THE North Korean regime’s obsession with racial purity has led to the killing of disabled infants and forced abortions for women suspected of conceiving their babies by Chinese fathers, according to a growing body of testimony from defectors.
The latest description of Kim Jong-il’s policy of state eugenics came from a North Korean doctor, Ri Kwang-chol, who escaped last year and told a forum in Seoul that babies with deformities were killed soon after birth.
“There are no people with physical defects in North Korea,” Ri said. Such babies were put to death by medical staff and buried quickly, he claimed. He denied ever committing the act himself.
Exiles in Seoul said Ri was now keeping a low profile, fearing retaliation by North Korean agents, who have assassinated foes in the South Korean capital before. But his account added to the evidence that the Kim family dictatorship is founded on mystical notions of Korean racial superiority rather than Marxism — a reality that explains its deepening estrangement from China.
Along the 850-mile border, North Korean women refugees have emerged with stories that speak of the regime’s preoccupation with “deviant” sexual relations and its predisposition to violence in dealing with them.
One such account came from a 30-year-old woman who calls herself Han Myong-suk. She escaped twice and reached a safe haven in an undisclosed third country within the past year thanks to Helping Hands Korea, an American Christian group.
She said she was sold by traffickers to a Chinese farmer near the Great Wall, and was five months pregnant by him when she was caught by the Chinese police and deported back to North Korea.
There she was held in one of three female detention centres, which have been identified in the towns of Sinuju, Onsong and Chongin. Her account was taken down by Tim Peters, an American Christian activist who founded the group.
“I defied the order to abort the foetus the prison authorities contemptuously called a ‘Chinese Chink’ and was badly beaten and kicked in my belly by a guard. His name was Hwang Myong-dong,” she said.
One week later, said Han, she was led to a prison clinic “where in a most blunt manner they extracted the dead child from my body”.
Han survived the depraved conditions of a labour camp for several years before her release and eventual second escape. Her story represented important corroboration of a practice that was first detailed in a report in 2003 for the pressure group
US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea that was compiled by David Hawk, a human rights investigator.
Hawk found “extreme phenomena of repression . . . unique to North Korea” and concluded that its regime practised “ethnic infanticide”. He traced eight female witnesses who gave distressing accounts of child murder. One took place at the women’s detention centre in Sinuju, a border zone visible across the Yalu River from the Chinese city of Dandong.
Choi Yong-hwa, 28, described how she was made to accompany a heavily pregnant woman, who had also been returned across the bridge from China, to a clinic where doctors induced labour. After the infant was born, Choi said she and other women stood by in disbelief as it was suffocated with a wet towel. The mother passed out.
A 66-year-old grandmother also testified to witnessing the deaths of babies at Sinuiju, two of them healthy boys born at full term. The first belonged to a 28-year-old woman called Lim. The witness was holding the newborn in a blanket when a guard grabbed him by a leg and threw him into a large box lined with plastic.
A total of seven babies — five born prematurely after labour was induced — were left to die in the box. Two days later the premature babies were dead. The two full-term boys were still blinking, although their lips had turned blue. A guard battered them to death with forceps, the witness said.
At the Nongpo centre in Chongjin, witnesses saw the “children of betrayers” tossed into a wicker basket, covered in plastic sheeting and left to die. One woman watched the killing of seven babies, taken from their mothers and left face-down on the ground within their view.
After two days the guards smothered any that were still alive. “Guards would say the mothers had to see and hear their babies die because they were Chinese,” the report said.
The Korean Bar Association says that 58% of defectors interviewed by its lawyers have testified to seeing or hearing of coerced abortions in the North Korean prison system.
The aid group Médecins Sans Frontières left North Korea in 1998, citing among its reasons the regime’s refusal to grant access to so-called “9-27 camps”, where sick and disabled children were dumped.
The apparent contradiction between the humanitarian group’s statement and the recent claims by Ri may be explained by the time that elapsed between them. In the same period hardliners have come into the ascendant, throwing out almost all foreign aid workers, tightening up political controls and intensifying repression as the regime set out on its path of confrontation over nuclear weapons.
“It’s vital to recognise that juche — the dogma of self- reliance — is not a theory but a cult and that Kim is worshipped as the leader of a religion,” said a veteran western diplomat who negotiated with the North Koreans on 19 visits. “These Koreans genuinely believe they are a master race and that the peninsula will be united under the rule of the Kim dynasty.”
Behind the facade of a Supreme People’s Assembly, a presidium, a cabinet and the Korean Workers’ party, North Korea operates as a one-man military dictatorship founded on clan rule, blood ties and deification of the leader. Kim is falsely said to have been born on the sacred slopes of Mount Paektu.
This is used to legitimise behaviour by agents of the state which human rights activists believe will one day form the basis of indictments for crimes against humanity.
Defectors have even told of human experiments to test Kim’s chemical weapons, one giving an account of prisoners tethered to a hillside and then gassed. Unlike the child killings, though, this story has never been verified by more than one witness.
A new study by three researchers at Seoul’s Korean Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims surveyed the experience of 30 defectors among the 7,400 people who have since found refuge in the south.
All had been subjected to torture, both physical and psychological, at the hands of Kim’s military security agency. Again, one torture centre was identified at Sinuju. More than half were punished merely for having Chinese currency and more than half said they experienced sexual violence.
They reported beatings, electrocution, submersion in water and the “doghouse torture” in which the victim is contorted into an unnatural and agonising posture.
“This study strongly suggests the need for international organisations such as the United Nations to put an end to the return of defectors from China,” the researchers said. China has refused to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees any access to the border.
Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who helped with famine relief in North Korea in the 1990s and has since become a campaigner for regime change, said the nuclear crisis offered a chance to end Kim’s rule.
“Nobody cared,” Vollertsen said last week, “North Korea was not in the news. Then came 9/11 and the Iraq war and North Korea was called one member of the ‘axis of evil’ — it’s now been proved to belong there.”