Interview with European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea

As one of the few remaining communist states and one of the most secretive countries in the world, North Korea is a subject of global media fascination. However due to it being so closed off, there is very little concrete information about what is doing on inside the country. Although there is information available through the stories of North Korean defectors, it is impossible to get access to much real evidence of the various human rights atrocities that have taken place under the North Korean regime. Recently, we had the opportunity to talk to European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea who are aiming to do just that. We talked to them about the current human rights situation in North Korea, media coverage of the country and how they plan to work to improve the situation for North Koreans living inside and outside the country.

Hi first of all could you give us a quick introduction of yourself and your organisation.

Hello, my name is Michael Glendinning. I am one of the two co-founders of the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK). EAHRNK is a pan-European movement set up to research about and advocate for human rights in North Korea.  We (myself and Shirley Lee) formed the organisation in early January this year. We have held 3 events already with plans for more in the future.

What are the main aims of your organisation?

We have three main goals: to raise awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea, to improve media reporting on North Korea, and to encourage re-assessment of how we can engage with North Korea.

Aside from that, we also want to help create empowerment among the North Korean refugee community. With more empowerment, North Koreans outside of the country can start the process of changing their country.

North Korea has become known for its Soviet Gulag-style prison camps. How many people are estimated to currently be held in these camps and why do they get imprisoned?

It’s hard to tell how many people are inside the camps. I’ve seen estimates of up to 250,000. From the research already done on the subject, I think somewhere around 180,000 – 200,000 would be a fair estimate. Of course, we’ll never truly know because the North Korean regime denies that they exist.

People are imprisoned in the camps for a whole variety of reasons. Usually, they are accused of economic crimes or treason-related crimes.

Many of the people on these camps face terrible treatment. What are some of the most common abuses suffered by prisoners?

I don’t think there are common abuses. Each person has a different experience of life inside the camp: some are tortured, some are deprived of food and medical care, some people have been executed, some have experienced harsh working conditions, and so on. It’s hard to point to common abuses. Each person has a horrific story or experience to tell.

Are there any particular areas of human rights or particular groups that your organisation wants to focus on?

We will try to focus on as many areas as our resources allow us to cover. The more resources (donations) we have, the more areas we can research.

Your first fundraiser is a poetry and music night. How much freedom do North Koreans have to express themselves through art?

Artists rarely have the freedom to express themselves. If your readers are interested in North Korean art, Mr. Jang Jin-sung will be releasing a book in English in the future. Mr. Jang was a poet in North Korea.

Has the transition to a new leader over the last few years made things easier or more difficult for the average North Korean?

It’s really hard to answer that question. I think it’s still too early to properly assess the impact of a new regime on North Korea/North Koreans. Reports have suggested that human rights are more heavily infringed, but with fewer North Koreans escaping from the country due to a clampdown, the number of sources reporting on recent human rights/humanitarian issues have dropped.

The leadership of the country is very keen to cut itself off from the rest of the world as much as possible. How do you and other organisations who are trying to help with or research human rights get round that?

It’s difficult to research information about human rights because of the closed nature of the country. Nearly all research is done with victims of abuse that have escaped the country. There are a few stories that manage to escape about human rights but not enough. In order to research about current abuses, we need to break the information blockade to let North Koreans know more about human rights and to let them know that we are interested in meeting them. If we can achieve that, then it should help with getting more sources inside the country to report on the current conditions.

The Korean War and the separation of the two countries divided a lot of families across the peninsula. Recently Pyongyang agreed to talks about the possibility of reuniting these families. Do you think it’s likely that anything will actually take place?

Too difficult to say. I won’t believe it until I see it actually happening.

Finally, overall do you think conditions for everyday North Koreans have improved or got worse over the last 20 years and do you think they will improve in the near future?

In terms of economic empowerment, I think undoubtedly things have gotten better. North Koreans are far more economically free than they have probably ever been. This has made it easier for some North Koreans to provide for their families. On the other hand, human right abuses have almost certainly increased. We’ve seen some utterly horrific examples of human rights abuses over the past 20 years: the famine, increase in numbers entering prison camps, and so on. I’d like to think the worst is over, but I think the situation in North Korea will get far worse before it gets better. The major function of our organisation is to help prevent human right abuses. Hopefully we can help improve the situation in North Korea.

If you are interested in finding out more about EAHRNK or to donate or volunteer you can visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to talk to us!

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  • CJux

    ” From the research already done on the subject, I think somewhere around 180,000 – 200,000 would be a fair estimate.”

    Holy shit, that’s like the entire population of my hometown!

    Thank you for the interview, it was very interesting.

    • Mike Glendinning

      That figure is currently possibly on the high side. Some recent reports have suggested it’s dropped down to 80 – 100,000. Either way, a huge problem.