A man pretending to be North Korean leader Kim Jong Un faces a mock firing squad in a stage performance held by North Korean defectors in Seoul in 2010. A South Korean NGO is tracking Kim’s human rights abuses using both witness testimony and digital technologies. Photo: AFP/Park Ji-Hwan

SEOUL – Kim Jong Un, take heed. You are being watched, your human rights abuses are being recorded and you and your associates may, one day, be held to account.

That is not a message the South Korean government is conveying to the leadership in the North. Nor is it a strategy that South Korean President Moon Jae-in is likely to urge US President Joe Biden to adopt when the two meet on Friday in Washington.

Moon, after all, has made North Korean engagement a centerpiece of his policies – so much so that his administration has declined to join the international community in taking Pyongyang to task over its hideous human rights record by co-signing UN resolutions.

Moreover, it has returned alleged North Korean murderers across the border without due process and has enacted laws preventing defectors flying balloons carrying anti-regime messaging over the border. 

But while Seoul officialdom may not approve, this is the message a Seoul-based civic group, the Transitional Justice Working Group, is sending to human rights abusers inside North Korea.

Why Kim must listen

“Our standpoint is that pressure does make a difference in North Korea,” Shin Hee-seok, TJWG’s legal analyst, told Asia Times. “International pressure and knowledge from the outside world can facilitate and expedite change.”

The proof of that is a shift in North Korean judicial practices after the publication, in 2014, of a scathing report on abuses inside North Korea by the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.

“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” that report asserted. “Crimes against humanity are ongoing in [North Korea] because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.”

The office sent a related letter to Kim, while calling on the UN Security Council “to adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity.”

The possibility that Kim, who took office after his father’s death in 2011, could be investigated by the International Court of Justice “hit the North Korean nerve,” said Shin, who also lectures in international law at the Catholic University of Korea.

An ICC investigation is not on the cards at present, due to the likelihood of Russian and Chinese vetoes. But were Kim to fall out of favor with his allies, he would be vulnerable – and could find himself a wanted man in more than 100 countries.

“North Korea is very paranoid,” said Shin. “So that is big leverage.”

And it has taken effect.

Prior to the release of the 2014 UN report, Shin said, it was common practice for arrested suspects in North Korea to be roughed up prior to their interrogation. After 2014, practices shifted, with some security officials actually being reprimanded for excessive zeal in deploying brutality.

“We hear it is having an impact,” Shin said. “And more and more people in North Korea are getting familiar with human rights – we hear from defectors that they have somehow heard of this concept.”

The TJWG’s activities aim to add weight to this pressure by bringing the scale and detail of Pyongyang’s human rights abuses to light. Their work is broadly divided into two categories.

One is by building a full database of information on those who have been abducted by the state over the last seven decades. The second is by identifying the sites of executions, burials and local State Security Bureau offices nationwide.

Shin Hee-seok of the Transitional Justice Working Group. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

In the footprints of the disappeared

North Korea may be the most opaque, most insulated country on earth. Inside it, countless souls have simply disappeared, making them the largest single category of the local populace devoured by the state’s notorious network of prison camps.

But tens of thousands of outsiders have also been victims, Shin says.

To shine light into this dark space, the TJWG has founded a database, Footprints, that went online in February. It collates information on the many individuals who have been disappeared, in Korean and English; Japanese is forthcoming.

“The largest single category from South Korea is probably Korean War abductees,” said Shin who, citing Seoul data, puts their number at close to 100,000.

Between invading South Korea on June 25, 1950, and being defeated following the shock battlefield reverse that was the Inchon landing on September 15 in the same year, the North Korean People’s Army occupied most of South Korea.

In the fluid ideological climate of the 1950s, many Southerners willingly assisted the North and many voluntarily defected, Shin admits. Even so, he believes that about 100,000 people – professionals in governance, justice, academia, media, engineering, etc – were essentially abducted northward. Many were never heard from again.

