Last week was a particularly bad one for belated news of North Korea’s inhumane treatment of its citizens. Via South Korean activists, we learned that a 33-year-old woman was said to have been publicly executed on June 16th for distributing bibles, and that a day later her husband, parents and children were shipped off to a labor camp; another report stated that despite the fact that the smuggling of DVDs into the country can be punishable by death, more and more citizens are taking the risk; even something as simple as women wearing pants in public can result in a fine or brief hard labor stint.
However, the atrocity of all atrocities was shared by a former North Korean Special Forces Captain, Im Chun-yong, who had chosen to keep a dark secret since defecting to South Korea ten years ago. He explained that in North Korea, parents of mentally challenged and disabled children are encouraged to do the “honorable” thing and volunteer these youngsters for chemical and biological weapons testing.
At a secret island facility off the northwest coast of North Korea, one of Im‘s men watched as people were placed in a glass chamber and subjected to lethal fumes, with note-takers outside the chamber timing how long it took for these human guinea pigs to die. He also recalled how his commanding officer was coerced into giving up a 12-year-old mentally challenged daughter, who was never seen again.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s arrest, conviction and (mercifully, thus far, non-hard labor) imprisonment has focused much more attention on the horrific mistreatment of North Koreans. For example, an extensive @washingtonpost overview of the country’s Gulag system published on July 19th is arguably a direct result of the diplomatic fate of the two journalists.
Though Ling and Lee received a preposterous sentence for the “crime” of errantly doing their job as journalists, they would already be dying in a labor camp if they were not American. Once they are released, the question becomes – for all those of us who have been inspired by Ling and Lee‘s fate to learn more about the North Korean holocaust – ‘How do I remain actively involved?’ One easy first step for Twitter users is to follow Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organization that puts on events around the country, accept donations to fund refugee relief work and does many more things to try and help natives of the most repressive country on the planet.
Update – 07/28/09: For more on the North Korean human rights situation, check out this excellent interview with Brookings Institute fellow Roberta Cohen.