(From left to right) Hyeong Soo Kim (NRA), Eun Kyoung Kwon (ICNK), Jan Janowski (Federal Foreign Office),
Nicolai Sprekels (Saram) and Charles von Denkowski (Transitional Justice Working Group) at the
Federal Foreign Office in Berlin Image: Saram
The International North Korean Human Rights Festival took place in Berlin from Oct 7-9, with satellite events held in Heidelberg and Trier. The festival was organized by Saram, a Berlin-based group partnered with various human rights-focused NGOs (including ICNK, EAHRNK, NK Watch, NKHR, HEKO and Giordano-Bruno-Foundation), with the mission of raising awareness for North Korean refugees.
In addition to screening relevant movies (e.g Cash for Kim, The Crossing, 48m) the film festival sought to address two questions: “Why does a place like North Korea still exist?” and “Can NGOs make a difference?”
Nicolai Sprekels, a spokesperson for Saram, emphasized during his opening speech the importance of understanding the challenges faced by North Korean refugees and defectors. His talk provided insights on the current circumstances and challenges that North Koreans face within their country and in China. He stressed the importance of “raising awareness not only for those who have managed to escape, but also for those who are still living in the North […].”
The event also hosted a closed meeting at Berlin’s Federal Foreign Office to discuss the current state of affairs and important steps to be taken. Kim Hyeong Soo and Kwon Eun Kyoung were in attendance at the meeting as special guests of the film festival.
Ms. Eun Kyoung Kwon is the General Secretary of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) and works with several NGOs and governmental organizations to address human rights in North Korea. As a firm supporter of similar international events around the world, her personal mission is to help victims of the North Korean state share their stories.
Mr. Hyeong Soo Kim was born in North Korea and escaped in 2009. Kim states his age as seven years old because, as he puts it, “Only after my escape did I begin to live.” Kim himself studied biology at Pyongyang’s prestigious Kim Il Sung University and was tasked with developing the most beneficial food possible to ensure Kim Jong Il’s longevity. He later began working for the notorious Office 39, a shadowy organization known to manage the Kim family’s slush funds. After illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts, he began to doubt the premise of the North Korean state and decided to escape. He now works for the Northern Research Association.
Throughout the event, Kim reflected on the events of his past and, as he refers to it, the “wrong years” in North Korea. On the topic of defectors and refugees he noted that there were rumors being spread in the North, warning that anybody who arrives in South Korea will only end up in a prison camp and die. This is one of the reasons why many refugees and defectors at first choose to stay in China. He also noted that during the 1998 Olympics in Seoul, many North Koreans were able to see the “real” South Korea for the first time. The North Korean government realized the implications and promptly produced a propaganda movie in which North Korean defectors were persecuted and killed [in South Korea].
Going further into the details of escape attempts during the 90s, Kim explained that in 1998 in particular, many were killed as a result of Kim Jong Il’s orders to shoot anybody who attempted to cross the border into China. “I saw myself,” he said. “I saw seven dead bodies in the river. Six women and a man. During these years many people were only trying to go to China for food and medicine for their families […] to return as soon as they could.”
But there were also numerous difficulties facing defectors in China, he added, explaining that the Chinese public security forces sought out refugees and gave cash rewards to citizens who reported them. These days, he said, the compensation is often even higher. Human trafficking, especially of women, has emerged as another serious issue.
He concluded that while North Koreans in times past only went to China to get enough food to survive, these days the focus is on trying to escape and protest against North Korea. Kim stressed that it has become more difficult to escape. “It is not only the border patrols and the police in China,” he added, “but paying brokers has become more expensive […].”
Current prices ranging upwards of 15 000 USD are reflective of the rising sums required for bribes as a direct result of Kim Jong Un’s orders to severely punish those who try to escape,. Kim also explained that those who are being caught do not necessarily end up in a concentration camp, but can potentially face execution in public as a warning to others. Even students are forced to watch, so show them the gravity of the regime’s threats.
