Otto Warmbier’s death brings to light the brutality of North Korean dynastic rule
Donald Kirk says with the outside world largely focused on Pyongyang’s nuclear development, within the hermit kingdom unspeakable acts of torture, enslavement and other crimes against humanity remain commonplace
The tyranny of the dynasty that has governed North Korea since 1948 has never been so obvious as this year while Kim Jong-un, grandson of dynasty founder Kim Il-sung, orders tests of missiles that will someday be capable of carrying warheads to distant targets.
How many of us, however, know about the suffering of the millions who have died in a gulag system that dates to the earliest days of the dynasty, was expanded under Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, and today remains the final repository for more than 100,000 people accused of anti-state crimes?
The arrest, imprisonment and death of US university student Otto Warmbier should cast a spotlight on the North Korean crimes against humanity largely unknown by the public.
The fate of North Koreans suspected of opposing the ruling establishment is draconian. The few who have escaped tell of unspeakable acts of torture, of long hours of slave labour, of confinement to tiny cells and, finally, starvation and disease. Executions, in public or in prison, are commonplace.
Nor are those accused of crimes the only victims. Among those held against their will in North Korea are hundreds of South Korean fishermen whose boats were captured in or near North Korean waters. The list also includes the crew and passengers of a Korean Air plane and dozens more, Korean and Japanese, kidnapped off remote beaches.
Fishermen have wound up not in prison but working in coal mines. The pilot and co-pilot of the Korean Air plane that was hijacked on a domestic flight in 1969 have reportedly been training North Korean pilots – though they themselves are not allowed to fly.
Foreigners arrested in North Korea suffer varying degrees of punishment. Until Warmbier was arrested for stealing a propaganda banner, probably the worst case was that of Robert Park.
A Christian pastor from the US, Park had crossed the Tumen River from China on Christmas Eve in 2009 with a message of “love and forgiveness” urging Kim Jong-il to “stop the genocide”. Expelled 43 days later, he told of abuse by screaming women who injured him in ways he would not discuss when I met him a few years ago. Park is believed to have been administered drugs that later led him to threaten suicide.
And then, earlier this year, North Korean experts concocted the deadly VX nerve agent that two women were talked into smearing over the face of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Watch: US student dies days after release from North Korea
The death of Warmbier provides a different tale of torture. Surely stealing a propaganda banner would not warrant his sentence of 15 years’ hard labour. Doctors examining him after he arrived home, comatose but breathing, knew the North Koreans were lying when they said he’d been in a coma after taking a sleeping pill while ill with botulism. Judging from the damage done to his brain, he had experienced something more sinister. The thinking now is that he not only tore down the banner but defaced it. Were North Korean experts, skilled in fabricating biological and chemical weapons, charged with wiping out his memory? If any good is to come of this tragedy, it will be to raise the level of awareness of how far this regime will go to enforce its rule.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea