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North Korea’s Human Rights Record Assailed as Nation Prepares for Transition of Power

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We look at the human rights legacy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and what may lie ahead as his 29-year-old son, Kim Jong-un, prepares to take power. “There are tens of thousands of North Koreans who are in labor camps, often working for around 12 hours a day, if not more,” says T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific. He notes more than one million people have died from starvation, not just due to famine, but also because the military has blocked food distribution to its political opponents. “The other issues are public executions and executions of political opponents [and] imprisonment of political dissidents. So the list goes on and on.” Amnesty International has called on the Obama administration to ensure future international food aid is not linked to ongoing policy negotiations and wants more international observers allowed into North Korea. We also speak with Christine Ahn, executive director of the Korea Policy Institute. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our coverage of the death of Kim Jong-il, we wanted to look at his human rights legacy and what may lay ahead for his 29-year-old son Kim Jong-un, as he prepares to take power. Access to the country is limited. Human rights monitors estimate that millions of North Koreans live in poverty, with limited access to food and water, hundreds of thousands of people detained in prison camps.

To talk more about Kim’s passing, we are joined by T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific.

T. Kumar, talk about the state of North Korea today when it comes to human rights, poverty, famine.

T. KUMAR: Thank you very much, Amy, for inviting Amnesty International. Amnesty International has been monitoring the human rights situation in North Korea for over the years. Our list grows longer and longer. There are tens of thousands of North Koreans who are in labor camps, often working for around 12 hours a day, if not more. Because of famine, over a million people have died, in '90s, say, a couple of years—during couple of years, they died. That happened not because of shortage of food. That also happened because of the distribution factor that the government of North Korea set in place. For example, the military get the food, and political opponents, they have been characterized, and they won't get as much food as it’s needed. The other issues are public executions and executions of political opponents, imprisonment of political dissidents. So the list goes on and on. When people flee across the border to China, often they get pushed back—not all the time, but often. And when they have been returned, they also get abused, sometimes get executed.

So, in a nutshell, it’s a closed country, so we don’t have much information about what’s happening inside North Korea. But what we know is the situation is extremely dire. And we see this sudden change in North Korea, of the death of a leader and the coming of a new leader, as an opportunity for North Koreans themselves, as well as the international community, as well, to see how they both can work together to uplift the people from famine and other abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: Kumar, the issue of food aid being linked to nuclear policy?

T. KUMAR: Yes, indirectly. It’s not officially linked, but there are suspicions that they are maybe linked to nuclear policies and other policies. That’s something Amnesty International has been advocating and urging Obama administration, as well as other leaders around the world: never link food aid to any other issues, because this is about death of innocent civilians there. So, if the administration, Obama administration, is trying to link it even much more stronger, given the fact there is uncertainty in North Korea, they will be doing an enormous injustice to the people of North Korea. You may have difference of opinion with the leaders or coming leaders, but never punish the people, who have nothing to do with what’s happening in North Korea.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, your response?

CHRISTINE AHN: I would say that, yes, there are human rights violations in North Korea, just as there are human rights violations in the United States. I would say also that the issue of diversion, I think, has been questioned by many humanitarian aid workers in North Korea, that have said that, you know, the food is—getting access to mothers and to children. There are, you know, reports from UNICEF where they’ve done longitudinal studies, where they’ve actually seen that food aid has improved the health and issues of wasting among North Koreans.

But I think what—what I find a lot of human rights advocates often missing is a more systemic analysis of the root causes of why there is persistent food shortages, why there is an energy crisis in North Korea. And I think it’s important to have a more holistic understanding. How much does the fact that the ongoing war and the fact that North Korea feels as if, you know, beginning especially with the 2002 labeling among the Axis of Evil, that it has to devote so much of its resources to the defense of its country? What about trying to pursue peaceful dialogue, engagement with North Korea, as a way to improve the human rights?

And that’s, you know, what I—I agree with Kumar that, you know, this is a moment of possibility in North Korea. It’s also a moment of possibility in South Korea, with the political tide turning more towards a liberal, democratic government next year with the National Assembly and the presidential elections. And, you know, just I think the sense of the Korean people that the Cold War must end, and why is the country still divided after 60-plus years? You know, 2013 is going to be the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement. And it’s not just North and South Korea that are still at war; it is the United States, which, you know, essentially was the signatory to the armistice agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this, Kumar, and also how North Korea fits into the whole region—Japan, China, South Korea, Burma?

T. KUMAR: North Korea is very close to China, or the other way around. China has enormous influence, compared to other countries in the region and in the world, having links and relationship. Japan pretty much at war. You know, it goes through history, as well as joining hands with the United States. South Korea, it opened up under Kim Dae-jung—Kim Dae-jung, for a while. Now it’s getting worse. We have to wait and see how South Korea is going to react.

Burma is a very interesting dynamics. Burma developed close relationship, and that’s one of the reasons Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Burma. Everyone thinks that Secretary Clinton went to open up prisons and get prisoners released. That’s not the case. She went primarily to get Burma away from North Korea. I think she succeeded. They want Burma not to buy any weapons and sending money, cash, because North Koreans need cash, to North Korea. So that’s—so Burma pretty much gave assurance to Secretary Clinton that they will cut off all their military and other ties with North Korea. So that’s the relationship for the region. I will say China is key in this aspect.

AMY GOODMAN: That issue of Burma and Secretary Clinton in Burma, if you could just for a moment talk more about that—extremely significant, since she was the first secretary of state from the United States to go there in more than half a century—what your assessment of that trip was.

T. KUMAR: The reason why that trip came about, according to what we have seen in Washington and talked to people, is that Burma wanted to keep away of at least a major power to protect itself from China’s enormous influence. Because of international pressure, Burma moved very close to China and became more of a satellite state. But some leaders, especially the current leaders, resented it. So they were looking for an opening. And at the same time, the United States also wanted to open up some dialogue, so that they can take Burma away from China’s orbit. That’s why Secretary Clinton visited there, in a rush, in a hurry. Still, they have around 1,500 political prisoners out there. All the abuses are still continuing. But she rushed primarily for two reasons. Number one is directly linked to North Korea, of stopping all the assistance, all the relationship between North Korea and Burma. Second is to develop a relationship with the Burmese authorities, so that they can pull Burma away from China’s orbit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being a part of this discussion, Christine Ahn, executive director of the Korea Policy Institute in Berkeley; as well, T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific. And I wanted also to thank Professor Chung-in Moon, who joined us from Seoul, South Korea, at Yonsei University, editor-in-chief of Global Asia, an English quarterly.

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