After surrendering to the Allied Forces at the end of World War II, Japan was forced to relinquish its imperial holds on its territories in East Asia and this made the Korean peninsula an important geopolitical region. At this point in time, the people of the Korean Peninsula experienced thirty-five years of oppression by the Japanese. The Japanese Government in Korea forced Japanese-only language policies, name changes from Korean to Japanese, and other efforts to suppress native Korean culture. Not to mention, the Japanese Empire forced countless Korean women into sex slavery, or what is referred to today as the comfort women issue. Believing that the Koreans were not yet able to govern themselves, the two great powers of the era, the United States and the Soviet Union, agreed to split the peninsula into two at the 38th parallel and assume control of their respective territories. The South came under the control of the United States, while the North, which was far more industrially developed than the agricultural South, was occupied by the Soviet Union. The Soviet subsequently installed a relatively unknown but charismatic Korean guerilla fighter named Kim Il-Sung as their new leader hoping that he would serve as nothing more than a puppet leader, however Kim has his own vision for the future of his newly established Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Kim Il-Sung’s first objective was to reunite the North and the South under the Communist ideology by force but needed the leaders of the Soviet Union (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to first approve of his reunification plans. After receiving authorization from the PRC and the USSR, on June 25th, 1950 Kim Il-Sung’s forces crossed over the 38th parallel and in three days took control of most of the U.S.-occupied South. In the first year of the Korean War, the United States and the US-led United Nations 16-nation coalition was able to turn the tides of the conflict with the famous Incheon Landing and pushed the North Korean forced back up against the Chinese border, but the entrance of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) proved too much for the US-led forces. The war ended in a disappointing stalemate and neither side gained any new ground. In 1953, an armistice was signed by the parties involved (except for the South Koreans) and ended the fighting between the sides. However, since no formal peace treaty was issued, North and South Korea are technically still at war today.
Since the end of the Korean War, South Korea experienced unprecedented economic growth and development as a result of their adoption of a government-led market economy. This rapid economic growth is often called the Miracle on the Han River as it turned the once poverty-stricken South into a thriving developed region. South Korea also now experiences freedom and democracy as it has never experienced before. On the other side of the 38th parallel however, the North Korean State took a turn in the opposite direction. After the war, Kim Il-Sung consolidated power by purging members of his own politburo and developing an elaborate Cult of Personality that still affects the daily lives of the 24 million people in North Korea today. The North Korean economic model was guided by the idea of self-reliance promoted by the state ideology of Juche, which mandated that North Korea should develop necessary products and resources on its own, or at least enough to not be reliant on foreign goods. However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent cessation of aid from them combined with economic mismanagement on the part of the North Korean regime, lead to economic turmoil in the mid-1990s. A series of natural disasters such as flooding and periods of drought lead to the great famine, which is referred to in the North as the, Arduous March. The death toll varies widely with estimates of 240,000 to 3 million North Koreans dying of various causes brought on by the famine.
North Korea remains a pariah in the international community today and has been subject to the imposition of economic sanctions due to their efforts in developing nuclear weapons, but what is most intriguing about North Korea is that has been able to survive as a Stalinist state even after the fall of the Soviet Union and other Eastern-European Communist regimes. The DPRK has been able to survive thanks to its totalitarian grip on its population and its effective methods of manipulating great powers and surviving off their aid. The regime has employed certain measures such as propaganda, ideological indoctrination, misinformation, surveillance and forced labor camps in their efforts to survive. Public awareness resulting from the testimonies of North Korean defectors has put the issue of human rights in North Korea on the agenda in US-DPRK talks.
Human Rights and North Korean Refugees
The North Korea regime’s suppression of free speech is one of many human rights abuses that the regime has violated over the years. As one of world’s most repressive states, it has successfully instilled fear into its citizens and eliminated all political opposition. The regime controls all information, media activity, and culture while subjecting its citizens to intense and systemic ideological indoctrination, using torture and execution, and imprisoning some 120,000 people for political reasons. In a world order that places human rights as one of its top issues with the drafting of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the actions of the North Korean Government have been widely known and condemned.
Due to the absence of freedom in North Korea, thousands of North Koreans have escaped out of their country. When a North Korea defects, the typical route taken has been over the Chinese border on the Tumen and Yalu rivers and into the northern provinces of Liaoning and Jilin. From there defectors attempt to seek asylum in countries like Mongolia and Thailand so that they can be sent to South Korea where the government will grant them citizenship. The reason for getting out of China as soon as they can is because the Chinese Government’s policy on North Korean escapees is to consider them as illegal economic immigrants and upon capturing a North Korean refugee, they are required to repatriate them back to North Korea. Other dangers that North Korean refugees, particularly women and girls, face in China is the risk of being kidnapped, trafficked and being forced to work as prostitutes. When the individual is repatriated, they face potential torture, imprisonment, or execution back in North Korea.
