On June 19, American university student Otto Warmbier passed away 6 days after he was repatriated in a comatose state following his long detainment in North Korea. Warmbier was traveling in Pyongyang in January 2016, when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a political propaganda poster at a hotel. It is said that he fell into a coma shortly after the sentencing. North Korea claims that Warmbier showed symptoms of botulism and was given a sleeping pill, from which he never woke up. Warmbier’s family and American media, on the other hand, believe he died of torture and abuse he suffered in the North. In light of the young man’s death, a fresh spotlight is being placed on North Korea’s cruel and brutal treatment of the foreign nationals detained by the state. Here’s Dr. Oh Gyeong Seob of the Korea Institute of National Unification.
In 2009, North Korea detained CNN reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee. North Korean authorities demanded a visit from a high-profile emissary as a condition for negotiations, and the two journalists could only return home after former US president Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang. That’s how they conduct hostage diplomacy. North Korea detained Kenneth Bae for 2 years from 2012. The country has been repeatedly committing such crimes against humanity, and Otto Warmbier’s death brought the issue to the attention of the global community.
North Korea has been detaining foreign nationals in order to use them as a means of “diplomacy.” American citizens, in particular, have been used as valuable bargaining chips in nuclear or missiles negotiations.
It appears that North Korea uses the hostages primarily to gain the upper hand in a given diplomatic situation with the US. The hostage diplomacy may be used as a means for Pyongyang to initiate talks with Washington. Another purpose behind the detainment may be to put a damper on Christian missionary activities. A number of American and Korean missionary workers have been detained in the past. The detainments in part may be the result of the North’s efforts to secure the standing of its regime.
North Korea’s hostage diplomacy was also seen in February following the assassination of Kim Jung-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Malaysian nationals were detained by the state, and were later sent back in exchange for the suspects andKim’s body. Currently, 10 foreign nationals, including 6 South Koreans, 3 American nationals, and 1 Korean-Canadian, are known to be held by North Korea.
Three of the South Korean nationals currently detained in North Korea are Christian missionaries, and have been held there since 2013. The other three are North Korean defectors.Three American nationals and a Korean-Canadian are known to be held in North Korea as well, but it is unknown where they are being held, or how they are being treated. South Korean missionaries are often kidnapped in China while working to help North Koreans who wish to defect. Americans or other nationals have been known to be detained for missionary activities or for damaging North Korean propaganda materials.
North Korea reportedly takes relatively good care of American detainees, presumablyas they may be used as bargaining chips in its negotiations with the US. However, Americans who had been detained in the North in the past say they suffered from extreme mental stress due to isolation from the outside world, and hard labor. Korean-American missionary Robert Park was released in 2010 after 40 days of detainment. He revealed that he was tortured in the North, and was even hospitalized due to severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to Kenneth Bae’s testimony, detained foreigners are first investigated by the North’s State Security Department. It is said that the detainees experience human rights abuses or other cruel treatments in this process. For example, authorities would allow the detainees only 3 to 4 hours of sleep, and make them stand or kneel for the rest of the day. They would also coerce the detainees to admit to wrongdoings against the state by promising to send them home, and force them to hold press conferences announcing their crimes. Most foreigners are held inspecial prison camps for foreigners, and are subject to forced hard labor from 8am to 6pm, 6 days a week. There is evidence that the detainees’ human rights are violated.
Less than a week after Warmbier’s death, North Korea released its official statement saying that his sudden death is “a mystery” to them as well. North Korean officials also called themselves “the biggest victim,” claiming that Warmbier was provided with “medical treatments and care with all sincerity on a humanitarian basis until his return to the US.” The global denunciation and outrage caused by the death is forecast to cast a dark shadow over relations between Pyongyang and Washington.
Any diplomatic channels that existed between the US and North Korea before Warmbier’s death are now gone. The growing public sentiment in the US is that North Korea must take responsibility for Warmbier’s death, so it is highly likely that US-North Korea relations will remain frozen for a long time to come. What we can learn from the Warmbier and Kenneth Bae cases is that the sanctions against North Korea are strengthening, and that the US is responding very passively in its hostage negotiations with the North. In the face of Washington’s changed attitude, Pyongyang is unable to achieve its goals, and international criticism against the North’s human rights violations is on the rise.
The South Korean government expressed condolences over Warmbier’s death, and urged Pyongyang to swiftly release all Americans and South Koreans detained in the North. However, all inter-Korean communications remain severed since the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in February 2016, and South Korea has no way of knowing how the South Korean detainees are being treated, let alone being in a positionto demand their return.
It is clearly a violation of human rights to imprison or detain someone for missionary activities, alleged crimes against the nation, or for damaging propaganda posters. It is also a crime against humanity that defies international convention. South Korea and the United States should officially raise the issue with the United Nations, and pressure North Korea to reveal how the detainees are being treated and return them to their respective nations. The North Korean regime should also stop committing crimes against humanity, and deport those who damage their propaganda materials instead of detaining them.
Through Warmbier’s death, North Korea has shown that it is one of the world’s worst human rights violators. North Korea is seeing its so-called hostage diplomacy backfire, as sanctions against the communist regime by the US and the international society are expected to be tightened further.
