38 North: Beyond the Golden Couples of Pyongyang By John Feffer

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is authored by John Feffer, a long-time friend and supporter of CanKor. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of several books and numerous articles. His latest book, Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War against Islam, is being published this month by City Lights Press. In this outstanding article, Feffer analyzes the emerging new class system of North Korea. “Any policy toward North Korea,” according to Feffer, “must somehow take into account these three groups of people: the prospering, the struggling, and the incarcerated.” He lists projects that are currently being implemented by various actors that aim at an overall human security objective, which he believes is the best way to promote the well-being of North Koreans beyond the “golden couples” that represent the new entrepreneurial elite of the country. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

It’s not likely that an Occupy Pyongyang movement will set up tents in Kim Il Sung Square anytime soon. Protest, after all, is virtually non-existent in that society. But the same widening inequalities that plague the United States and the global economy can also be found inside North Korea. What was once a relatively equitable society, albeit at the low end of per-capita GDP, has been experiencing a rapid polarization in wealth. The implications of this widening gap on North Korean government policy—as well as on international policies promoting human security inside North Korea—are enormous.

The headlines coming out of North Korea these days are a study in contrasts. On the one hand, four separate international nutritional assessments in 2011 found chronic malnutrition that, according to the UN, affects one in three children under five. Although 2012 is the year of kangsung daeguk—an economically prosperous and militarily strong power—the overall statistics tell a different story. The North Korean economy, which had recovered somewhat by the beginning of the new millennium from its near collapse in the mid-1990s, contracted in both 2009 and 2010, according to South Korean sources. Pyongyang has been unable to wean itself from dependence on Beijing’s food and energy assistance, and, out of necessity, has negotiated lopsided deals with China over access to mineral wealth and ports. Farmers have been forced by the lack of fuel and spare parts to rely more heavily on manual labor. Workers steal from their factories to supplement meager salaries. The inability of North Korea to revive its agricultural and manufacturing sectors has adversely affected the larger bulk of the population, the broad class of workers and farmers who have relied on employment in state enterprises and state farms as well as food from the public distribution system. Read the rest of this entry »

National Post: the Significance of North Korea’s Prisoner Amnesty

[DISCLAIMER: The following article by Ross Johnston, entitled “Torture, executions are daily occurrences at North Korea’s ‘rehabilitation’ gulags” and published in the National Post on 3 February 2012 contains a number of factual and interpretive errors when referring to an interview with the Editor-in-Chief of CanKor. For example, Erich Weingartner did not receive North Korean citizenship. He also specified that the link between prison camps and the low incidence of crimes witnessed by foreigners in the late 1990s is purely speculative, and emphasized that prisoner amnesties are common during a change of leaders not only in North but also in South Korea. In neither case would the release of prisoners include those who might pose a threat to the incoming leadership. –CanKor]

Shin Sook-ja was imprisoned in a North Korean labour camp along with her daughters, Oh Hyewon and Oh Gyuwon, after her husband managed to flee the country. She and the girls were then forced to pose for this fake family portrait, which was sent to her husband as evidence of their capture. (Amnesty International)

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Kwanliso 14, a “rehabilitation” camp 72 kilometres north of Pyongyang, North Korea.

For 23 years he knew only pain, hunger and despair, and like all prisoners was forced to witness the daily executions.

Even so, life was not without its hard-won, if shocking pleasures.

“One lucky day, I discovered some kernels of corn in a small pile of cow dung,” he said in a report released by Amnesty International in May.

“I picked them up and cleaned them with my sleeve before eating.”

Mr. Shin was one of about 200,000 prisoners held in five known prison camps scattered across the country.

These modern gulags include Kwanliso (Korean for prison camp) 15 at Yodok, 128 kilometres east of Pyongyang. With 50,000 political prisoners, it is one of the most rapidly growing camps in North Korea covering five valleys and approximately 146 square kilometres. (Inside Pyongyang’s Gulags view PDF)

For decades, the Pyongyang government has repeatedly denied the existence of the camps — though they show up on satellite maps. But there is little doubt about their purpose: It is to reform enemies of the state through a regime of hard labour and relentless propaganda. Read the rest of this entry »

South Koreans are NOT allowed to see this!

