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Release of prisoners in North Korea vital to peace plan, writes a one-time detainee

As a former inmate of a North Korean prison, Robert Park argues that a sweeping amnesty for tens of thousands of Pyongyang’s prisoners should be one of the goals at the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2018, 7:19pm

The June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un represents an unprecedented opportunity to advocate for untold numbers of men, women and children who are suffering incomparably – together with countless who have died, having committed no crime whatsoever – in North Korea’s incarceration system.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, has called for a general amnesty of political prisoners – including everyone arbitrarily detained – similar to an amnesty in Myanmar that brought about the release of thousands of detainees there.

A 2014 UN report said some 80,000 to 120,000 were being held in camps and subjected to “unspeakable” abuses – as Ojea Quintana reiterates neither the rule of law nor due process exist within the country.

I can only agree with Ojea Quintana that since “human rights and security and peace are interlinked”, the ultimate fate of tens of thousands of political prisoners must be discussed at the negotiations in Singapore.

“The country’s extensive penitentiary system and severe restrictions on all forms of free expression, movement and access to information continue to nurture fear of the state and leave people at the mercy of unaccountable public officials,” Ojea Quintana said before the UN Human Rights Council on March 12.

According to Ojea Quintana, the general population must bribe officials to access common rights – including moving around the country, going abroad or receiving medical treatment.

Consistently forgotten are those who have been victims of the very worst violations and need the most urgent attention – the lives sacrificed within the North’s “absolute-control-zone” (wanjeontongjekyooyeok or kwanliso).

As is often noted by historians and scholars, North Korea has imprisoned the highest ratio of political captives to the general population internationally. Prisoners of conscience, political and religious prisoners – who are of North Korean background – with family members have been subjected to forced disappearances, have not been provided with a fair trial and have not been informed of the sentences they have been condemned to serve.

Most prisoners are held in life-imprisonment slave labour camps called “absolute control zones” (wanjeontongjekyooyeok or kwanliso) where they have been denied any possibility of release.

Via North Korea’s kwanliso, at the very minimum, tens of thousands of innocents – including many children – are arbitrarily detained, enslaved and systematically starved. They have been exposed to inexpressibly vicious atrocities.

The UN has likened the atrocities to those committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Thomas Buergenthal, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen who served as a judge at the International Court of Justice, maintained last December that the political prisons in North Korea are as barbaric as German concentration camps.

“I believe that the conditions in the [North] Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field,” Buergenthal stated after reviewing evidence from 2014’s UN Commission of Inquiry report, as well as testimonies from former camp guards and prisoners.

The report says prisoners “have no prospect of securing release [and] are subject to gradual extermination through starvation and slave labour … with the apparent intent to extract a maximum of economic benefit at a minimum of cost”. It goes on to say: “Inmates of political prison camps experience unspeakable atrocities and hardships.”

Even Korea experts deemed reticent with respect to this issue acknowledge the existence of these camps, and that their mode of operation constitutes a serious crime against humanity.

As the Korean war appears to finally be over and peace proclaimed – no possible pretext exists for the detention of those inside the kwanliso. So any peace accord with Kim must guarantee the complete, verifiable and irreversible release of all prisoners of conscience, political and religious prisoners together with their families.

Robert Park is a non-partisan humanitarian and human rights advocate. He was detained in North Korea for six weeks.