There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

North Korea, Executions, Human Rights and Our Visit

Three months ago Lynne and I spent a week in North Korea. The blog of that remains a work in progress [not any more. It was completed in late 2014], but it starts here.

The DPRK has been much in the news this week. Ten days ago Jang Sung Taek was vice-chairman of the National Defence Committee and the second most powerful man in the country. On the 8th of December he was dismissed from this and all his other posts and expelled from the Worker’s Party of Korea. His arrest at a Politburo meeting was shown on television and this was swiftly followed by his trial and execution.

Jang Sung Taek
(Copyright Yonhap News - I hope they don't mind)

What this tells us of the inner workings of the North Korean regime – other than that they are brutal – has been the subject of much speculation. South Korean news agencies were quick to link the death of Jang to the public executions of 80 petty criminals in November and of the execution of 11 members of the girl band Ponchobo Electronic Ensemble in August. ‘A new reign of terror,' they said, 'has started in North Korea.’

Oddly ‘pornography’ was alleged to be an issue in all three cases. The girl band had performed in a pornographic video, many of the petty criminals had been distributing pornography, while Jang had merely possessed pornographic photographs. I am unsure what this tells us about the North Korean psyche, but the thought crossed my mind that in a country where the most obscene act you can commit is to disrespect the leader, ‘pornography’ might not mean what we think it does.

Kim Jong Un
Is this 'pornography' in the DPRK?
Some of the reports of executions come from South Korean agencies whose reporting of the north has often been more sensational than accurate [see update at end]. That said, no one seriously doubts the execution of Jang Sung Taek. Writing in the Independent, John Everard, British ambassador to North Korea 2006-8, said: ‘North Koreans in the military will be particularly nervous. One of Jang’s alleged crimes was to plot a coup against Kim Jong-un, involving the military old guard…. I suspect that the complicity of such officers in the “plot” will now be investigated, and that some at least will be dismissed….or worse. I doubt that Jang will be the last person to die in this purge.’

On Sunday (15th Dec) North Korean Prison Camps provided the basis of an Amnesty International double page advertisement in The Observer (and, for all I know, other Sunday newspapers). I have been unable to find a copy of the full text to link to, so I have scanned a couple of paragraphs. They form part of one of half a dozen case studies and are representative of the rest of the advertisement.

Extract from Amnesty International advertisement
The Observer, 15/12/13

Is it all true? Unlike some campaigning groups, Amnesty tends not to exaggerate. They say 100 000 people are being held while other sources claim up to 300 000. The case studies come from former inmates (and one former guard) who have been released or escaped and subsequently made their way to South Korea. The North Koreans, as Amnesty admits, ‘say the defectors are lying and flatly deny the existence of any camps.’ Amnesty funds satellite photography of the relevant area and say that not only do they exist, but some are being expanded. The ‘defectors’ have an axe to grind, and there are many in South Korea and beyond who are eager to believe anybody who tells them what they want to hear. On the other hand if just a fraction of what Amnesty describe actually happened, the camps rank with the worst the world has seen. We have been to Auschwitz (and I blogged about it here) and are scheduled to visit the Cambodian ‘Killing Fields’ in February [we did, you can read about it here]; I do not make these comparisons lightly.

Should we have gone to North Korea? We thought it through before we went, but the events of the past week have prompted a rethink.

We travel because we are curious, curious about the world and about the lives of our fellow human beings. North Korea is unique and thus uniquely attractive. ‘Terrible lies are told about our country,’ the guide told us just before we left. ‘You have seen the truth, now go home and tell people that truth.’ I think our guide really believed that, if we were fair-minded  and honest, we would go home and tell of the 'Worker’s Paradise’ that is the DPRK. But it is not a worker's paradise.

By not going we would have had no effect, so to justify our visit we need only to show that our selfish urge to satisfy our curiosity did not, on balance, strengthen the regime. If, in some small way, we improved the situation, then that is even better, though the effect of two people - or our whole group of 15 - can only be tiny.

We were certainly milked for hard currency, €20 for Museum entrance, €100 for the Airarang Games, €2 for a small cup of luke warm Nescafé (and Euros is the currency we were asked to pay in), so we helped finance the state. And against that….? There was little we could say to the guides, they seemed genuinely committed to a system which continually tells them it is the best there is. To convince them otherwise risks putting them in the prison camps whose existence they would deny, and I would not want that on my conscience. What we, and every other tourist, could do was show our open-mindedness and curiosity, qualities that are frowned on in the DPRK, and which, if they caught on, would inevitably undermine the regime. Travellers are the only contact relatively ordinary Koreans have with the outside world, the only access to another point of view. But was that enough? I do not know. From a selfish point of view I am glad I went (and equally glad I do not have to go again) and it would be hypocritical to urge others to make different choices, but I remain unsure as to whether we did more harm than good.

Update. The widely reported story that Kim had  Jang Sung Taek  torn apart by a pack of wild dogs originated from a satirical post on Weibo – China’s homegrown twitter service. It was picked up by a Hong Kong news agency and then went worldwide. It is extremely unlikely to have any basis in fact.