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Fleeing hell

North Korea | North Korean defectors are shedding light on dark human rights abuses in their native land—and some are telling of the light they found

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

THE GUARDS WORE RUSSIAN-STYLE MILITARY BOOTS.

Timothy Kang remembers those boots because they met his face as the guards kicked and stomped on him over and over. The guards used wooden square paddles to beat him, too, after their own knuckles and palms started to bruise. He was dragged to 15 different jails and tortured in each one.

His crime? Crossing the border into North Korea during a trip to evangelize his native land. He was lucky: Since he was underage, he narrowly avoided the more severe political prison camp.

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Now a bespectacled, lanky, 27-year-old student in Seoul, Kang was one of over 300 witnesses comprising former citizens, prisoners, defected military guards, and officials who described such inhumane treatments to a United Nations panel last year. About 80 North Koreans took the stand at public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington, D.C., while others testified privately, fearing retribution against family members back home. Most showed little emotion. Others flowed tears, choked on words, and gnashed teeth.

The public testimonies were the most visceral part of the UN’s first major investigation into human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a yearlong undertaking conducted by a three-member “Commission of Inquiry” formed by the Human Rights Council last March. It’s an operation many defectors and human rights experts say is “long overdue” but commend as a major progress toward justice. The resulting report—a 372-page catalog that describes atrocities such as beatings, starvation, exposure to cold, various torture techniques, rape, infanticide, and public executions—is unprecedented in its forceful language and extensiveness. More significantly, it directly calls out the main perpetrators: the leaders of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, the National Defense Commission, and current dictator Kim Jong Un.

What’s chilling, however, is that even as the UN commission presents this report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 17, millions more North Koreans are still suffering under a regime that, with brazen impunity, defiles every dignity deserving to humankind—including the basic right to seek and worship God. Incriminating evidence and eyewitness testimonies have been trickling out of North Korea for the past decade, but until this UN report, there has been weak effort on an international level to bring the criminals to justice. Even more chilling: With North Korea’s latest test firing of short-range missiles last month, the regime remains unbowed to lesser forms of international pressure—and determined to overlook the human rights indictment now publicly against it.

The North Korean government’s long-standing, systemized oppression of human rights and freedoms, which many human rights activists call “the worst human tragedy in the world,” are now exposed on an international stage. And now, someone must act, because as commission chair Michael Kirby publicly stated, “We cannot say we didn’t know. We now do know.” But someone has already been consistently acting, as some of the following stories will show—someone whom the regime has despised and feared ever since it existed.

NORTH KOREA FREEDOM COALITION CHAIRMAN Suzanne Scholte, who hosted the first U.S. public hearing for North Korean defectors in 1997, said people back then could hardly believe the Nazi-like tales of torture and gulags. Previously, it had been difficult to conduct an accurate investigation in North Korea, which refused—and still refuses—to open its doors to the outside world. But today, tens of thousands of defectors have corroborated each other’s details. Some realized after leaving North Korea that they’d been fed lies their whole lives. Some met Christianity for the first time.

Timothy Kang had both a political and spiritual “turning point.” Kang grew up the way the majority of younger North Korean citizens did: without any of the benefits the privileged class enjoyed, without any recollection of the heyday of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or its “Supreme Leader” Kim Il Sung. Instead, he grew up during the mid-1990s nationwide food shortage that left millions dead and thousands of children orphaned—the result of government redistribution of food according to political class status. Kang watched neighbors die, passed raggedy orphans in the streets, and ferreted grass and roots to fill his ulcerous belly. One dominant feeling suffocates his childhood memories: the throbbing gnaw of hunger. Deep down, he realized “something is wrong with the regime.” Christianity gave him the ability to articulate what that “something” was.

Like many others, Kang crossed the Tumen River into bordering China to flee starvation as an adolescent (see "The other side of failure," Dec. 14, 2013). He received assistance from missionaries and Christian relatives: His uncle was a pastor, his uncle’s grandmother an elder. The grandmother woke up every dawn without fail to attend church for morning prayer service. Kang took her hand and followed. “I just went to church for the sake of it,” he recalls. “I didn’t really understand the gospel of Christ.”

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