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Peace in the peninsula?

June 08, 2013

NORTH Korea is back in the headlines following a surprise offer to restart official negotiations with South Korea on reopening a joint commercial project which many hope could end recent hostilities between the two neighbours.

Pyongyang’s sudden overture came only hours before President Barack Obama was to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. Given that China is North Korea’s main ally, the American and Chinese leaders are expected to discuss Pyongyang’s dangerously erratic behaviour over its nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea has proposed that the two Koreas discuss reopening the Kaesong joint industrial complex, the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation which was shut down after North Korea pulled out all its 53,000 workers in April.

The North-South talks may or may not take place. After all, North Korean President Kim Jung-un is an unpredictable man. And a very cruel one.

To fully understand the horror of life in North Korea, listen to Shin Dong-hyuk, the only North Korean to have been born in the country’s notorious Prison Camp 14 and to have escaped.

Shin, 30, is the subject of a 2012 bestselling book called Escape from Camp 14 written by journalist Blaine Harden. He now lives in Seoul, South Korea, after escaping from his homeland via China eight years ago.

Last week, I chaired a debate with him and another North Korean defector organised at the European Parliament by Human Rights Without Frontiers International.

“People in North Korea do not know they are being abused,” Shin said. “They are not treated as humans.” Punishments and executions were a “normal feature” in the camp, he added.

Shin was composed and matter-of-fact as he recounted his life in a living hell. “I did not know about sympathy or sadness. They educated us from birth so that we were not capable of normal human emotions … now I feel I am becoming human.”

Life in the camp was bleak, marked by food deprivation and horrors.

“For example beatings and being punished, usually by hunger, and public executions. Those are the things we grew up with. … The reason for public executions was quite vague, sometimes it was not known. Sometimes they were executed for theft, sometimes for escaping from prison,” Shin said. “North Korea is a beautiful country which is ruled by a group of thugs who have turned it into hell. It is not a normal state.”

Before he came to the European Parliament, Shin met senior human rights officials in Geneva to discuss a United Nations investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea. He also received an award from the activist group UN Watch.

Shin has no illusions that the regime in Pyongyang is going to change under international pressure. But he says it is important to keep highlighting the scale of the evil in North Korea. “People are suffering today,” he said. “We have to talk about it.”

Shin said he fully supported the inquiry, launched by the UN Human Rights Council, which aims to gather enough information from camp survivors and other exiles to document violations including torture and executions. He vowed to keep speaking about the shadowy political prison camps across North Korea, which rights groups say hold some 200,000 inmates forced to work in farms, mines and factories.

Pyongyang denies the existence of the camps in the isolated country and says it will not cooperate with the UN probe.

“This is something I should do, let the whole world know the situation in order to help get rid of those camps,” Shin said. “We must demand that North Korea close down the camps and release the political prisoners.”

North Korea watchers say that Shin is one of a new generation of defectors stepping into the limelight to tell their personal stories to highlight rights abuses at home. Adding to global concerns over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the defectors’ stories have put Pyongyang at the centre of global concerns.

North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles earlier this year, as well as its increasingly belligerent stance, have fuelled fears of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. All eyes are on China, which has long stood by Pyongyang even as the rest of the world has imposed sanctions on the country.

But many Chinese experts now say that Beijing is becoming increasingly tired and impatient with its ally — and also embarrassed by it.

Analysts are also asking if the so-called Hermit Kingdom can be the next Myanmar. Like North Korea today, Myanmar was once a pariah, but has surprised almost everyone by becoming a Western investor’s dream. While there are significant differences between Myanmar and North Korea, there are similarities that prompt some to be optimistic about North Korea’s future.

A cruel military regime once ran Myanmar. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. There were no political freedoms. The country was isolated and the target of Western sanctions.

But the junta in Myanmar drastically changed direction last year, prompting a lifting of most Western sanctions, and a surge of interest from investors from across the world. But then, Myanmar was a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that pushed and prodded it to change course. Local opposition forces led by Suu Kyi also pushed hard for reform, backed by Western governments.

North Korea, in contrast, stands completely isolated — apart from support from China.

Also, analysts warn that economic and political pressures do not work well on North Korea’s leadership because its central ideology of Juche, translated as ‘self-reliance’, produces a very negative reaction to outside pressure. Shin warns that when the regime feels provoked, “it gets angry and violent and threatening.”

Peace in the Korean Peninsula may be a long time coming.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.