“Immediately after the liberation of Seoul, people started looking for abducted family members and they reported through the South Korean government, then the South Korean Red Cross and then the International Red Cross,” Shin said.

In the more settled climate after the war wound down in 1953, various lists were double-checked and duplicates dropped, leaving the figure Shin cites.  

A second large category is wartime POWs. Again, this is a grey area, for Korean War prison camps became sites of ideological warfare, with both sides attempting to convert captured troops.

At war’s end in 1953, the South opened the gates of its camps, releasing some 25,000 communist prisoners so they would not be repatriated. And in the North, 21 US and one British POW declined to be repatriated.

So – according to North Korea – did thousands of South Koreans it held. Only 8,000 POWs from the South were released, as many as 50,000, Shin calculates, remained.

Pyongyang’s narrative of willing defections among POWs was punctured in the 1990s. During that decade, amid devastating famines, the country’s northern border became porous and tens of thousands of North Koreans fled into China. Among them were some 80 ex-POWs, who eventually made it to the South, as did several hundred family members.

They told grim tales. After the war, the POWs were assigned some of the worst jobs in North Korea, notably mining. They and family members – many married and had children in the North – were consigned to the “hostile” class under the North’s stratified songbun class system.

Another category is South Koreans seized by the North after the war – some 516 people. Most were fishermen taken in the sea border area, but their numbers also included the crew of a patrol ship seized in 1970 and passengers from a hijacked passenger aircraft in 1969.

Several South Korean troops captured by communist forces during the Vietnam War are also believed to have been sent to North Korea. And in recent years, a handful of South Korean missionaries in China were seized, as we some defectors who came to South Korea and then were subsequently recaptured by North Korean agents in China.

“The main culprit is North Korea, but the South Korean government has been very hands-off on this issue,” Shin said. “They could have done far, far more to bring them back.”

And it is not just Koreans. In a number of bizarre cases, third-party nationals have also been seized.

A number of Japanese – estimates range from the dozens to the hundreds – were kidnapped from coastal Japan by North Korean amphibious agents. Inside North Korea, they were tasked as language teachers for Pyongyang’s spy agencies. A full accounting for these abductees is central to Tokyo’s policy toward Pyongyang.

One was famously married to one of a handful of US soldiers who defected across the DMZ. Another US defector married a Rumanian woman. The reason for her presence inside North Korea remains a mystery.

There have been allegations that Americans who disappeared in Southeast Asia were kidnapped by North Korea, though details are sparse. Shin hopes Footprints will enable those with further information of the various cases to come forward.

A South Korean, pale with fear, is interrogated by North Korean troops in Seoul, 1950. The scene was personally witnessed and captured by Kim Song-hwan, a Suuth Korean artist/cartoonist who was in Seoul during the occupation. Kim never learned the terrified man’s eventual fate. Painting: Kim Song-hwan

Marking unmarked graves

The TJWG is also mapping state executions. It aims to identify execution sites, burial sites and the local offices of the State Security Bureau, where related records are kept.

“We interview one defector at a time and use Google Maps and Google Earth,” Shin said. This task is eased by the nature of North Korean society.

“Because people don’t have freedom of movement, most people live all their lives in one area that they know very well, and North Korean towns don’t change much, so there is a lot of continuity in the maps,” Shin said.

The process is usually to identify a local landmark – a train station, or a statue of the Kims – then triangulate the sites from there.

Executions are a spectacle. Perhaps the most famous, in 2013, was that of Kim’s apparently treacherous uncle Jang Song-taek, who was allegedly shot dead with an anti-aircraft gun, then his remains bulldozed into pulp by a tank. Though that would have been a swift death, it would have been a gruesome one.

It played out at an air force base before an audience of Pyongyang elites who no doubt drew the appropriate conclusions.

Similarly, when it comes to ordinary executions, the aim is to send messages. Capital punishment is legislated for civil crimes, such as murder, but also for political crimes such as distributing South Korean media or helping escapees cross the border.