Several days ago I received an urgent message from a colleague residing in Seoul, South Korea, asking me to send him a copy of North Korea’s New Year Joint Editorial. This is an annual policy statement that the DPRK has issued since the death of former leader Kim Il Sung. It is called “Joint Editorial” because it is published simultaneously by the three leading North Korean newspapers: the Rodong Sinmun (official daily of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea), Joson Inmingun (daily of the Korean People’s Army), and Chongnyon Jonwi (daily of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League).

South Korean civic group and family members of prisoners shout slogans during a rally denouncing the National Security Law in Seoul, 7 December 2011. The banner reads "(Abolish) National Security Law." (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

My colleague needed to study the text of the editorial for a paper he was writing. Try as he may, he was unable to access any website that published the entire document. All websites emanating from the DPRK and any others that might reproduce North Korean propaganda are blocked under South Korea’s National Security Law (NSL). This law was enacted in 1948, just three and a half months after the establishment of the Republic of Korea. Its avowed purpose is “to restrict anti-state acts that endanger national security and to protect [the] nation’s safety and its people’s life and freedom.”

In the past, this law was used not only to shield South Koreans from North Korean influence, but also to prosecute democracy and human rights movements of South Korean citizens by the dictators who ruled South Korea until the restoration of democracy. Between 1961 and 2002, at least 13,178 people were indicted, and 182 of them executed, under the law, according to human rights groups. While attempts to repeal the NSL by two ROK “Sunshine” presidents (Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun) failed, the law was less rigorously applied under their administrations.

Read the rest of this entry »

Critique of AI Report: The Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea

by Marilyn Weingartner, retired Public Health Nurse, 4 August 2010:

At the end of April, World Health Organization Director General Dr. Margaret Chan visited Pyongyang and came back with a report that seemed to praise the DPRK for its universal health care system. (Read: Press briefing at WHO headquarters, Geneva) Her report has been widely criticized for painting too pretty a picture of realities on the ground in North Korea. Indeed, she should have been more careful about commenting on the size and weight of people she observed on the street in Pyongyang. Surely the lack of obesity Dr. Chan observed cannot be attributed only to the fact that North Koreans do a lot of walking!

In mid-July Amnesty International (AI) issued a report about “The Crumbling State of Health Care in North Korea” that paints a dismal picture about health care in the DPRK. This is an approach based on a second-hand relationship with DPRK, since AI does not have direct access to work inside the country. The report relies on information provided through interviews with expatriate North Korean refugees/defectors.

Whereas the access Dr. Chan had was almost entirely limited to the relatively prosperous capital city, AI’s sources were almost entirely from the province of North Hamgyong, a region that is farthest away from the capital. The AI report reveals what we already knew about the relative poverty of the northeastern provinces, due to their remoteness, mountainous terrain and lack of arable land. Stories of survival from that region have always been horrendous, and this is reflected in the interviews.

Initially, I was pleased that the urgent issue of health care has been getting the attention it deserves and needs. But as I read the AI report, I couldn’t help getting angry, not at the DPRK regime, but at the writers of the AI report, who in my estimation have missed a golden opportunity to do something positive for the people of North Korea.

As a health care worker who lived and worked in the health sector in the DPRK from 1997 to 1999, I have seen the best and the worst imaginable. I can relate to the conditions described in the AI report, because much of what is written there I have experienced with my own eyes. But what is the purpose of this report? How does this report differ from the one Amnesty has already issued in 2004? Why now?

One can criticize Dr. Chan’s excessive optimism about the North Korean system, but the WHO, for all its faults, is concerned about opening doors and marshalling the resources necessary to improve a crumbling medical infrastructure. But how will the AI report help the people on the ground? Apart from a rather gratuitous admonition that donor countries should “ensure that the provision of humanitarian assistance in North Korea is based on need and is not subject to political conditions,” the conditions under which such assistance is to be rendered merely strengthen the impression that all aid is tied to political considerations.

