Author Interview: Human Rights Violations in North Korea, Part 3

Book cover
Sandra Fahy

Recently, Dr. Sandra Fahy and I had three interviews about her second book,  Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record. Our first interview deals with four categories of human rights abuses (Link), our second with the history of the development of the DPRK police state (Link), and this final one with the international dimensions of rights violations: overseas workers, treatment of foreign nationals and state representatives and rhetoric. Her first book was based on her interviews with North Korean famine refugees. (Link)

We spoke over Skype when Sandra was at home in Japan and I was at home in the Philippines. I added some related links at the bottom of this post.

Sandra’s story

Overseas workers

People might find it strange that North Korea exports rights violations by sending workers overseas, but that’s precisely what it does. It started in the 1970s with workers sent to Africa, to the “global South,” post-colonial states where North Korea already had diplomatic relations.

Like Angola? Chiba had a presence there in the mid-80s when I was in China.

Yes, about a thousand people were sent to Angola. People were also sent to other African countries. In the 1990s about four thousand overseas workers were in the Middle East: to the UAE, Qatar and Omar. Now they’re spread throughout the world—I mean in the Middle East, Africa, northeast Asia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar,  Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria—but the biggest two importers of North Korea workers are China and Russia. According to some estimates, North Korea earns about 23 million USD a year from 58,000 workers in 50 different countries. It exports these individuals to earn hard currency for the state. Actually, Poland and Qatar have tried to terminate the employment of these people because they were embarrassed when public awareness was raised about the issue.

You call this exporting rights violations?       

Yes. These are workers are very cheap, doing jobs like construction under conditions which some people have referred to as slave labor. A huge percentage of their salary, like 80% or 90%, goes directly back to North Korea. Working conditions are horrendous. Workers are isolated and without safety equipment, access to information, labor rights and freedom of movement.

So even though the workers are out of the country, they are controlled just as they would be at home.

Right. And out of what’s left of their meager salaries,  they have to pay for food and housing. When an accident happens, the injured worker is considered a burden. There are stories about the co-workers of those injured or killed taking up a collection to send them home. It’s very sad.

When this enterprise started in the 1970s, the people sent overseas were those considered politically unsavory for North Korea. People with bad songbun [a low ranking on the political spectrum of perceived loyalty and disloyalty]. They were sent to Russia for logging, which is dangerous. Nowadays the profile of the potential overseas worker has to be good—good sungbun and good health. Volunteers are being promised television sets or refrigerators or other kitchen appliances in return for going abroad. So people want to go, and they’re even paying for fake medical records, like fake results for endometriosis screening.

What’s interesting is that the overseas worker program is not a wholly state-to-state arrangement. Workers are being contracted out to companies as well. So the government is using capitalism to exploit its own people.

There are indications that North Korea sends health workers overseas. Parts of Africa are getting North Korean doctors and low-quality pharmaceuticals.

So again Africa suffers because of bad or untested drugs.

Right. These pharmaceuticals have caused problems. For instance, there’s a case in Kenya of doctors’ prescribing medication—maybe fake medication—and the patients’ getting worse. In clinics in Tanzania and Kenya, there’s the dodgy situation of doctors who don’t speak Swahili and are also not proficient in English. In certain parts of Africa the local people don’t necessarily know that the doctors are not from South Korea. There are even cases of North Korea doctors being killed by Boko Haram, I think in Nigeria, just because they were there. It’s very sad. North Korean doctors were also dispatched to Ukraine, Bangladesh, Kurdistan, Russia, Ethiopia and Nepal, among other places.

There were some unconfirmed news reports that prisoners were also exported. Newspapers which published stories about that found state representatives showing up at their offices demanding that the articles be deleted and retracted. The allegations were that North Korea had prisons in Equatorial Guinea, where it had diplomatic relations. In fact, before the execution of the dictator Francisco Macias Nguema, his children were sent to Pyongyang for their own safety.

So prisoners were sent from North Korea to Africa? Why? To make license plates?

I have no idea. This is just a story that’s out there. Whether it’s at all true is difficult to know. The story is definitely a measure of how suspect North Korea seems in every way.

Forbidding the foreign

It seems to me that North Korea puts words into the mouths of foreigners and makes them repeat the state media rhetoric.

Now, these are foreigners who have come into North Korea on their own volition?

Yes, like the journalist Lisa Ling, whose journalist sister Laura and her colleague Euna Lee were captured on the border with China and imprisoned. There are also abduction cases and cases of people going into North Korea willingly and then not being allowed to leave.

