Foreign Secretary of the UK Jack Straw Meets North Korean Gulag Survivor

[imText1]Foreign Secretary of the UK Jack Straw today met with former North Korean political child-prisoner Kang Chol Hwan.

The Foreign Secretary asked Mr Kang about his imprisonment in a political prison camp at the age of nine for an alleged offence by his grandfather.

After hearing Mr Kang speak, the Foreign Secretary expressed his abhorrence of a system that would punish a child for the supposed crime of a relative, saying ‘such treatment of nine year old children defies imagination’.

Asked about the current situation, Mr Kang confirmed that the gulag system exists today, with an estimated 200,000 inmates.

The Foreign Secretary praised Mr Kang for his work in campaigning for improvements in human rights in North Korea. He stated that the British Government is ‘very concerned indeed about the human rights situation’.

Mr Kang thanked the Foreign Secretary for all that the United Kingdom is doing regarding North Korea and expressed appreciation for the UK’s consistent position on human rights in the country. He emphasised the important role that the UK and EU have to play in addressing the human rights situation.

Mr Kang urged the British Government to give special attention to the camps, and the terrible violence, oppression and death that occur within them.

Mr Kang also urged the British Government to bring pressure to bear on China to stop its repatriation of North Koreans in defiance of its obligations under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

CSW’s International Advocate, Elizabeth Batha, who organised and participated in the meeting, encouraged the Foreign Secretary to use the UK Presidency of the EU to take a strong lead within the international community in articulating and actioning concerns, especially through the EU and the UN.

The Foreign Secretary said: ‘It was an honour to meet Mr Kang Chol Hwan, who has experienced at first hand the despicable human rights abuses committed by the North Korean regime. North Korea is rightly considered to have one of the worst human rights records in the world, with arbitrary detention, political executions, torture, labour camps and extreme religious persecution commonplace.

‘We discussed the current situation in North Korea. Mr Kang’s eyewitness account of forced labour, frequent public executions and near-starvation rations is invaluable evidence of the outrages committed by this most secretive of regimes. We share a common goal in attempting to raise the international awareness of the human rights abuses taking place there.

‘The British Government presses the North Korean authorities on human rights abuses at every opportunity, urging them in particular to cooperate with UN mechanisms and to allow international monitors to inspect prison camps.’

Mr Kang presented the Foreign Secretary with his autobiography ‘Aquariums of Pyongyang’. The book tells the story of his ten years of imprisonment in Yodok prison camp and his eventual dangerous escape to China, where he lived in hiding before stowing away on a cargo ship to South Korea.

President Bush was so moved by reading Mr Kang’s book that he invited him to the White House in June this year to talk about his experiences in the camp and in China and about policy regarding North Korea.

Commenting on his meeting with the Foreign Secretary, Mr Kang said: ‘The meeting was meaningful and important and I was assured that the Government of the United Kingdom has a clear understanding of the human rights crisis in North Korea. As the British Government has diplomatic relations and an embassy in Pyongyang I believe the United Kingdom is in the best position to address human rights in North Korea. The UK has a long and glorious history of liberty, freedom and protection of individual rights. I expect that in the near future the ethos of the British people will be channelled to the North Korean population, eventually leading to change of this very closed society. When freedom comes, the people of North Korea will deeply appreciate what the British people and government have done, are doing, and will do, for them.’

In speaking this morning on the BBC Today Programme, Mr Kang stated: ‘I do believe that the United Kingdom is in a most important position within the European Union … because the economy is totally broken down and totally dependent on foreign assistance. So the United Kingdom, alongside the European Union, can tell North Korea: ‘You need to improve human rights and you need to do some economic reform in order to get this huge amount of foreign aid.’’

Following the meeting with the Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Batha of CSW added: ‘The UK has increasingly recognised and articulated the very severe violations in North Korea and the imperative need for these to be addressed. CSW welcomes the Foreign Secretary’s concern over the gulag system and his assurances of concern over human rights in North Korea. We encourage the UK to utilise its Presidency of the EU to articulate these concerns in the strongest and most effective terms.

Mr Kang has been travelling in Europe with a delegation from the human rights organisation Freedom House and has been calling on the international community to work to bring an end to the severe violations of human rights and the gulag system in North Korea.

For photographs and more information, please contact Elizabeth Batha on 020 8329 0037 or Richard Chilvers on 07776 135169 or email or visit

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