Friday 14 December 2018

Hopes of N Korean defectors lay with Trump

Campaigners disappointed human rights not raised in historic meeting

Peace? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in embrace after signing last week’s joint statement. Photo: AP
Peace? North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in embrace after signing last week’s joint statement. Photo: AP

Nicola Smith

For 10 unbearable months, Jung Gwang-il was hung upside down or waterboarded until he confessed to being a spy, before being forced into hard labour at North Korea's notorious Yodok detention camp for three years.

"In that first 10 months, I dropped from 75kg to 36kg," he said. "In camp 15 I worked from 4am to 8pm every day, either logging or farming maize. We were given daily three lumps of corn mixed with beans, and slept on the floors of tiny cells crammed with 40 prisoners."

Mr Jung survived and escaped to South Korea in 2004. Yesterday, he and other North Korean defectors expressed sorrow that their homeland's ongoing dire human rights situation was ignored in an unprecedented summit between Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in.

Their meeting last Friday had been an overt display of brotherhood. Disarmingly friendly and self-deprecating, Kim ditched his strongman image to pledge to work with Mr Moon towards denuclearisation and peace.

North Korea's state news agency yesterday called the summit a turning point for the Korean peninsula.

But, amid the astonishing scenes of hand-holding and mutual praise, it was easy to forget that Kim's regime stands accused of oppression and cruelty that includes execution, torture, arbitrary detention and rape.

That fact has not been overlooked by former victims like Mr Jung, who plans to appeal personally to US president Donald Trump to raise human-rights violations at his own summit with Kim, expected in May or June.

Mr Jung, who represents the Association of North Korean Political Victims and their Families, once smuggled flashdrives of a Trump speech denouncing North Korean "tyranny" into the reclusive state. The president thanked him for doing so when the two men met in the White House in February. A second meeting between the two is slated for May. Mr Jung will give the president the names of 10 North Korean prisoners, urging him to ask Kim for their release.

Rights groups estimate that about 130,000 prisoners are currently languishing in gulag-like penal camps.

Mr Jung's horrific tale began in 2000, when he was accused of collaborating with a South Korean while on business in China and arrested as he returned home to his wife and two young daughters.

Detained without trial, he was tortured daily by electrocution, and put in the "pigeon position" where hands and legs are tied before being hung from the ceiling. "I tried to hold out for my family as I knew they would be punished if I confessed," he said. But after almost a year he could bear it no longer.

His torturers promptly shipped him to Yodok, 65 miles north of Pyongyang.

"We willed each other not to die, to believe that we might make it out," he said. Three years later he was released, and casually told he had been found not guilty.

By that time his home had been destroyed and his family hounded into hiding. They were finally reunited in China after he swam across the Tumen border river to escape. Mr Jung warned that Kim should not be trusted. "It [summit] was a political show, and nothing has changed," he said. "Human rights have been sidelined by politics."

Sokeel Park, from Liberty in North Korea, a group assisting defectors, said it risked sending the message that human rights were a political tool when expedient, and "dropped like a hot rock when inconvenient".

"The smiles are fake. I feel sad that South Korea and the international community are falling for it," said Paek Yosep, 34, a defector among more than 1,000 who had gathered in Seoul's Hansarang church to pray for those left behind.

For now their hopes for advocacy rest with President Trump.


  • US president Donald Trump claimed credit for last week’s historic inter-Korean summit — but he now faces a burden in helping turn the Korean leaders’ bold but vague vision for peace into reality after more than six decades of hostility.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to seek a formal end to the Korean War by the end of the year and to rid their peninsula of nuclear weapons — but didn’t specify how it would be achieved. Now the pressure to deliver results, at least on the allies’ side, has shifted to Trump.

The US-North Korea summit is tentatively scheduled for next month or early June. The choice of summit venue has narrowed to two as yet unnamed locations.

Trump has pushed back against critics who say that he’s being manipulated by Kim, who abruptly shifted to diplomacy after last year’s full-scale push to become a nuclear power that could threaten the US mainland.

“I don’t think he’s ever had this enthusiasm for somebody, for them wanting to make a deal,” Trump said in the Oval Office. “We’re not going to be played, OK. We’re going to hopefully make a deal. The United States in the past has been played like a fiddle.”

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