Author Interview: Human Rights Violations in North Korea, Part 2

Sandra Fahy

Dr. Sandra Fahy holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of London and is now teaching at Sophia University in Tokyo. In our first interview she discussed the North Korean famine of the 1990s, the subject of her first book. (Link) Recently we talked about various human rights abuses treated in her second, forthcoming book, Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record (Link) Here she provides a historical context for the development of the DPRK police state.  

We spoke over Skype while Sandra was in Japan and I was in the Philippines.

Sandra’s story

I was delighted at the historical background in your book explaining when and how the police state came together. I’d never seen that before.  

Here’s the question: Why is it that human rights are so different in North and South Korea? What is it about the history of the peninsula and the founding of the DPRK in 1948 that led to this situation? That’s not to say that human rights are wonderful in South Korea, but at least South Koreans fought for democracy in the 70sand 80s and are currently demanding rights on a par with those of other liberal and democratic countries. You don’t see that in North Korea. There are some apologist sympathizers who say, “Oh, no, no, North Korea is just a socialist state. There are no human rights violations.” But that is just not true. The fact is that North Koreans have never known a truly democratic, citizen-run state.

Right. All Koreans were under brutal Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, and after that other foreigners moved in.  

At the end of WWII when Japan was kicked out, it left a power vacuum. Korea had what they called governments in exile, and these individuals wanted to come back and establish government. But the Soviets claimed the northern parts of the peninsula, and the United States claimed the southern part. For North Korean nationalists, who had always wanted to have their own country under their own government, it was really frustrating to find themselves once again under foreign occupation.

Kim Il Sung saw that Korean society was corrupted by colonialism, which was of course a reasonable interpretation of things. When I teach Korean Studies, I try to get my students to imagine that they are Korean living on the recently divided peninsula. If they were in the South they might well have wanted to go north. In the North, Kim Il Sung had fought the Japanese, he was interested in Korean national identity, and wanted Korea for Koreans, whereas in the South the Americans had installed Syngman Rhee, who during the occupation had left for the United States, was educated at Princeton and had a foreign wife. These seemingly superficial biographical details had already roused suspicion of Rhee. So I think a Korean might well have considered Kim Il Sung to be going in the right direction.

But the direction was toward national isolation and intolerance. 

Right. Kim Il Sung wanted to rid North Korean society of its colonialist features, which for him was done through cultural purification. What this basically did was purge the country of those people who were deemed to be associated with the colonialists. After about 35 years of occupation, this was a huge percentage of the population. 

Freedom of the press seems to have stopped by the end of 1946. All newspapers carried essentially the same news. North Korea removed any writer who was linked to the Japanese, resulting in fewer writers and fewer films. Most available writing was translations from the Soviet Union. Of the films shown in the country, only about ten percent were North Korean, as opposed to sixty prevent from the Soviet Union.

Isolation as policy was also taking shape in the intellectual sphere as North Korea cut itself off from western journals in the sciences and social sciences. They used the same patterns of thought control—through restricting information and controlling education—which occurred in Yugoslavia, Romania and in Greece around the same time.

At the very start, North Korean political life looked diverse. They had democratic institutions such as an elected parliament and local councils, but in the elections the seats were never contested, and the one candidate was hand-picked by the party mandarins. Decision-making occurred through the top ranks of committees. Democracy existed only on the surface. However, there were different factions of ethnic Korean communists, some speaking Chinese or Russian. There were the Yan’an, there were former guerillas who had fought the Japanese, there were guerillas who had been overseas during the occupation and in the northern part of the country there were domestic communists who had originally been from the South but moved north when the Soviets came in. After the Korean War ended in 1953, Kim Il Sung managed to eliminate or weaken the factions who were opposed to him.

Was his authority ever challenged?

Only once that we know of. After the war, representatives from the government were frustrated with the Kim dictatorship. They felt that Kim’s personality cult was becoming intolerable. They saw that Kim’s word was law, that he was intolerant and didn’t seek advice, that he had sycophants and lackeys all around him in the Central Committee and the Cabinet. People were aware of the dissatisfaction with Kim Il Sung. In August 1956 efforts were made to oust him or at least try to modify the type of government he was putting forward. It didn’t work.

