Meeting refugees from North Korea by Mary Robinson

[After a 48-hour visit to the DPRK and ROK in late April, four members of the Elders urged immediate delivery of humanitarian assistance to DPRK and an early resumption of dialogue on all outstanding issues. Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. Currently based in Dublin, Mary Robinson founded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and, more recently, the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. She traveled to DPRK and ROK together with fellow Elders Gro Brundtland, Jimmy Carter and Martti Ahtisaari. –CanKor.]

Mary Robinson

In Seoul today I have just had a very moving meeting with a group of courageous young people – mainly young women – who are originally from North Korea. As they told me how they came to be living in South Korea, I also got a further glimpse into the true hardship of life in the DPRK.

Of course I have just been in North Korea – but it was impossible to have truly frank conversations with ordinary people while we were there – and we knew that what we saw would only touch the surface of the suffering that we had been briefed about.

The young people I met at the Yeomyung School in Seoul had almost all been separated for long periods from their parents, most of whom left North Korea out of desperation. A lack of food was mentioned by almost all as the reason for leaving.

One 20 year old woman described how she had survived the famine of the 1990s as a small child. Then the failed currency reforms in 2009, which wiped out all private savings, again led to terrible hunger. After 13 years living with an aunt in North Korea, she finally fled through China to join her mother in Seoul two years ago.

I heard another young woman say that her mother had been captured in China and sent back to prison in the DPRK. Yet another described how she had tried to kill herself by swallowing a needle – but fortunately survived. I did what I could to comfort them.

Before we went to the DPRK we had, of course, been fully briefed on the extremely grave human rights situation including conditions in detention camps, the large number of political prisoners, the lack of freedom of expression and opinion, and many public executions.

Those who try to escape or seek asylum are often subject to trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced marriage. Their families are often punished. Family reunion visits between the tens of thousands of families that were split by the Korean War of 1950-53 have been suspended. The UN’s human rights representative on North Korea has never been allowed to visit.

Usually on a mission like this, even though I no longer have the mandate of UN Human Rights Commissioner, I would raise these issues. However it was clear from the moment we started planning this visit, that if we were to focus on security issues and humanitarian concerns, we could only raise women and children’s rights – and even that was difficult.

For example, I had been looking forward to our discussion with the head of the Korean Worker’s Party’s Women’s Union. Surely if they wanted international food assistance – especially for vulnerable children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding – she would help us make the case. I was terribly disappointed. Instead of finding an ally we were treated to a long lecture on the merits of the North Korean system and a flat denial that there was any room for improvement.

In our meetings with senior officials I often had to bite my tongue. I wanted to interrupt, contradict, argue – but we had agreed that as a group we wanted to focus on engaging with North Korea and encouraging peace talks. I was aware that explicitly raising human rights concerns would jeopardise our mission. We all felt the same.

Fortunately when we ventured out of the capital to the nearby city of Pyongsong, there was a little more room for honest exchange. We were able to visit a hospital, a food distribution centre, a baby centre and spoke to a family dependent on the food distribution system – where the absence of an adequate, varied diet, especially for children, was a recurrent theme.

Food in North Korea is distributed by the state through the Public Distribution System. People are given ration books and they collect their grain or rice in sacks. We often saw people pushing or riding bicycles carrying sacks of food.

The state is supposed to provide an average of 573 grams of grain per person per day but the food shortages mean that in the past few months, rations have shrunk to half that. In May they could fall to 190 grams per person per day. As the World Food Program has made clear – this is just not enough for people to survive. In the coming months a quarter of the population, around 6 million people, face acute hunger and possible starvation.

If you have been reading about our visit, you will know that the Elders will be pressing Europe, the US, South Korea, China and all those in a position to help, to assist the people of North Korea by increasing food aid and we hope governments and agencies will react rapidly. Food is a basic human right and the suffering of the population must be decoupled from politics.

There are many other problems that deserve attention. Even in Pyongsong city’s hospital, a relatively well-off farming town, my fellow Elder Gro Brundtland – a doctor by training – saw that there was no running water and they had only 30 per cent of essential medicines required for basic health care. All vaccinations in the country are paid for by UNICEF.

As we drove through the countryside, we could see that almost all farm work is done by hand or occasionally oxen – although even these are increasingly ravaged by foot and mouth disease. The lack of fuel and spare parts means North Korea’s farm sector has slid back to pre-industrial methods.

It is the first responsibility of governments to ensure that their people have adequate food and water. It is hard to see how the DPRK can claim to seriously uphold the human rights conventions it has signed, nor that it is upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In Pyongyang, the capital, we drove past vast buildings in honour of the state founder Kim Il Sung. Enormous amounts of time and energy are devoted to cleaning the streets, tending gardens and celebrating the leadership.

I think these priorities are wrong and that the state should first and foremost concentrate on the welfare of its people. If that were to happen, I would hope that this would be the last time that the international donor community was called upon to provide food aid.

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