In South Korea, North Korean defectors are considered citizens of South Korea and there is a program that offers generous aid to those who make it to the South. In 2005, North Korean defectors are eligible for three kinds of payments that includes settlement money, rewards for starting and completing vocational training, and a kind of lottery prize which is usually awarded to important defectors (Lankov). Before they can enjoy their newfound freedom, they also receive the necessary debriefings and training needed to help them survive in modern South Korean society.
However hard a North Korean may try to get to South Korea, for those who do, it doesn’t solve all their problems. Life in South Korea could possibly be just as hard or even harder than living in China, as North Korean refugees are subject to discrimination in their professional, social, and personal lives. Defectors have become the subject of many political discussions in South Korea as well. They also have high levels of poverty and unemployment. In 2004, the number of unemployed defectors was 37.6 percent (Lankov). When the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration came to power in Korea, he effectively ended the Sunshine Policy of the previous Roh administration, who took a more favorable view on the issue of accepting more North Korean refugees and started to discourage the defections of North Koreans to the South. Andrei Lankov notes that defections were discouraged to, to uphold the political stability of the North, to save South Korea’s budget money, and to avoid confrontations with Pyongyang (Lankov). The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 (Origins, Proposals and Purpose)
The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 18th, 2004 and looked to increase the United States efforts in combating human rights abuses while promoting democracy in North Korea by providing humanitarian assistance to North Koreans, giving grants to different private and non-profit organizations that would work to advocate for human rights in North Korea, and making information from the outside world more readily available in North Korea.
The bill, known as H.R.4011 or the bill, to promote human rights and freedom in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, originally contained three main objectives: Promoting the Human Rights of North Koreans, Assisting North Korean in Need, and Protecting North Korean Refugees. For promoting human rights, the bill earmarked $2 million for each fiscal year between 2005 and 2008 to support human rights and democracy programs, provide 12-hour per day Voice of America and Radio Free Asia broadcasting to North Korea, authorize the President to take actions necessary to increase the availability of information sources.
The bill was, prompted by the acute suffering of North Koreans, (House IR Report) and was sponsored by Representative James Leach, a Republican from Iowa, along with 29 cosponsors, and was introduced in the House on March 23rd, 2004 where it was then referred to the House Committee on International Relations and the Committee of the Judiciary where the markup process was held. After the markup sessions, the amended bill was reported on by the Committee on International Relations. The committee favorably reported on the bill and the amendment by unanimous consent on May 31st, 2004. On July 21st, 2004 Representative James Leach moved to suspend the rules, as the bill had great bipartisan support, and pass the bill as amended in the House.
In the Senate, the bill was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations on September 7th and was discharged by unanimous consent on the 28th with an Amendment proposed by Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas. The Amendment provided a complete substitute of the bill that included three modest changes to the original bill. It expressed that the United States should explore the possibility of a regional dialogue on human rights in North Korea, mandates the appointment of a special envoy on human rights in North Korea within the State Department and enhanced the discretion of the executive branch by recasting conditions on assistance to the North Korean government as a sense of the Congress provision (CR H7981-7984). The bill was passed in the Senate by unanimous consent on September 28th, 2004. The bill was then sent to the house on October 4th, 2004 and on suspension of the rules, the Senate Amendment was agreed to by voice vote and was presented to the President three days later. The bill that was signed into law by President Bush on the 18th of October gained bipartisan support and was a major milestone in the United States efforts to combat human rights violation in North Korea. Implementation, and Criticisms of the Act
The new law, authorized up to $20 million be allocated for helping North Korean refugees for each of the fiscal year 2005-2008, gave $2 million to promote human rights and democracy in North Korea, and $2 million dollars more to promote freedom on information in North Korea, and created the State Department’s special envoy on human rights in North Korea (Congress and US Policy in HR). The implementation did not introduce many new developments other than the admission of North Korean refugees into the United States, as broadcasts in the Korean language by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America were already being broadcasted to North Korea, but the Act did help fund several existing programs, the special envoy attended and organized conferences, and the United States sponsored United Nations resolutions that targeted human rights abuses in North Korea. (Congress and US Policy in HR).