Germany's first forum on North Korea's political prison camps was held at the end of June in Berlin's former Stasi headquarters. Now a museum, the Stasi prison has retained its original appearance. The venue seemed to be a perfect choice of place to talk about North Korea's gulag.
The infamous Stasi was the equivalent of North Korea's People's Security Department. It operated a deep and complexly structured network of agents to keep watch on the emergence of any anti-regime tendencies. With a ratio of one Stasi agent to every 66 East Germans, all their moves were closely monitored. If those involved in the simple passing-on of everyday information are included, the ratio shoots up to one in seven.
The People's Security Department and the Stasi had a close relationship. The North adopted the East German prison type as a model as well as its methods of surveillance and control. North Korean defector Kim Hye-sook was imprisoned in a detention center in the mountainous region in Musan, North Hamgyong Province, on the border with China. She expressed shock at how similar the place of her incarceration was with the basement prisons run by the Stasi. No light or wind visited the Stasi's underground detention centers. There was a torture room next to the cell.
But then in the early 1960s the Stasi's underground prisons were shut and new detention facilities constructed. The newly built prisons were a significant improvement in conditions for inmates over the previous warren of dungeons. Why were the old underground prisons suddenly closed down? The answer lies outside East Germany, in the light shone on conditions in Lichtenberg by West Germany The Federal Republic made strenuous efforts to secure the release of political prisoners in the East. They also gave money to the East German government to transport them west. The returnees then provided detailed accounts of the subterranean network of inhumanely cramped cells and interrogation rooms in which they had been held. When the appalling reality was made public, the East German government decided to improve the conditions of the prisons because it feared for its image.
Former East Germans who participated in the forum unanimously urged that more direct attention be focused on the human rights situation in the North Korean gulag. That could give rise to the possibility of at least Stasi-type changes. Survivors of the North's gulag who have settled in South Korea say that the North Korean regime is unsettled by international criticism. Pressure from Amnesty International and various international human rights organizations over the last decade has reduced the number of political prison camps from about 10 to six.
They also said that the North's system of punishment by implication has diminished. In the past, a prisoner's family would, by mere bloodline association, automatically be considered guilty of whatever crime the alleged criminal had been found guilty of and similarly sentenced. Recently, just the accused has been jailed. International pressure is thought to have played a part in this change.
Participants at the forum expressed skepticism about whether superficial action on the North Korean human rights issue can build a sufficient momentum for change in North Korea. But as the example of the Stasi suggests, international efforts have the power to effect internal change in closed dictatorships. The extent of subsequent reform will vary, but North Korea could be no less immune.
In South Korea, politics is still played over the issue of human rights in North Korea. The North Korean Human Rights Bill that activist groups have been pushing to have passed in the National Assembly for the last 10 years has again run aground in the legislative process. The Democratic Party has come to the conclusion that it would be ineffectual. It believes silence to be a better policy. Meanwhile, the Democratic Labor Party is firmly against it, saying it only hurts inter-Korean relations.
On the contrary. Only constant efforts to raise awareness of North Korea's human rights situation can eventually bring a change there. There is no justification for remaining silent even as we are fully aware of the human rights reality in North Korea. Silence is the regime's best friend. We must remember that our silence conceals the plight of every political prisoner in North Korea, confined in that room next to the cell.
By Ha Tae-kyoung, the president of Open Radio for North Korea
Translation by Danny Lee