The problem wasn’t just his personality or how he chose to govern, but the poor living standards of ordinary people. You can imagine that would be the case after the Japanese occupation and the wars. Criticism of the government focused on socioeconomic and political rights. So in 1954, for instance, the government passed a resolution which restricted the selling of grains. Cooperatives could only sell surplus grains to the state and not through private commerce. Private selling ceased to exist in 1958. Vendors were compelled to join cooperatives, otherwise they weren’t entitled to ration coupons for food or other necessities. They were coerced into participating in state-led control.

Around 1959 history books had already started to contribute to a sense of historical self-sufficiency by reducing references to the invasion of the Soviet Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the liberation of Korea. The book Memoirs of the Anti-Japanese Guerillas was distributed widely. It was mandatory reading for all adults, who had to be able to discuss it in indoctrination sessions.

Kim Il Sung wrote that, right? Or it’s attributed to him, whether or not he wrote it.

Yes. So this memoir contributed to the belief that Kim Il Sung had led the guerillas since the 1930s and that he and his group were the only true communists. And that they were responsible for the salvation of their country, so the people should be grateful to Kim for their lives. Around the same time—1957 to the 1960s—North Korea began to see special rules dedicated to the work of Kim Il Sung.

The very early history saw isolation from foreigners and the fear of anything different. All the people in universities whose occupation had any kind of connection to foreign allies, even friendly allies such as the Soviet Union, were removed from their posts. The fear was that these individuals could be spies seeking to undermine the country. This period also saw the implementation of sessions where criticism was directed at the self and others. I believe that those self-criticism sessions created a sense of isolation from other citizens. So there was this gradual increasing sense of isolation all around.

The earliest record we have of isolation from foreigners comes in 1956 when a North Korean ambassador in East Germany told a Soviet diplomat that officials who wanted to speak to a non-national had to get permission from their supervisor. This was for officials, not ordinary people, wanting to speak with fellow communists from Russia and China.  Mixing was politically suspect.

That says a lot.

Yeah. Then also in 1956 the Korean Workers Party put an end to performances of Soviet plays. The College of Foreign Languages, where a vast number of students were studying Russian, was closed. Students in Hungary were called back because the Hungarian Revolution seemed to make them ideologically vulnerable. Once they got back to Kim Il Sung University, they were purged, and they were given minders, fellow students who had stayed in North Korea. They were deemed difficult for teachers to manage, and they had to be removed. Teachers themselves were also replaced for reasons of ideology, despite the teacher shortage. Examinations in ideology and personal criticism were used to determine who needed to be removed.

These purges were widespread throughout the country. There were public executions of purged individuals and groups—without trial. This was the norm. It departed from Soviet legal style, first, in that North Korea didn’t hold show trials of individuals who were purged and executed and, second, in that they conducted ongoing criticism sessions which lasted sometimes weeks on end. In these public criticism sessions it was also acceptable to physically punish the victims, so it was like the public humiliation campaigns in China.

Anyone who was a foreign language interpreter was also cleansed. The concern was that, these people could be spies, not for the Japanese or the South Koreans, but for the Soviets. Even though the Soviets were allies they were treated with suspicion. In many ways this feels symptomatic of the Korean national identity trauma that that hand really damaged North Korea.

Some North Korean students abroad sought asylum in Moscow when they realized what was happening at home. At this early stage,1956-57, there were already campaigns to recapture these dissidents and to bring them home to be punished. North Korean secret service succeeded in abducting one particularly outspoken student, Yi Sang Gu, during the middle of the day in the center of Moscow and bringing him back. Defectors are still persecuted, if not recaptured, to this day.

And population control?

Also a feature then and now. The population was mobilized through different work corps, which were used for political reeducation. In many ways this was similar to what happened during the Japanese occupation. As early as the 1950s and 1960s, the elites in Pyongyang took power as the masters of the country. There was such a disconnect between life inside and outside the capital that the name “Pyonghattan” was coined—not that it was as wealthy as Manhattan, but that it had access to more resources, and there was more opportunity and wealth than in the rest of the country.

