Experts examine North Korean puzzle at Princeton human rights conference
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Experts examine North Korean puzzle at Princeton human rights conference

NORTH Korea’s Winter Olympics manoeuvres may have sparked talk of progress in the peninsula but experts are urging caution, saying reconciliation remains doubtful despite the apparent thawing of North-South ties.

Such advice has come to be expected, regardless the extent of the overture by the nuclear-armed power, given its leader’s erratic behaviour and repeated warnings of war to the US.

It also formed the basis of former CIA deputy division chief for Korea Bruce Klingner’s argument last weekend when he said there was no blanket approach to tackling the isolated regime, and there likely never will be.

“There’s no magic Rubik’s Cube solution,” he said of the American response to North Korea.

“Too often, there’s debate between isolation and engagement. That’s like saying, ‘Do you use a hammer or a screwdriver to build a house?’ You use both!”

Klingner was part of a panel of experts invited to speak at “The North Korean Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together” conference organized by the Princeton for North Korean Human Rights (PNKHR), a Princeton University student group. The group was founded in September 2011 to spread awareness of the human rights violations allegedly taking place in North Korea today.

During the conference, students, professors, and human rights activists gathered to discuss different methods and technologies to tackle the North Korean human rights issue. The conversation ranged from utilising advanced technology for documenting killing and burial sites to individual accounts of personal victimisation under the North Korean regime.

Apart from Klingner, other featured speakers included Sarah Son from Transitional Justice Working Group and North Korean defector Kim Hyeong Soo.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the conference:

The international community has done some, but not enough for North Korean human rights

North Korean political prison camps have existed twice as long as Stalin’s gulags, and 12 times as long as Nazi concentration camps, Klingner said.

“The human rights issue in North Korea is often downplayed by the US government to create an atmosphere conducive for advocating for nuclear negotiations,” Klingner said.

Klingner acknowledged, however, that in recent years, there has been a greater focus on human rights.

“In 2016, [then President Barack] Obama finally sanctioned [Kim Jong Un and 14 other senior North Korean officials] for human rights violations, but that administration was really forced into doing that by a deadline imposed by Congress.”


Klingner praised Trump’s speeches that highlighted the oppressive nature of the North Korean regime. Source: Reuters/Win McNamee

On multiple occasions, speakers referenced a landmark report by a United Nations commission of inquiry in 2014, which documents in great detail the wide-ranging array of abuses committed in North Korea, including torture, brainwashing, forced abortions and infanticide, and hard labour in political prison camps.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump: An unlikely catalyst for reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula

Commenting on the current administration, Klingner praised Donald Trump’s November 2017 speech to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea and his recent State of the Union address, both of which highlighted the oppressive nature of the North Korean regime. Klingner also stood by Vice-President Mike Pence’s efforts to counter North Korea’s propaganda campaign at the Winter Games by bringing Otto Warmbier’s father to meet with North Korean escapees in South Korea.

Multi-faceted approach to North Korea is necessary, all possibilities should be explored

Sarah Son, from the Transitional Justice Working Group, discussed mechanisms for transitional justice, or the processes associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses.

“Rigorous documentation helps establish a robust process of justice and reconciliation,” said Son, pointing out that technology like Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), which creates a 3-D map revealing subtle changes in typography, can be paired with satellites capable of mapping vegetation to detect graves that are invisible to the naked eye.

Klingner, meanwhile, said deterrence, containment, increasing pressure, leaving the door open for diplomatic discussions, increasing overt and covert information operation, and pushing for human rights are all necessary methods at different points in time.

Take North Korea’s overture at the Olympics with a grain of salt

North Korea’s attempt to rebrand itself at the Winter Games with Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong and its army of 230 female cheerleaders marks the elder Kim’s first foray into the charm offensives that were frequently used by Kim Jung-il.

Klingner, however, was sceptical about the effectiveness of this inter-Korean reconciliation engagement.


Klingner addresses the crowd at the conference. Source: Sophia Cai

“That’s not to say we shouldn’t try it again,” Klingner said, “but to those who have euphoric expectations, I’ll point out all the failed negotiations and previous attempts at using sports and culture, which didn’t change the regime’s behaviour.”

SEE ALSO: Two Koreas united for Winter Olympics is a small but important step toward peace

Young people are on the front lines of change

Since human rights groups such as Son’s Transitional Justice Working Group and Kim’s Stepping Stone are in desperate need of technical expertise, Son urged students and recent graduates to think about how their skills can be useful to human rights NGOs.

“Learn, engage, and advocate,” Klingner said, “For decades [during Apartheid], South Africa wasn’t allowed to participate in the Olympics, and there were boycotts against companies invested in South Africa.

“Where are the protests against North Korean human rights issues? Where’s Hollywood? Where are Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore getting arrested outside the Chinese embassy demanding for government to take action?”

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