[Interview] Sungju Lee, Author of Every Falling Star
“Some family names have been changed to protect relatives still living in North Korea. The names of my brothers, though, are real, in the hope that they are still alive and will read this book. Until we meet again.” – Sungju Lee
Those words are from the first page of the book Every Falling Star, written by Sungju Lee. The book was released on June 1 here in Korea. The Korean title of the book translates to “the street boy’s shoes,” and there’s a special reason behind this.
Everyone wears shoes, and shoes are something that we always have on, whether it’s when we’re happy or when we’re sad. So the shoes represent the brothers or friends I made while living on the streets. The book tells the story of where I was born, and how I lived, but mostly it’s about how I lived as a kotjebi, or a homeless boy on the streets of North Korea for 4 years, between the ages of 12 and 16.
Lee was born to a wealthy family thanks to his father’s status as a senior officer. But one day, something his father had said at a party was deemed problematic, and the entire family was banished. When the parents didn’t come home after going out in search of food, Lee had no choice but to assume the life of a kotjebi, a term denoting North Korean homeless children. Every Falling Star tells the story of Lee and his fellow kotjebi friends who relied on each other like brothers. To Lee, the memories of this period are both very precious and painful.
While living in Pyongyang, I was taught that North Korea was the wealthiest country in the world and I believed it, because my life had been good. But once banished, I was shocked to find that North Korea was a country full of beggars. My father defected first, and my mother left to find food, but never came back. So I began to live on the streets with my friends. Within those 4 years, I buried 2 of my friends with my hands. Those 4 years of my life had been so hard that Ididn’t want to look back on it. Even after I defected and came to South Korea, Ididn’t talk about North Korea for about 12 years
His father had come and settled in South Korea through China, and facilitated Lee’s defection in 2002. When Lee enrolled in middle school, he was 3 years older than his classmates. The differences between the South and North were overwhelming, and the 4 years he spent as a kotjebi made it difficult for Lee to adjust to his new school. He ended up dropping out of middle school, and made his way into a high school by taking the qualification exam. But the struggles he lived through at a young age provided him with an opportunity to learn more about himself.
When I was in North Korea, my dream was to eat two meals a day. But now that I was eating three meals a day in South Korea, I could dream new dreams. As I was trying to figure out what to do with my future, I found myself asking myself, “who am I?” Am I North Korean or South Korean?”I was having an identity crisis. And in the end I found the answer. I am completely North Korean, and I am also completely South Korean. And so I am a person of the Korean Peninsula. Once I was able to define my identity, I was able to identify my new dream. My dream is to become a bridge connecting South and North Korea.
Lee studied hard, and made it into a prestigious university. He chose to major in political science and diplomacy, because international relations are crucial for unification. He also double majored in journalism, because he wants to become a communicator connecting South and North Korea. In 2010, he volunteered at a youth center during his short spell studyingabroad in the United States. This experience prompted him towrite a book.
When I told the kids that I am from Korea, they asked if I was from the North or the South. So I said I’m from both, that I was born in North Korea, defected when I was 16, and am currently living in South Korea. At that moment, suddenly everyone gathered around me and asked me to tell them what life was like in North Korea. So I would tell them my stories for about an hour at a time, for 3 to 4 months. Near the end, they told me that before they heard my stories, they used to blame their surroundings and their parents for their situation, but now they think it’s a waste of time to resent their past. They told me that my stories helped change their lives. They said they began to dream again after hearing my stories. And that’s when I first began to hope that my stories would give hopes to others.
Lee began to think about publishing while he was working as a parliamentary intern for Canada’s Conservative MP and then Assistant Deputy Speaker in the House of Commons Barry Devolin. Lee even helped the Canadian Parliament pass a resolution on North Korean Human Rights.
Representative Devolin was working on the resolution, so I helped him with the documents and also attended hearings to speak about life in North Korea. What I learned in Canada is that if we don’t speak for someone else’s human rights, no one would speak for us if our human rights are being violated. I also spoke at a number of universities in Canada, and that’s when I met a Canadian author who suggested that I write a book.
So Every Falling Star was first published in the United States in September 2016, before it was translated and published in Korea earlier this month. The book was immediately met with rave reviews upon its release in North America. It won a 2016 Parent’s Choice Award for non-fiction in the US, and made it onto the Ontario Library Association’s Top Ten List, among other accolades.
I’ve received many emails from parents who said that,before reading my book,their kids used to take freedom for granted because they’ve never been without it. After reading my book, they said their kids began to think about what freedom is, and why they have to protect it. I was so grateful. I am a bit overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility now, but such words give me the motivation to move forward.
Today, Lee works as a consultant at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a non-governmental organization devoted to the advancement of human rights in North Korea. He received a British government funded scholarship to complete hismaster’s program in International Relations at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, and plans to move to the United States next year to pursue a doctorate degree.His goal is to become an expert in international politics, in preparation for Korea’s unification.
My research is focused on conflict resolution. Conflicts are present not just in North Korea, but all around the world. So until inter-Korean unification is achieved, I will find and theorize processes through which the conflicts in Syria, the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world can be resolved peacefully and swiftly. By doing this, I may be able to come up with a blueprint that would help resolve any conflicts South Koreans and North Koreans may face once unification is achieved. That would help me become a bridge between the two Koreas.
Lee dedicated his book to those he left behind in North Korea. We sincerely hope that his friends will be able to read his book one day, and also meet with Lee in the future.