Between 1945 and 1948, so after Liberation and before the forming of North Korea, 100,000 people were sent into exile. After the Korean War ended in 1953, anybody deemed in any way questionable was forced to move to the most mountainous, northern parts of the country. The years 1958-59 were considered an unending nightmare of purges, with large-scale removals of people, the greatest in North Korean history. In 1960 a Minister of the Interior told a Soviet diplomat that, for the six months between 1958 and 1959, the North Korean police had identified 100,000 individuals deemed hostile and reactionary.

At the same time, there was another level of control. Between May 1930 and 1957, a document was issued called “On Transforming the Struggle against Counterrevolutionary Elements into, an All-Party, All-People’s Movement.” This was the earliest formation of the sungbun, a system of classification of people along a political spectrum of perceived loyalty and disloyalty, as determined by family background and political behavior. So a person’s place came from the perception of that person’s loyalty as seen by others. Sungvun was based on this belief that politics is genetic. Remember, most of the people who were considered questionable had already been purged. So the sungbun categories get into unnecessarily fine detail.

Is there a connection between sungbun and Confucianism?

I don’t claim that, but in a great book by Ji Young Song, called Human Rights, Discourse and North Korea, she makes the connection between aspects of Confucianism and sungbun. There are probably a lot of historical elements that influence this.

In addition, a system was put in place in 1958 called the inminban, which is basically a kind of neighborhood watch—at that level of control.

The Chinese have the same thing.  

Right. This was five households of responsibility. Somebody would be elected as the inminban, usually a  middle-aged woman, and she would keep an eye on the neighborhood, see what was going on, what people were throwing out in the garbage, that kind of thing. It insured ideological education and political reliability. It facilitated surveillance and the system of informing on anyone who deviated from the strict standard of political life.

Aren’t you going to talk about the food supply? That’s kind of your thing.

Of course. Access to food was a problem in North Korea from its earliest history. In 1955 the country suffered a decline in the urban food supply. Even the rural areas were suffering, but Kim Il Sung’s major concern was in making sure the food supply to the urban population was taken care of. That’s where most of the population was, so maybe there was some logic this. But the policies he put into place only made the problem worse. So, for instance, the sale of rice and crops was limited, and private grain trade was suppressed. This led to a knock-up in the prices on the black market. People from the northern provinces tried to make their way to the south of the country, and many perished on the way.

Also in 1955, a Hungarian diplomat reported from a Hungarian hospital in Sariwon that they had conducted autopsies on twenty people and found they had died of starvation. People might have been starving even earlier. At that time the famine hit both the northern and southern provinces. People in Pyongyang were collecting buds off the trees for substitute food.

Other allies reported similar things. At a Polish hospital in Hanhung students were reported to have eaten poisonous grasses, which means they had no access to food. There were lots of homeless, lots of orphans, restaurants shutting down, a lot of larceny and robbery. People who were on the fringe of the state, such as street vendors, were very severely affected. Even state workers had greatly reduced rations, about 300 grams of rice per day. In 1956 the state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, published an editorial admitting that there was a food crisis and putting responsibility on the population itself, saying people should conserve food and supplement their diet with items such as bark and grass. Just an hour after publication, the editorial was removed from circulation.

You can see why North Korea felt suspicious of its allies, given that Soviet and East European diplomats were aware of what was happening and advised against it. A Romanian ambassador questioned the rapid rate of collectivization. A Hungarian diplomat saw the North as responsible for its poor economic situation. The press was criticized for trying to cover up the food crisis. So, understandably, North Korea wanted to distance itself from its allies and their criticism. At the same time, North Korea wanted its economy to overtake South Korea’s. So it pushed for more agricultural development and put a lot more pressure on the people.

What about religious freedom—when did that end?

Pyongyang was once widely known as the “Jerusalem of the East” by foreign missionaries. From around 1907 there were thousands of Christian converts in the city. There were lots of Protestant missions in Sunchon and Pyongyang. But the presence of Christianity wasn’t always seen as positive. Practitioners of the older, indigenous religion, shamanism, saw Christianity as a tool of foreign missionaries who oppressed Koreans during the colonial era. In reaction to Christianity, Cheondoism [also Cheondo in various romanizations] emerged as a modern response, with elements of from native folk religions and Confucian elements.