When asked by a member of the audience on his opinion of the future of the Kim Jong Un regime and the attitudes of high-ranking cadre, he answered that even high ranking officials in the North Korean government are well aware of conditions in foreign countries and prefer to work overseas. They also know what South Korea looks like and enjoy foreign TV shows, but they are fearful as well. They are wary of further nuclear tests and are losing hope in their own country, he concluded.
Kim was also asked whether North Korea’s upper classes are attempting to change the state or if escaping the country is their only goal. He emphasized that although a complicated question, he is certain that many people in the upper classes have lost faith in Kim Jong Un. He added, “Many people would like to resist, but it is just too complicated and dangerous […] Even though there have been movements like that from the mid 90s, it is just impossible to do anything against the state today […] there is a reason why Kim Jong Un has his own personal army of approximately 70,000 soldiers.”
During the event, Kim Hyeong Soo also gave a detailed speech about North Korea’s isolation and how it can exist in today’s world. “Although everybody has eyes, ears and a mouth, they are not allowed to choose what to see, what to hear and what to say,” he said. The state controls all media outlets, but outside media continues to infiltrate the country’s borders as North Koreans smuggle it in and tamper with dials to receive overseas broadcasts. But this has done little to catapult the nation out of isolation, “because although they enjoy foreign programs, they are also afraid of being caught […] and are well aware of the risks,” he explained.
Kim also shared a personal incident in regards to the topic. “North Koreans also enjoy K-Pop […],” he said. “My son was caught with some K-Pop and I had to bribe certain people with very expensive cigarettes in order to get my him back.”
He concluded that the country and its entire people are imprisoned. “They can’t even think with a free mind […] they are only allowed to move within the country with specific permission, and if they are caught without it, they will be punished […]. The people can’t express their wishes freely […],” Kim lamented. He concluded his speech by emphasizing that North Korea should be pumped with information from the outside, noting, “They deserve to live in today’s world.”
Kim’s speech was followed by a presentation from Charles von Denkowski, a researcher with the Transitional Justice Working Group. Since 2012, Denkowski has worked on a project focusing on state security in North Korea and has made it his goal to shed light on the crimes of the regime, commenting that, “It is important to understand why the state authorities commit such grave crimes.”
For his project, he has interviewed several North Korean defectors who previously worked for state security, police and other governmental authorities to gain further insight into the control apparatus of the North Korean regime. He explained that the security architecture was founded in 1973 and its predecessor organization emerged with a head office in the capital and approximately 30,000 to 40,000 full-time employees, while at the same time having regional headquarters in each province.
Denkowski explained that the primary responsibility of the security apparatus is not only to secure the leadership, but also to stifle dissent through massive surveillance of all citizens in the country, while also monitoring North Korean workers abroad. He emphasized that the state not only seeks out defectors, but also personnel working for the NGOs that support them in the border region of China, and is responsible for targeted killings and abductions.
“If a person is being approached by the state security in order to work for them, they are forced to do so, there is absolutely no other way. If they do not accept the offer, they will be imprisoned themselves […] the North Korean state security [apparatus] has absolutely no limits in their surveillance of the population,” Denkowski added.
During the film festival, video greetings from South Korea were presented. Among others, Lee Jung Hoon (South Korea’s ambassador for North Korean Human Rights) emphasized that he is deeply thankful for the particular interest of the German people on the North Korean human rights crisis and that it is overwhelming and important, as Germany “has been through the pain of division and the process of reunification.”
He added that “there are no human rights [in North Korea], and the regime further isolates itself and focuses on weapons development instead.” Kim Seok Eoo, former vice minister of the Ministry of Unification, also sent his greetings and is convinced that Germany, due to its past experience, can be a significant game changer in regards to North Korea.
The film festival continued until Oct 11th at the University of Heidelberg and University of Trier, supported by local student societies of the Giordano-Bruno-Foundation. The festival will be continue to be held on an annual basis in Germany.