International sporting events always seem to put North Korea back in the globe. Media reports in 2010 showed the North Korean soccer team being humiliated by government officials and crowds in their country after having had to drop out of the soccer world cup in South Africa without a point. Rumours had it that the team’s manager was forced to become a construction worker and the full team was subjected to a “six-hour barrage of criticism” on a stage at the People’s Palace of Culture in front of 400 government officials, students, and journalists.
This week, North Korea’s Kim Un Guk set a world record in the men’s 62 kilo weightlifting event in the London Olympics. Our imagination (and ignorance of the country) soon starts picturing images of an athlete being forced to train in hardship, under a dictatorial regime that controls every move he makes. But then he says: “There are no secrets. The reason how I won the gold medal is down to the help of the Great Leader Kim Jong-Il and the Great Comrade Kim Jong-Un”. And the world just doesn’t know what to think.
To make matters more mystifying for us uninformed observers, while North Korea keeps on adding medals to the tally, a committee supporting North Korean human rights activist Kim Young-hwan is considering lodging an international complaint against Chinese authorities over alleged torture. Kim Young-hwan was detained for 114 days and purportedly subjected to “acts of cruelty” during his questioning. When asked whether the “acts of cruelty” involved physical pressure or things such as sleep deprivation, he answered, “I can say there were both.”
But Kim knows he’s no fish in troubled waters. If he gets into specifics and digs any deeper, in his own words “the North Korean human rights issue will get buried beneath the Chinese human rights issue”. And he is right.
Researcher and activist Kim Young-hwan travelled to China to conduct research related to North Korean democratisation and human rights. In his most recent publication, ‘Post Kim Jong Il’ (available in Korean), Kim made clear his support for China and reacted critically to other countries in the region and the international community at large for failing to assess the country’s development process correctly. So, one could then assume that the Chinese government does not have any grounds to detain Kim on. As such, fears are growing that the Chinese Ministry of State Security may have been asked by the North Korean authorities to arrest and interrogate Kim in their stead.
One never knows.
Both China and North Korea are a mystery to most
To North Korea, Kim, has become somewhat of a black sheep. Allegedly having been asked by Kim Il Sung to bring about a revolution in South Korea during a secret meeting in Pyongyang, Kim has, instead, become a champion for democratisation and human rights. North Korea and China, are both unhappy about this change of heart. But, for North Korea in particular, this new attitude has made Kim Il Sung and his political machinery lose face. Is this sufficient reason for observers to speculate about North Korean involvement? Possibly. But again, at this stage, we can only hypothesise (and hope not to get trapped in the wave of emotions that the imagination of the media tends to stir when it comes these two Asian (communist) countries). What is true, though, is that Kim’s position is not an enviable one.
When two players of this magnitude are holding you prisoner one of your best moves may well be to stir the Orientalist – to revert back to Edward Said’s very acclaimed and equally criticised term – imagination of international media outlets and hope that it plays the human rights card to push for your release.
What is the human rights card?
Human rights is a sensitive issue, and one that will always stir controversy. Many Asian countries have long been claiming that cultural and socio-economic differences among countries render the notion of ‘universal’ standards’ for the protection of human rights undesirable, if not impossible. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahatir Mohamed insisted in many occasions that developing countries should have their own human rights standards suitable to their level of development and cultural values.
The Head of the Chinese delegation at the World Conference on Human Rights in Viena (1993), Liu Huaqiu said that “to wantonly accuse another country of abuse of human rights and impose the human rights criteria of one’s own country or region on other countries or regions is tantamount to an infringement upon the sovereignty of other countries and interference in the latter’s internal affairs, which could result in political instability and social unrest in other countries”. More than twenty years later, things have not changed much and the Chinese government continues to argue for a “wider definition” of the term human rights and continue to be judged by the international community and exposed by international (and at times national) media on issues such as capital punishment, the one-child policy, the political status of Tibet, lack of religious freedom, discrimination against ethnic minorities and rural workers, etc. Although freedom of speech , of the press, and of assembly are guaranteed in Article 35 of the constitution, the press is collectively owned by the government and therefore, permits little private resistance or criticism (as seen in The Anonymous Chinese blogger and the Jasmine revolution).
North Korea has us all constantly speculating. On the one hand, we have the official government position expressed by the Korean Central News Agency that states that North Korea has no human rights issue, because its socialist system was chosen by the people and serves them faithfully. On the other hand, we have stories told by refugees and defectors on concentration camps, slave labour, torture and executions. The international consensus is to condemn the Pyongyang regime, but countries like China, Sudan and Venezuela insist that North Korea has made considerable progress in protecting human rights and that the country should be supported by the members of the international community instead of being accused on mere speculation and false reports.
The argument on human rights will always continue and the media will continue to feed us stories that will enrage us, move us, irritate us. But Kim Young-hwa, like many other activists (Julian Assange in England, for instance) , will remain trapped, detained, pressured, constrained by either China or by North Korea or both. But what can we do? What can Kim Young-hwan do other than let the media circus play its game, use the human rights card to play each country against each other and against the international community, make enough noise, cross his fingers, run as soon as he gets a chance and perhaps, start blogging anonymously.
- Torture and “Public Security”: Kim Young-hwan’s Captivity and Sino-ROK Relations (sinonk.com)
- 120,000 North Koreans to work in China (chinadailymail.com)
- Tremendous changes in North Korea in response to China’s success (chinadailymail.com)
- More changes in North Korea due to China’s influence (chinadailymail.com)