Now, both sides of Kim Il Sung’s family were active in the Christian community. He was raised Protestant, his maternal grandfather was a minister, and his own father went to a mission school. But he himself came to see Christianity as a colonialist element that should be eliminated.

Prior to the Korean War, when a group of Christians held a political protest in Sinmiju, they were fired upon by the police, and 23 were killed. Kim Il Sung visited that area in order to try to curb the tensions and ameliorate the situation between communists and Christians. Basically, from Liberation to the forming of the state was a period of restricted religious freedom. Religious groups had ties throughout all levels of society. In order to weaken and eliminate them, their land and property were confiscated without compensation, and revenue was cut off from the mission’s two religious organizations.  Limits were placed on cash, money could only be withdrawn from a bank with prior approval, and donations were not allowed. Anyone who appealed for donations could spend up to two years in prison. Anyone carrying out religious activities could be subject to two years of labor training.

During the Korean War suppression of religious freedom was part of the military campaign. For instance,prior to the Incheon landing, when North Korean forces were in Seoul, they captured and shot to death—on the orders of Kim Il Sung— 50 priests and 60 pastors. About 40,000Christians fled to South Korea when UN forces reached as far as the Amnok River. When the conflict moved back north, there was a historic mass defection to South Korea. Strongly religious people knew to get out of the North.

After the war Kim Il Sung’s policies changed. The seminary was no longer tolerated. There were no ordained priests or Christian churches. Kim Il Sung felt that communist society could not move forward with religious people. He explained, “They have to be put on trial because they’re undesirable and have to be sent to prison camps.”, Propaganda and policies aimed at eliminating Christians. Sungbun, the classification system, was also used to identify and eliminate religious believers, particularly from 1956 to 1961.

You mentioned that North Koreans allies knew something of what was going on fairly early in the country’s history. When did the rest of the world figure it out?

Western governments knew from CIA documents and elsewhere about the lack of respect for economic and political rights. They knew about violations to physical integrity rights such as public executions. To some extent the US government knew about the socioeconomic and political conditions of the people. But the system was not part of the international public imagination until the 1970s, when Amnesty International published a report on North Korea’s arbitrary imprisonment and torture.

This came about because in 1960 two foreign nationals went to North Korea,  a Venezuelan named Ali Lamada [also sometimes Lameda] and a Frenchman named Jacques Sedillot. They were writers with communist sympathies. They were put in the propaganda office and tasked with spreading the usefulness of the Kim Il Sung’s juche [national self-sufficiency] to Spanish-speaking and French-speaking communities. After a few years of work, each separately raised doubts about the hyperbole in the propaganda, saying, “It’s not really working abroad.” Their interests were in making the propaganda more effective. But their doubts placed them in prison, where they were tortured. When they were released through various diplomatic channels, they told Amnesty about their own experience and that of other prisoners.

In the late 1990s the world learned enough about the system of political prison camps and the systematic rights violations to conclude that they amounted to crimes against humanity. In many ways the famine was a kind of inflection point. It pushed people out of the country because they wanted to eat. In the process it burst onto the international scene because thousands of North Koreans resettled in South Korea. Of course, people defected because of the famine, but when they were debriefed by South Korean intelligence they also reported about the prison camps although that had not been their motivation for leaving or their original intention.

So people outside the country didn’t know much until the 1990s? I’m sure I knew long before that. 

Well, government bodies knew that things were not so fabulous in North Korea. In the 70s people in the rights community had their suspicions about prison camps confirmed by the cases of Lamada and Sedillot. But in the 1990s thousands of defectors corroborated these suspicions directly in the contemporary period. That was the inflection point where things became undeniable, irrefutable.

So that’s bringing us up to date I think. What I wanted to show was that certain characteristics of the state—isolation from foreigners, classification of people throughout society, self-criticism and indoctrination—all of those were present in North Korea from the earliest years and just became more and more ingrained.

Should we stop here?

Let’s. If you want, at some later date we could go into what North Korean rights violations mean internationally.

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James Fahy
James Fahy
4 years ago

Never go into the north.stay vigilant.