"WHEN I WAS 10 years old, we were put to work digging clay and constructing a building. And there were dozens of kids, and while digging the ground, it collapsed. And they died. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents."
That is one of many horrific stories told by Kang Chol Hwan, a North Korean now resident in the South. As a child, Mr. Kang was imprisoned for 10 years, along with his entire family, in Yodok, one of Pyongyang's most notorious forced-labor camps. They suffered from terrible beatings, starvation, deprivation and a work regime that rivals anything designed by Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. Nor were they unique. According to human rights groups in Seoul, some 200,000 North Koreans are now imprisoned in similar camps scattered across the country.
They may soon be joined by several dozen more inmates. Last week, Chinese officials detained a group of North Korean refugees who, having escaped their own country, were boarding fishing boats that would take them to safety in South Korea and Japan. If the Chinese behave as they have in the past, they will send all of them back. If the North Koreans behave as they have in the past, the returnees will then be immediately imprisoned in camps like Yodok, if they are lucky. In North Korea, defection is punishable with seven years of forced labor -- or execution.
Many people will be complicit in these deaths: the North Korean regime above all, but also the Chinese government, which appears to be playing a double game on North Korea, cooperating with Western diplomats at times and working behind their backs at others. The South Korean government bears some responsibility too: Why has Kim Dae Jung, outgoing South Korean president and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for human rights promotion, not taken up this human rights issue on his doorstep? Perhaps it is because the realities of life in impoverished North Korea conflict with the new, more favorable image of the country that the South Korean government wishes to promulgate in keeping with its "sunshine policy" of gradual thaw.
Elsewhere, the response has been anemic at best. Since refugees first began coming over the border in the mid-1990s, the Chinese, signatories to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, have refused to give the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to them, on the spurious grounds that they are "economic" and not political refugees. Although the UNHCR has made representations to the Chinese government, the agency has mostly soft-pedaled the problem, failing to list North Koreans in its refugee statistics, refusing to use the tougher weapons in its legal arsenal. The United States has done no better: Neither human rights violations inside North Korea nor refugees from there have ever been an American priority on the Korean Peninsula.
There may, of course, be more than one hidden agenda here: After all, a massive exodus from North Korea could destroy its regime, just as a similar refugee exodus once helped destroy East Germany's. And, rhetoric aside, nobody -- not South Korea, not China and not the United States -- is really prepared for that. Only the North Koreans would benefit.