There are an estimated two hundred thousand people held in appalling and brutal conditions in the North Korean Gulags — that’s around 1% of the population. Inmates are worked until they die, and life expectancy is short. All those terrible old war-time stories about Japanese and German prison camps, dimly remembered from generations ago, are alive and well in North Korea.
Yet in a broader sense the whole of North Korea is a prison camp. Electricity and water are available a few hours a day. Families live in fear of the 3:00 a.m. knock on the door. Children report on parents, and on each other. Citizens may own a North Korean radio, with fixed tuning to the government propaganda channel, but ownership of a normal radio or a mobile phone can lead to severe punishment or even execution. In the last couple of decades millions of North Koreans — it is impossible to get a precise figure — have died of starvation. Everyone but the ruling élite goes hungry. The people grind up the woody cores of corn cobs to make a kind of meal which is a little better than nothing. Rates of infant mortality are amongst the highest in the world.
The “philosophy” of the régime, known as “Juche“, means self-reliance. Yet North Korea is the least self-reliant country in the world. It is a mendicant state. It depends on food aid and energy from donors including South Korea, China and the USA. Following the Korean War in the mid-fifties, per capita GDP was higher in the North than the South, partly as a result of Russian investment in heavy industry in the North. Today, North Korean GDP is around 5% of the South Korea level. You could scarcely ask for a starker illustration of the wholesale failure of a planned economy. Yet North Korean leaders, to whom I have spoken, blame their vast failure on natural disasters, on foreign enemies and sanctions, on anything except their own policy failures.
Despite their stark poverty, however, they still maintain one of the world’s largest standing armies, and find the money to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
I am a member of the European parliament’s inter-parliamentary delegation to the Korean Peninsula (North & South), and earlier in my career I spent four years in Seoul, as MD of the (then) United Distillers/Guinness plc spirits business (where I learned that Hennessy brandy is the favourite tipple of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il). So I have a special interest in the country.
Yesterday in Brussels we held a joint hearing, with the Human Rights Committee, on human rights in North Korea, at which we were addressed by US Ambassador Robert King, Special Envoy for Human Rights Issues in North Korea; from 29-year-old Mr. D.H. Shin, born in a North Korean Gulag, whence he escaped five years ago (he had lost several fingers in the camp when he had dropped a sewing machine and an angry guard lashed out at him); Mrs Song from a US-based advocacy group; and Tina Lambert, Advocacy Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
North Korea is almost impossible to deal with, because it is difficult to identify any rational interests served by the policies of the current régime, except perhaps to survive. They are supremely indifferent to the suffering of the people. They simply have no concept of freedom or democracy or human rights. They are prepared to engage in dialogue on issues of international concern — human rights, or their nuclear programme — but not prepared to make progress. We in the West rejoice when (for example) North Korea agrees to return to the Six-Party Talks — yet all our experience indicates that the will talk for eighteen months, and then find some trumped-up excuse, some imagined slight, as an excuse to break off again. And so the cycle goes on.
As so often in the European parliament, we can see the problem, but we are hugely frustrated at how little we can do to solve it. But we do seem to be building up a head of steam for a European parliament report on Human Rights in North Korea. One more report, covering facts which are now only too well-known. It won’t change the world. But it may help to contribute to international pressure for change in this last, Kafka-esque hangover of 20th century totalitarianism.