When people are detained they’re made to apologize for critical comments they made in the past, usually online. “Oh, North Korea’s a great place, I was wrong to say or do what I did.” Foreign nationals present a real propaganda opportunity, particularly if the person is a white American male. The apology is put on the air and then picked up by respectable international news outlets like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

There have been people who went to North Korea willingly, like James Dresnok, the American soldier who defected to North Korea in 1962. Quite a few individuals did that and then couldn’t get permission to leave. They were used as language teachers, film actors playing American villains or voices repeating state rhetoric on radio broadcasts directed at South Korea. The state dictates what they say. The US is symbolic as the archenemy, so if an American can be captured and detained, that’s the ideal. The state can take whatever the issue is and spin it.

So the state representatives pit America’s respect for individual human rights against what they call their “sovereign national rights,” that is, the nation’s interests. They pit what they consider their own national benefit against the foreigner’s access to human rights. They know that the American public will advocate for someone like Otto Warmbier to have a high-ranking US government official sent to Pyongyang to petition North Korea on his behalf. [In 2016 Otto Warmbier, an American college student , was on a guided tour of North Korea, where he  was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor  for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. Shortly thereafter he suffered a severe neurological injury, but not until 2017was it disclosed that he had fallen into a coma. He died after the flight home. The cause of the injury was never determined.]

There are some quite famous cases like Lamada and Sedillot, foreign writers of North Korean propaganda who, after they questioned the effectiveness of their work, were detained and tortured and eventually released. Lamada might have returned to Venezuela. Sedillot died in North Korea a year after his release. Both were quite old at the time.

Of course there are the abductee cases as well, mostly from South Korea, and the case of the USS Pueblo.

Why don’t you summarize it briefly, please.

Okay. In 1968, the ship was in international waters on the East Sea doing research, when it was captured by a North Korea ship, even though crew members had followed all the protocols of the law of the sea and after they had explained what they were doing. One f the Americans on board was killed when the ship was torpedoed, and the other 83 were captured. North Korea has kept the USS Pueblo as a souvenir, and as far as I know it’s on exhibit in Pyongyang and can be visited.

The people on board the ship were kept in North Korea for quite a while. They were forced to take part in a press conference and apologize. Major General Woodward was the US representative sent over to sign an English and Korean document stating that the crewmen of the USS Pueblo had crossed illegally into North Korea waters several times, which wasn’t true.

It’s just another example of how North Korea uses foreign nationals for its own benefit to create an image of itself as the victim whose sovereignty has been violated but who is nonetheless benevolent in letting the perpetrators go‑‑not hostile, just following the rules. So that’s frequently the pattern, you know?

Yes, exploit, exploit,

State representatives and state media

When North Korea is accused of rights violations, its representatives retaliate with rhetoric. It’s part of a political agenda. The speeches given at the UN and the documents submitted to the UN perfectly replicate and mirror what appears in the state news. Or you could say the news replicates what was sent to the UN. They are basically the same statements without variation.

In my analysis of the state media and talks given at the UN and other public forums, the UN was identified as a metonym for the US. [That is, the names are so closely associated with each other that one can be used as a substitute for the other, like “Washington” is a metonym for the US federal government.] This usage of US/UN is an outright denial of the plurality of the UN.

In February 2014 a report was published by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry detailing human rights abuses in North Korea. The response from state representatives was that it was fake and based on the testimony of criminals and liars [defectors] If you only read North Korean news or listened to only state representatives, you would have no idea how long the report was or how long it took to produce, the extent of the research, how many people were interviewed or the expertise of those individuals tasked with investigating the violations. You would think the report was maybe a few pages long because the word used for “report” usually mean a very short document. You might think everyone interviewed was a criminal, a rapist, a pedophile and somebody paid by the US to make up stories. That’s the image North Korea projects about the UN report domestically and internationally. Of course, outside North Korea you could google it and see for yourself.

So the state (1) equates the UN with the US, (2) gives no accurate description of the report, (3) says it’s all based on lies by criminals and rapists and murderers, and (4) calls it a psychological operation, psychological warfare. Domestically, within the state, the media and the state representatives says. “The US/UN is trying to destroy us—the US/UN tried to destroy us by talking about the nuclear thing, and when that didn’t work they switched to talking about this human rights thing.” Whether or not people read or agree with this statement is another matter.

Human rights are framed as something another state wants to apply to North Korea in order to undermine its current practices. In other words, the US/UN wants to give rights to rapists, pedophiles and murderers, right? The same sort of thing was done in Brazil where various parts of the population didn’t understand the international human rights norms and were led to believe that these concepts would result in criminals’ getting special treatment.

As a footnote, I’d say that, if you are found to have committed a crime, some of your rights are limited, like liberty and the right to vote. But we still respect the rights of people who are criminals. I mean, we don’t just let the public have its way with a pedophile. There is a procedure in a court of law, innocent until proven guilty, all that stuff. That’s in practice most of the time. If we commit a murder we don’t expect to be executed by the judge. We assume we’[[ be able to get a lawyer and defend ourselves. Whereas in North Korea constitutionally—it’s written into the constitution—rights are to be denied people who are politically suspect.