While the TJWG has found cases where citizens were “encouraged” to watch killings, most are advertised in state media and are open to the public. Many attend out of morbid curiosity.

“Some defectors say when they were in high or middle school, they would skip classes to see what was going on – clearly, nobody forced them to be there,” Shin said. “Some say it was a traumatic experience; some see it once or twice and said they would never go again.”

There is an element of public education. A judge present at the execution sites reads out the offenses and delivers the death sentence, a process that usually takes about 30 minutes. In some cases, a single individual is executed, in others, multiple defendants are killed.

Though the TJWG has recorded one case of execution by acid vat, and several by hanging, all others are by firing squad.

The condemned are tied to stakes with three ropes around chest, waist and legs. Firing squads aim volleys at the ropes, top to bottom. This results in the victim slumping forward then falling face down onto the ground, after the restraints are severed by bullets.

“Most defectors tell us that they did not feel pity,” said Shin. “Only when they arrive [in South Korea] and see how a criminal justice system works do they realize that what happened was horrible. Most tell us it never crossed their minds that these were human rights violations.”

In addition to the execution sites, usually on the edge of towns, some defectors have also identified unmarked burial pits after witnessing, for example, trucks unloading bodies.

Burial sites tend to be close to execution sites – presumably, Shin conjectures, to save on gas or manpower.

The TJWG’s first report on execution sites came out in 2017, following interviews with 475 defectors. The second report appeared in 2019 and a third report is imminent, with a cumulative total of more than 700 interviews.

Identifying the local SSB offices that do the dirty work is another TJWG aim, Shin explained.

Amid East Germany’s implosion, many Stasi documents were destroyed. Shin hoped that the identification of SSB offices could assist in the preservation of records – either by locals or by third-party intervention – in the event of a North Korean collapse or transition.

Using Google Earth satellite imagery and defector testimony, TJWG has identified state security offices in the city of Hoeryong. Image: TJWG

The pressure v non-pressure argument

South Korean progressive leaders – of whom Moon Jae-in is the latest – hold the view that taking North Korea to task on human rights is unproductive. According to this argument, if the issue is raised, Pyongyang will simply refuse to engage.

To buttress the primary argument, a secondary argument is deployed. This states that nutrition is also a human right, but if the dialog is halted, the South cannot send humanitarian assistance to ordinary North Koreans.

Shin, like many South Korean conservatives, opposes this line of thinking on practical and empirical grounds. “I don’t think it has worked,” he said.

The year 2018 was a vintage one for inter-Korean summits. Only at the end of that year, Shin notes, did the Moon government cease co-sponsoring UN resolutions against North Korean human rights abuses.

“If North Korea had no problems holding summit meetings in 2018 despite Seoul co-sponsoring these resolutions, what is the point of not joining them?” Shin asked.  

After a North Korea-US summit failed to make headway in Hanoi in 2019, Pyongyang largely severed its ties with Seoul, a Washington ally.

In November that year, Seoul controversially returned two boatmen who had fled the North after allegedly committing murder. That took place just weeks ahead of an ASEAN summit held in South Korea that Seoul hoped Kim would attend. He did not.

And in 2020, amid a barrage of furious rhetoric from North Korean state media, the South banned cross-border propaganda balloon flights by activists. Yet there was no appreciable improvement in relations.  

“North Korea has not reciprocated these changes of position by Seoul,” Shin observed.

Hence, Shin sees no reason not to apply human rights pressure. And while he does not expect his group to work miracles, he believes in its mission, long-term.

“This will not bring down the regime overnight, but we are trying to push North Korea into a more human rights-friendly direction,” Shin said. “Public naming and shaming can be effective for that purpose.”

The devil may be in the detail. South Korean president Moon Jae-in (r) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Inter-Korean Summit Pool/Anadolu Agency
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (r) has sought to establish ties with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without calling him to account for his human rights abuses. Results have been mixed, at best. This photo is from Panmunjom during their summit on April 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Inter-Korean Summit Pool/Anadolu Agency