So if the reports are true, China has repatriated the 31 refugees that South Korea and the NGO community have pleaded so earnestly not to. Hearing the news, I can’t say I’m surprised – after all, as I predicted a few days ago, the new interim nuclear deal the DPRK came to terms with the Americans literally pushed the refugee news off the media pages, giving Beijing the cover to quietly send the North Koreans back to what we can only hope is lenient punishment. Part of me can’t but help think of the words Jim McKay said after the disastrous German attempt at rescuing the Israeli hostages at Munich: “they’re all gone.”
I can’t help but think of how much this is non-news, especially contrasted to what this week came out as what could be the largest hyped human rights video of all time: Kony 2012. With over 50 million views, this dwarfs the number of folks worldwide who came out to protest China’s planned repatriation of the 31. Part of Invisible Children’s success is the personalization of the issue. By focusing the message on to one person, Joseph Kony, they’ve successfully turned what is a undoubtedly a complex issue into a simple anthropomorphic exercise: make Kony known, and maybe, just maybe, Dorothy, perhaps he’ll turn himself in.
The 31, and North Korean refugees in general, do not have that luxury.
Individualizing an issue is a key process to humanizing human rights abuses. Anne Frank has become as much of a symbol of the Holocaust as Neda became a symbol of Iranian resistance when she lost her life in the streets of Tehran. These individual stories help connect those thousands of miles away to the pain and suffering that happens to our fellow human beings. One learned rabbi mentioned to me that she had heard that the vast majority of fundraising succeeds when the plight of one individual is depicted in the fundraising vehicle; the more people depicted, the less likely someone is willing to donate.
There lies the issue with the issue of both North Korean refugees and human rights. Nearly every single refugee that leaves North Korea has family back home. Because of this, anonymity is key. The more that is known about them, the more likely that retribution can come upon the family members left back home. This retribution can be as lenient as the loss of privileges and mark of disloyalty upon a whole generation of a family; if you believe what Pyongyang is saying, it can also be as severe as a one-way trip to one of North Korea’s concentration camps.
That is one reason the 31 were never named, and why many North Koreans themselves are loathe to be in any spotlight. As long as very little is known about them, those repatriated can limit the punishment that is meted out on them to themselves – after all, if they’re determined enough, they can lie, even through torture. However, the moment the North Korean State Security Agency, the Bowibu, has even a scrap of information upon those repatriated, it no longer becomes simply a matter for the repatriated themselves.
This has caused some grief for those trying to advocate on behalf of this cause. There is no better spokesperson for a movement than a person who has suffered. This limits those who are able to speak out to those with no family back in the DPRK, or whose family is in a high enough position within the DPRK regime strata that they are safe, or whose family has been already sent to the concentration camps. This does not leave very many people who are able to speak out. Some still do, but dare not use their real names or real faces.
This problem of course would not be an issue if the regime did not punish those who were left behind. And for a little while, at least while Kim Jong Il was alive, this familial retribution seemed to be diminishing. However, with Kim Jong Un’s ascension, the reports we’ve been hearing from the border areas only point to a renewed interest in punishing those who leave the country – and their relatives. Perhaps Pyongyang is trying to build a deterrent for lower elites who want to jump ship; perhaps it’s simply a way of showing the folks up in north Hamkyung province who’s boss. Regardless of the motive, the vise seems to be tightening, not loosening.
This recent change in policy, coupled with North Korea’s new pickiness about who gets to give them humanitarian aid, is cause for alarm. When the vast majority of North Koreans still leave the country primarily because of causes such as hunger, any policy that restricts what type of aid goes into the country can only result in a direct impact on refugee flows.
But back to the 31. One can only pray that we will one day be able to see them again. The fight, however, is far from over. As long as refugees escape from North Korea, and as long as China continues to cooperate with Pyongyang with this abhorrent policy, we will always have reason to protest. Perhaps we in Canada have more reason to do so – for if we do not stand up for those who cannot be named, who will?