You’ve got that sungbun thing.

Exactly. So the state sees the human rights report as a psychological operation to undermine North Korea. I did some linguistic analysis of the news reporting in the state media, and I found that the words inkwonk yuli, or human rights report, were collocated with, or used with, words meaning “psychological warfare” or “destruction of our country” or “a threat to peace.” At the UN, state representatives speak about the report in the same way, as does North Korea’s own human rights report, which is almost 100 pages long.

North Korea fights off criticism with rhetoric. So its representatives say, “Why didn’t you come into the country? You didn’t interview people who stayed here.” That’s true, they didn’t interview citizens who did not defect. Why? Because North Korea ignored the UN’s requests to come in. So the state gives the illusion of access without access. The representatives’ response is in the voice and language of the state.

Didn’t they do the same thing with food relief sent from overseas?

Well, there were some accounts that they did that, yes. There are indications that the World Food Program wanted to see that the food they sent was actually getting to those in need. Food was sent out to various locations and then returned.

The conclusion I reached is that North Korea is trying to give access on its own terms, but it’s still bending the debate in rhetoric. It’s s still just words. Outside organizations are not getting access, but they need to keep pushing.

Another way the state speaks is through audio-visual material, documentaries that denounce defectors as rapists, pedophiles and murderers—a total denunciation. Basically, a group of people who knew the defector—neighbors, co-workers, family members—are gathered together in a room and made to denounce the person to the camera. I imagine it’s quite like self-criticism sessions in North Korea and China. In my analysis I explored how we know the testimony in these videos is fake, manufactured. For one thing there is no nuance. The defector is denounced as 100% evil, with no redeeming characteristics.

Well, you can say that’s not surprising. But imagine that you wrote a creative piece about a character who was 100% bad, evil beyond evil. Your editor, if you were lucky enough to have one, would point out that it’s not credible that all these people would have not one good word to say about this person and that they all said the same things. Arguably, even Hitler would have something good said about him.

He made the trains run on time.

My point is that the unanimity indicates a deliberate construction on behalf of the state. It rings hollow. This is classic totalitarianism: have lots of voices singing the same song and call them a plurality, as if people had reached a conclusion independently, as opposed to having it imposed on them. It’s one message. The video viewer is supposed to think, “Oh look here are 50 people all saying the same thing, that these defectors are liars, only interested in money, genetically  flawed, lying for the US in order to undermine North Korea.”

Enemies of the people.

North Korea does the same thing when they abduct these foreign nationals. They make them say exactly what they want them to say. It’s a kind of ersatz civil society which is mimicking the civil society we see in the west with people voicing their own opinions, only in North Korea they’re just delivering the state’s message.

If this were done in a court of law, opposing counsel would point out that the witnesses had obviously been coached.

So the question that naturally arises is how many believe the videos, and the short answer is I don’t know. Probably some people, nationally or internationally, otherwise they wouldn’t be made. At least they make people pause and think, “Do I want to leave North Korea? If I do, one of these things will be made of me. And even if it’s not true it will impact people, it will look bad and I’ll still be embarrassed.”

Shame is a powerful tool in a shame culture.

The videos are totally fake, but, even if they don’t convince the viewers, they can persuade them to think twice about leaving the country—hungry or not. On that level they still have an impact. They also inject the element of doubt. People might watch and say, “How could they get all these people to say all this stuff if it’s not true?” What the videos tend to do, like most people who lie, is to take a little bit of truth and surround it with lies. And melodrama is their thing.

Denouncing others is something North Korea, China and other countries have been doing for a while in their criticism sessions.

For a long time.

Going into these criticism sessions, people agree to make accusations of each other that are not too bad. Like we might have done in confession when we were young, “Okay, I’ll say I used the Lord’s name in vain.” We know from research that there’s a practice of manufacturing false witness and confessions. In many ways the videos are not such an alien practice because people have been behaving a similar way in self-criticism and other-criticism sessions.

When you were interviewing famine survivors for your first book, you found that people used humor as a defense against the state, right? Did you find people making reference to this propaganda that way?

At the time I did that research, I don’t believe North Korea was making videos that denounce defectors. These are uploaded onto Youtube, which has only come to its own in the last ten to fifteen years.


My Exile in North Korea: Daughter of African dictator tells of life growing up in the world’s most secretive country and how founding leader Kim Il-sung would nag like a ‘typical grandfather’ (Link)

Laura Ling, her sister Lisa Ling and Euna Lee, journalists (Link)

Human Capital: North Korean Workers Abroad Earn Hard Currency for Regime (Link)

Statues and Ammunition: North Korea’s Africa Connections  (Link)

US Cracks Down on North Korea’s Army of Overseas Workers (Link)


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