Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights

A Call for Aggressive Media Campaign regarding DPRK Prison Camps

Academic journal article Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights

A Call for Aggressive Media Campaign regarding DPRK Prison Camps

Article excerpt

¶1 Shin Dong-hyuk considered himself lucky when a prison guard chopped off the tip of his finger. Born and raised an inmate of a North Korean prison camp, Shin had not expected to receive a punishment other than execution for breaking a sewing machine, albeit by accident.1 Later, Shin got even luckier. In 2005, he was able to successfully escape the prison camp, becoming the only known North Korean defector who was born in prison.

¶2 Most would hope to believe that "gulags," the mass incarceration systems used by Socialist countries to suppress anti-state political factions, are a thing of the past. However, unbeknownst to many, their dark legacy lives on in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea ("DPRK" or "North Korea") in the form of kwan-li-so, an extensive system of state-authorized concentration camps.

¶3 It is estimated that nearly 200,000 people are being held in kwan-li-so and related systems, often without due process and in brutal conditions, in flagrant violation of international human rights conventions.2 Over 400,000 prisoners have died in these camps over the past thirty years, from causes including starvation, death by labor, torture, executions, and more.3

¶4 This issue is particularly noteworthy today, as political tensions mount in the Korean peninsula and beyond. As recently as January 2014, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un repeatedly declared a state of war with South Korea and threatened to attack the U.S. with atomic weapons.4 North Korea remains one of the most militarily menacing nations in the world, and therefore is subject to vast media coverage about its military schemes, weapon development, and war threats. Meanwhile, however, little attention has been paid to its serious domestic issues, including its failure to comply with international human rights standards.

¶5 In particular, the dearth of scholarship addressing North Korean prison camps is disproportionate to the gravity of the issue. Such notable silence may be a result of general diplomatic and political sensitivities towards North Korea and fear of military retaliation. Moreover, an aggravating factor is the Kim regime's notorious policy of secrecy.

¶6 This note is based on the notion that raising awareness is the first step towards redress and setting the record straight about what is and is not acceptable in the eyes of the international community. While these "soft measures" may seem modest in light of the imminent need to stall the mass detainment, suffering, and deaths in North Korea, they are also precisely what are necessary to serve as a catalyst for further action.

¶7 Applying political pressure on the North Korean government through extensive and proactive media campaign implemented by the most powerful United Nations branches is an unprecedented approach. Being a novel agenda, it does carry some risks, such as the possibility of eliciting no response from North Korea, or, worse yet, provoking a negative response whereby tensions will heighten. However, the aspiration is that a long-term change in awareness and attitude towards the preservation and dignity of human life will nudge North Korea in the right direction. As the international community increasingly participates in discussions about the North Korean prison systems, it will apply pressure on North Korea to increase transparency in its criminal prosecutions and detainment as well as compliance with the customary international laws governing the protection of human rights.

¶8 It is important that the media coverage of North Korean prisoners arouse sympathy among the audience. This is because any media campaign must inspire action and mobilize a movement toward meaningful change in order to be effective. However, what is more important is that the coverage be a respectable, objective, and factually accurate narrative, rather than one that merely sensationalizes the issue.

¶9 The media campaign must have the long-term goal of establishing a universal norm for how humans treat each other. …

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