By Hannah Yurkovich, World YWCA volunteer
Before sitting in on this Session organised by Human Rights Watch, I knew very little about the situation of North Koreans in their country and those who chose to escape. They showed a documentary of the human rights situation in the country, focusing on children, women and political prisoners through interviews with North Koreans who were able to leave the country. We also had the privilege of hearing first hand the story of one woman who had recently escaped North Korea, having lived in forced prison labour camps for 28 years.
It was explained to us that in North Korea, the people are trapped in a strict social cast system, where jobs are predetermined to follow the same path as a family member’s parents, where lower and insufficient food rations are passed around, and where the chance to follow higher education is only allotted to the elite cast. The capital city, Pyongyang, is reserved for this class, and its residents are frequently screened for political background tests. Mistakes or anti-government records of a family member will permanently mar his or her relatives across all generations. Hye Sook Kim, the woman who gave her personal testimony about the situation in political prison camps, shared that her family was imprisoned because of a grandfather who had escaped to South Korea long ago during the war. For most marked family members, the crimes that they are arrested for remain unknown, and no one dares to ask guards what they are being accused of, for fear of torture or execution. Kim’s own father was punished severely for this mistake, and her own siblings who are thought to still be in the camps to this day, still do not know of the family history that Kim had discovered just after she had left the prison in 2002.
Even for those who have avoided the fate of the 200,000 political prisoners, survival is almost impossible for those whose ancestry is less fortunate. For children, education is basic, and many lose the motivation to go to school as they know that their future is already written out for them. Schools force manual labour on young students, making them do ‘special assignments’, involving the collection of raw materials, such as animal skins or metal, which are said to provide supplies for their soldiers. Many children choose to beg on the streets, working as ‘Kojebi’, to fight starvation. But many freeze to death, and in the streets of North Korea, corpses are widespread. And since the community is slow to dispose of dead bodies, rats are large and proliferate, especially in the prison camps. For those in the prison camps, long hours of manual labour are assigned with little food, and many are tortured, raped, and live in particularly difficult conditions where bed bugs are numerous, and prisoners consequently all contract skin diseases. Sexual abuse against children is allegedly more socially acceptable in this country where most citizens have never even heard of the term ‘human rights’. After the age of 28, if women in the camps have proven themselves to be hard workers, they are allowed to marry, as Ms Kim did, though in many cases the options of men are much older, and their children are born into these camps, where infanticide, perpetrated by the guards, is not unheard of.
Religious affiliation will also leave a mark on an individual’s family and, like Hye Sook Kim’s grandfather, escaping North Korea’s borders is considered a crime that affects the individual’s family. The only possible escape route is across the Tumen River that separates North Korea from China, and although this is a deadly route, many who have lost hope of survival choose to take it anyway. Others, especially women and children, seek someone to buy them, and they are then forced into prostitution or other forms of forced labour.
Although escape into China is sometimes possible, those who succeed, risk repatriation back into North Korea, where severe punishment or execution awaits them and their families. This People are trying to put pressure on China to end their stance on considering North Korean refugees as illegal economic migrants, which is against the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the 1967 protocol. This is where the international community can come in. Many refugees seek resettlement in South Korea, where there are currently around 23,000 North Koreans.
For those who have escaped through the long and dangerous routes through China and Thailand, large loans are a common problem, as brokers aid North Koreans in getting to South Korea under the condition of handing them large sums of loaned money. This is another area where the international community can help empower women to find an independent way of supporting themselves, and providing a safe passage for these refugees.
North Korea has signed 4 human rights treaties but continually denies that it is violating human rights. There is also an on-going food crisis that is one of the most serious in the world.
The YWCA of Korea (South Korea) is a member of the World YWCA since 1924. At the World YWCA Council meeting in Zurich, Switzerland in July 2011, the movement adopted a Resolution calling for peace and strengthening the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s women and children’s human rights. More specifically, the Resolution called for the YWCA movement to:
- Work together to promote women’s human rights, including implementation of UNSCR 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889, and to influence policies that would ensure safety and security for all women and girls
- Advocate for increased representation of women at all levels of decision-making in times of peace, conflict and post conflict
- Support and mobilise women, young women and girls to advocate for peace
- Raise awareness about the situation of women and girls in DPRK and DPRK refugees, and call for immediate action by the international community
- Support DPRK refugees throughout the Diaspora
- Lobby for and participate in humanitarian aid to DPRK women and girls
- Organise a witness visit to the Korean peninsula DMZ.