In his CAMD Scholar presentation, Sung Woo Hong ’13 explored the horrors of North Korean political prisoner camps, where the incarcerated are forced to perform manual labor and survive on infrequent meals consisting of water, rice and corn kernels.
Hong’s presentation, titled “North Korean Political Prisoner Camps: An Examination of Politics and Human Rights,” focused on the conditions of the prisoner camps in the context of the political state of North Korea, as well as international responses to this humanitarian crisis.
In addition to starvation, torture and public executions are commonplace at the camps, according to Hong.
“As I went more in-depth [into the study of prisoner camps], I found that the complexity of the situation was amazing,” said Hong in an interview with The Phillipian.
“People often make the mistake of talking about human rights crises in an extremely simplistic manner. People figure that you just go in and save the people, but that is obviously not the approach that should be [chosen] by the international community; it’s serious,” continued Hong.
As part of his research over the summer, Hong interviewed Kim Young-Soon, a North Korean prisoner camp escapee, to gain insight into the living conditions at the camps.
“When you are in the camp, you eat anything that lives or crawls,” said Kim Young-Soon in a video clip of the interview. “People who came out of the camps were not even people.”
Kim Young-Soon was arrested with her family of seven because her friend allegedly had relations with an imperial maid. Four of her family members died at the camp, and although she herself managed to flee to China, she lost her son during their escape attempt. He was captured and sent back to North Korea, and Kim Young-Soon has seen none of her family since.
Hong’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion, featuring Peter Drench, Instructor in History and Social Science, Christopher Shaw, Chair and Instructor in History and Social Science, and Daniel Solomon, former National Organizer for STAND, the student-led division of the United to End Genocide organization, according to the STAND website.
Solomon explained that North Korean political prisoner camps differ from other human rights crises in that they are inextricable from the North Korean political system.
Not only have the camps been a source of free manual labor, but the fear of imprisonment also has served to quash all opposition to the regime of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, former rulers of North Korea, according to Hong.
The Kim regime is so dependent upon these camps for labor and intimidation that it may be impossible to get rid of one institution without the other, according to Solomon.
Hong said that the Kim regime still stands primarily due to China’s continuing support. China recently suspended a policy of capturing and deporting North Korean refugees back to their native country.
“It really amazed me the extent to which China supported the Kim regime and the extent to which North Korea was willing to utilize military aggression and military actions in response to other countries expressing their disapproval to the Kim regime, as well,” said Hong.
With the ascension of Kim Jong-Un, the new leader of North Korea, and extensive political turnover in the Chinese government, Drench said that the future of North Korean politics is uncertain. Many predict that Kim Jong-Un will wait for the deaths of longtime government officials, before carrying out major humanitarian and political changes.
North Korean prisoner camps are such a peripheral issue that, without pressure from the international community, it may take years before China demands reform, according to Drench.
Citing the histories of East Germany and apartheid in South Africa, Shaw advised the audience to remain optimistic.
“A year before the Berlin Wall came down, no one would have guessed that it would happen within a year,” said Shaw.
In an interview, Hong said, “Growing up in South Korea, I’ve always been really aware of the sociopolitical and ideological tensions… and even a sense of animosity between the two Koreas. [The prisoner camps have] always been a topic of great interest to me.”
Hong said that after joining the Andover chapter of STAND, he “naturally gained more interest in the issue [of North Korean prisoner camps]” as he learned about cases of genocide and other human rights violations in other countries.
“I didn’t realize [prisoner camps] were that big a problem at first, but the actual magnitude of the problem behind this ‘iron wall’ is quite devastating,” said Pranav Dorbala ’14, who attended Hong’s presentation.
James Jung ’14 said, “[I find] interesting the position of the superpowers of China and the United States and how it’s difficult for them to affect North Korea, but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying our best to help, and even on an individual level.
“When I met [Hong] as a ninth grader [I knew] he was really driven by his passion in trying to raise awareness about this particular cause,” said Susanne Torabi, Hong’s faculty advisor for the project and International Student Coordinator. “He did a great job in presenting this…. not only did he share the history [of the camps], but he gave a glimpse into what was going on in the prisoner camps, which is very difficult since they are so isolated.”