The pictures accompanying the news of the leadership change in North Korea are those of the dead dictator, Kim Jong-Il, and his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un.
But there are some other Koreans whose names and photos, though absent from the front pages, tell the real story.
Ri Hyon Ok was a 33-year-old mother of three who was publicly executed by the North Korean government on June 16, 2009, for the crime of giving away Bibles. Her husband and children were banished to North Korea’s vast political prison system the day after she was killed.
Son Jong Nam was tortured by North Korean authorities and imprisoned for three years, from 2001 to 2004. He lost 70 pounds while in captivity and emerged walking with a permanent limp. Arrested again in 2006 after police found Bibles at his home, he was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Soon Ok Lee is a survivor of the Kaechon prison camp. She testified on April 30, 2003, at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Human Rights that women political prisoners in North Korea “were unconditionally forced to abort because the unborn baby was also considered a criminal by law.” She testified, “Women in their eighth or ninth month of pregnancy had salt solutions injected into their wombs to induce abortion. In spite of these brutal efforts, some babies were born alive, in which case the prison guards mercilessly killed the infants by squeezing their necks in front of their mothers. The dead babies were taken away for biological tests. If a mother pleaded for the life of her baby, she was publicly executed under the charge of ‘impure ideology.’ ”
Kang Chol Hwan is another survivor of the North Korean prison camps. He met with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in June 2005. He’s spoken of how when one prisoner was hanged, “Thousands of prisoners were made to form one line and passed by the hanged person and threw stones at the dead body, shouting, ‘Let’s get rid of the people’s traitor.’ And because of throwing so many stones by thousands of prisoners, the faces and muscles were all torn up. Some women with weak heart, they didn’t obey and didn’t throw the stone. Then the officers condemned them, saying your ideology is doubtful. And beat them.”
And those are just a few whose names are known in the West. As the American special envoy for human rights in North Korea stated in a January 2009 report, “The names and stories of most of the approximately 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea are unknown outside of the country.”
President Barack Obama’s press secretary reacted to the news of Kim Jong-Il’s death with a statement about American commitment “to stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the freedom and security of our allies.” Very nice, but our allies are already free. How about some freedom for the North Koreans, or a recognition that North Korea’s “stability” isn’t much consolation if you are about to be executed for having a Bible in your home? Not to mention that the hundreds of North Korean experts reportedly helping Iran’s nuclear missile program aren’t exactly adding to “stability.”
Jay Lefkowitz, who served from 2005 to 2009 as United States Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea, recommends making future food aid to North Korea conditional on Pyongyang’s first de-nuclearizing and opening up North Korean society. Otherwise, we’d just be feeding the North Korean military and the guards in those political prisons.
Mr. Lefkowitz said to me about Kim Jong-Il’s death: “This is a real opportunity.”
Here’s hoping that America and other powers with influence in the region seize the opportunity. The alternative is who-knows-how-many-more horribly grim tales from the North Korean gulag.