There are two aspects that I feel compromise the usefulness of the report:

Amnesty goes to great lengths to justify its competence in the field of health care. It seeks to convince us that the crisis in health care is a human rights issue. There are ample references and quotes from international human rights law, and like the prosecution in a court of law it indicts the DPRK government for failing to meet international standards. Does this approach help to determine how to best serve the needs of ordinary Koreans with the help of and sometimes in spite of their (and often our own) governments?

The report reminds us that most potential donors withhold aid because it “would not reach those in greatest need.” Yet there is no mention of the sanctions in place—some of them since the Korean War—that directly impact the provision of assistance even if access problems were completely resolved. One of these is a ban on “dual-use” exports (i.e., civilian goods that could be adapted to military purposes), which directly affects medical equipment.

The Amnesty report blames Pyongyang for a shortage of syringes at hospitals. In the 1990s Iraq suffered from a similar shortage because of concerns that they might contribute to Iraq’s WMD programs. Supplies of syringes were held up for half a year because of fears they might be used in creating anthrax spores. Tens of thousands of Iraqi children died as a result. Why does Amnesty not draw attention to this devious political tactic as a human rights issue?

References to the DPRK’s “economic problems” over-simplify the effects of international sanctions and isolationist policies on the capacity of the country to re-build and restore the elements needed for a functioning health care system. I use the word “restore” because, as Dr. Chan tried to clarify (unfortunately rather awkwardly), the elements are there. Clinics, for example, are present down to the smallest “ri” (county). But the clinics are bare, cold, and the staff are out in the fields trying to make ends meet and to feed their families. When the AI report exhorts the DPRK that “Functioning public health and health-care facilities, goods and services, as well as programmes, have to be available in sufficient quantity within the State party” the report shows the kind of disrespect that has turned well-meaning North Korean health care workers against some of the NGOs that previously worked in the DPRK. One experienced MD of my acquaintance stopped going to workshops because he was personally offended by a young foreign NGO worker who tried to lecture him about how to run the pharmacy at his hospital.

And this brings me to my second point:

With their macro-view of DPR Korea, the AI report misses the humanity of the health care workers and their patients who suffer from the crisis. It offends the dignity of those who are doing everything within their power to serve their people in the field of health care. When Soviet help was still available to the DPRK, medical staff had access to reasonably modern medical education and technology. Doctors often had Russian as their second language because they studied at Russian medical schools. AI cannot notice the heartbreak of these health care professionals who created a system that in its heyday was indeed the envy of many countries, including the ROK. But within a lifetime that system has crumbled into the current critical state, through no fault of the health care workers.

I have met many doctors who now struggle in good faith to make medicines from wild plants for their patients, and who are left to try to establish a diagnosis with a worn out stethoscope. The Institute for Health Information in Pyongyang has a wealth of health information researched and ready for printing and distribution. All that is missing is ink and paper to print it on.

It’s easy to blame the regime for a “lack of commitment to transparency”. (Are we still talking about DPRK?) Where is the capacity for AI to point out the tiny steps taken by WHO and other organizations, for example to improve access to medical attention by providing bicycles for doctors and midwives? Or to improve the capacity of the DPRK to produce their own TB medicines by providing window glass for the Pharmaceutical Factory in Pyongyang?

As far as I am concerned, this report just adds another voice to the current cacophony of criticism that serves only to entrench division among those interested in helping North Koreans and obscures the true nature of the dilemma facing the DPRK. This kind of debate does not lead to insight about how to respond to the situation of doctors and nurses and their patients and family members. Meanwhile, people continue to suffer.

Will the Amnesty report lead Canada to establish exchange programmes for health care workers, so that they can visit our facilities, so they can upgrade their knowledge base, or even just to learn English? Or will the report simply confirm to the Canadian Government that limiting resources and access to the DPRK is a reasonable policy?

During the Nutritional Survey of 1998 the driver of my team emphasized to me that if there were 1 bean and 5 Koreans, that bean would be divided among them. Today, unfortunately, the old song about “nothing from nothing is nothing” is as true as ever.

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