old North Korean won than the government authorized them to change. “They hired poor people in a suburb of Pyongyang,” says Mr. Ha, and offered to split the proceeds. But after the police caught on, he says, “they were executed” – an example for those who would defy the authorities’ campaign to drastically revalue North Korean currency.

The harsh justice coincides with mounting attempts in the South to publicize human rights violations in North Korea that are so pervasive that they have been largely ignored here. At least three organizations are spreading the word in newsletters and on websites, reporting arrests, torture, and executions on the basis of reports from North Korean contacts. And this week, Ha has also been leading a group of defectors to The Hague, where they asked the International Criminal Court to consider charges against North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

“This is the first attempt to deal with this issue in terms of international law,” he says. “We have a critical mass of victims from political criminal camps. We think it’s time to start now. Our first goal is for the international community to recognize abuses as crimes against humanity.”

Ha’s trip to The Hague coincided with hearings by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at which North Korean diplomats categorically denied human rights abuses as “fabricated.” North Korea’s ambassador Ri Tcheul rejected 50 recommendations, including calls for abolition of the death penalty, for freedom of movement of citizens, for stopping forced labor and for doing away with military training for children.

As for malnutrition, he called it “a thing of the past” – reflective of an era more than a decade ago when North Korea acknowledged severe food shortages that are believed to have resulted in the starvation of about 2 million people.

Defectors report, however, that hunger and disease remain rampant, that a majority of the people are limited to two small meals a day, and that basic commodities are increasingly hard to find – or available only at exorbitant prices on black markets.

The quest for survival may worsen as another cold dark winter descends and people scour already barren hils and valleys for bits of firewood.

“The harvest this year was extremely poor,” says Tim Peters, who directs Helping Hands Korea, dedicated to assisting defectors on risky journeys through China to third countries, from which they often wind up in South Korea. “We’re expecting more defectors this winter than usual.”

South Korean authorities have been increasingly concerned about human rights issues in North Korea since the election of the conservative Lee Myung-bak as president two years ago. Unlike the two previous administrations, the government has supported UN resolutions denouncing the North’s human rights violations and is pressing for a plan to set up the machinery for dealing with North Korea’s human rights problems.

In recent weeks, however, the sense of confrontation has diminished somewhat. North Korea this week accepted President Lee’s “unconditional, humanitarian” offer of antiviral Tamiflu drugs to combat swine flu, now threatening to reach epidemic proportions in parts of the North.

Easing of North-South tensions, however, does not dampen the interest of Internet websites here to find out and report on the North and forcing the government to shut down all schools for a month.

“Our defector reporters tell us what’s going on,” says Kwon Eon-kyoung, an editor for Daily NK, probably the most prolific source of information on the lives of North Koreans, “but often the news is late.”

Most of the reporters, she says, call by cellphone after crossing into China, though she sometimes gets calls from just inside North Korea’s borders. Sometimes the news comes from defectors’ relatives.

In its latest report, Daily NK reports on meetings at which North Korean officials propound on details of currency reforms, widely viewed as a campaign to control a small middle class that poses a persistent threat to the power of North Korea’s ruling class.

Daily NK’s latest report quotes a source as saying that “food prices are already soaring” and warning of “an unimaginable aftermath” if “authorities take to printing money in order to pay for projects….” As for executions, imprisonment and torture, says Ms. Kwon, “they are such common things, we just focus on the news.”

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