A Closer Look at North Korea’s Deadly Regime

(COMMENTARY) While the world’s eyes nervously shift from one international global threat to another, these days China and Iran are under intense scrutiny. But North Korea is seldom out of focus either, and for good reason.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is ruled by Kim Jong-un, whose prideful ownership of a nuclear arsenal tops the list of his evil accomplishments.

A close second is his horrifying human rights record. A nearly unbelievable catalog of Kim’s abuses appears in the 2018 U.S. State Department Human RightsReport

“Extrajudicial killings; disappearances; arbitrary arrests and detentions; torture; political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh, life threatening, and included forced and compulsory labor; unfair trials; rigid controls over many aspects of citizen’s lives, including arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence, and denial of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; denial of the ability to choose their government; coerced abortion; trafficking in persons; severe restrictions on worker rights, including denial of the right to organize independent unions and domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the re-education system.  . . . "

Add to that inventory the fact that some 100,000 North Koreans continue to suffer in in Kim’s notorious prisons and concentration camps. And as for religious freedom? We’ll get to that in a moment.

But first a report about another little-known and unexpected DPRK target of abuse: its own military.

When we think of North Korean armed forces, most of us envision a formidable parade of clean-cut, perfectly uniformed soldiers marching in lock-step. However, like the “Potemkin Villages” a few tourists manage to see, those tidy uniforms are nothing more than window dressing for the bankrupt regime.

In early May, the 16th Annual North Korea Freedom Week took place in Washington DC, where I attended two briefings on Capitol Hill. Testimony was provided by defectors who had somehow managed to find their way into South Korea. Two speakers in particular poignantly described the severe mistreatment they once endured. 

Choi Yu-jin, a beautiful young woman, had served as an army nurse in Kim Jong-un’s Supreme Guard Command in Pyongyang until she desperately fled to freedom in 2016. She described – with many tears – the sexual abuse, physical injury, and shame – including rapes by senior officers and coerced abortions – she and other women she served with experienced.

Jo Young Hwa was a 1st Lieutenant in a border control battalion. He was “deployed to the border city of Hoeryong, where he was often ordered to participate in smuggling and in illegal trade with China.” This included ferrying drugs across the border to help raise private funds for the Kim family.  

Hunger is no stranger to North Korea. Other former military officers also spoke of their own malnourishment, stealing food and even – under orders – butchering stolen cows from farmers to lessen the troops’ raging hunger. 

A late 2014 article in the Telegraph confirms those shocking reports:  

“Even though it has the largest army per capita in the world, North Korea’s conscripts lead difficult lives. Images and video footage smuggled out of the country by “citizen journalists”…show junior conscripts foraging for food….As well as undergoing intensive training, the military provides a large source of cheap labour when the regime requires it.”

All the speakers agreed on one important point: despite propaganda to the contrary, those soldiers were not serving North Korea at all. “We were serving the Kim family – exclusively.”  

In fact, Kim Jong Un is more than DPRK’s “Dear Leader.” He is compulsorily revered as a “deity.”

Savagely enforced devotion to North Korea’s “Dear Leader” is practiced in a quasi-religious counterfeit of Christianity, called Juche. Although the North Korean regime denies that Juche is a religion, it demands absolute worship.

I spoke to Suzanne Scholte, Chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, who organized the briefings I attended, about Kim’s “deification.”  

"Kim Il Sung, his grandfather, was the founder of North Korea. He saw the power of the Christian faith and decided to use its constructs for his own purposes," she explained. "He set himself up as a god, perverting Christianity’s Holy Trinity, with Kim Jong-il (his son) as the Christ, and Juche as the Holy Spirit."

If it is known that you’re a Christian, you will most certainly be tortured and likely executed, or sent to prison camp to suffer a slower death. We know from testimonies that if you even confess that you’ve came in contact with a Christian, you’ll likely be imprisoned.
— Susanne Scholte, Chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition

With that “trinity” in mind and its third “god” enthroned, it’s no wonder that, for many years, religious freedom experts have identified North Korea the world’s No. 1 persecutor of Christians. 

I asked Ms. Scholte if she believes that is an accurate assessment. Yes, she told me, because the persecution is relentless. 

“First, if it is known that you’re a Christian, you will most certainly be tortured and likely executed, or sent to prison camp to suffer a slower death. We know from testimonies that if you even confess that you’ve came in contact with a Christian, you’ll likely be imprisoned.”

A second reason, she explained, is because Kim Il-Song, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un have set themselves up as gods, and therefore a belief in the Christian God is perceived as a direct attack on them, and on Juche itself.

“Third,” she concluded, “Is the sheer number of Christians being held in political prison camps, along with those who have been executed for their faith.” 

Indeed, USCIRF reports that as many as 50,000 Christians are incarcerated, comprising close to half of the country’s entire prison population. 

Meanwhile, security against defection has tightened in recent years on both sides of the DPRK-China border. Human Rights Watch reports.

“China has also expanded CCTV surveillance on the border and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border. The North Korean government systematically detains and punishes all those caught trying to leave the country without permission, as well as those apprehended and forcibly returned by China.” 

It seems, however, that China doesn’t return them all. Recent reports claim that China running an enormous sex-trafficking network, enslaving and otherwise abusing North Korean girls and women they’ve trapped near the border. This vile enterprise nets China some $105M annually.  

“Tens of thousands of North Korean women and girls — some as young as 9 — are being trafficked into sexual slavery in China as they try to flee poverty and oppression in their homeland…” 

North Korea’s alliance with China is a deadly arrangement for a number of tragic reasons. But another DPRK partnership is even more dangerous. 

It has long been reported that DPRK and Iran collaborate on nuclear weapons technology. According to Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies,  

“Iran is unwilling to submit to a years-long freeze of its military nuclear program as stipulated by the July 2015 Vienna Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). North Korea is ready and able to provide a clandestine means of circumventing the deal, which would allow the Iranians to covertly advance that nuclear program.”

This, of course, brings us back full circle to the world’s worst global threats. China, North Korea and Iran are at the top of list. 

However, Iran and DPRK’s nuclear partnership is in a lethal league of its own. Both are ruled by vicious despots. Both continue to test ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear payloads. Both vow to rain death upon their enemies. 

Is the world really watching?