By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
SEOUL/PYONGYANG (BosNewsLife)– An international Christian advocacy group welcomed Wednesday, August 5, North Korea’s decision to release American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling but warned that at least 200,000 religious and political prisoners remain behind bars in labor camps across the isolated Communist nation, where executions of inmates continue.
Well-informed Open Doors said it was pleased that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il issued a special pardon to the two female reporters, a move described by the North Korean News Agency as a sign of the country’s “humanitarian and peace-loving policy.”
Their return came after former U.S. President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to the capital Pyongyang to help secure their release. Ling and Lee had been found guilty of allegedly entering North Korea illegally across the Chinese border in March and later sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. They reportedly were being held at what officials described as a “guest house” during their confinement.
However Open Doors cautioned there is “no pardon” for thousands of Christians and other prisoners in North Korea. The country, it said, “is suspected of detaining more political and religious prisoners than any other country in the world at least 200,000, including 40,000 to 60,000 Christians.”
At least several prisoners are believed to have been executed. In one of the latest reported incidents North Korea publicly executed a Christian woman last month for distributing Bibles, The Associated Press news agency reported, citing information it received from South Korean activists.
Ri Hyon Ok, 33, was reportedly also accused of spying for South Korea and the United States and organizing dissidents. She was said to have been executed in the northwestern city of Ryongchon near the border with China on June 16, according to a report from an alliance of several dozen anti-North Korean groups.
Ri’s parents, husband and three children were sent to a political prison camp in the northeastern city of Hoeryong the following day. “This is the shocking reality of what takes place inside this Communist country where there is no basic human rights. One colleague of mine who has traveled to North Korea described North Korea “as an on-going nightmare,” said Jerry Dykstra, a spokesperson for Open Doors USA.
North Koreans can be imprisoned “for virtually any state-defined crime such as owning a Bible, making a negative comment about the regime, failing to have a picture of Kim Il-Sung in their house and traveling to China to look for food and freedom,” he added.
Dykstra said Kim Jong-Il’s government keeps its citizens in its grip through “systematic use of torture, public and private executions, brutal imprisonment, lack of due process of law, starvation and even forced abortions.”
North Korea has been known to arrest not only a suspected dissident but also three generations of his or her family, rights groups say. This year North Korea was re-designated by the U.S. State Department as one of eight “Countries of Particular Concern” for its severe religious freedom violations. The Open Doors World Watch List of what it views as “the worst persecutors of Christians” has ranked the hermit country as the worst offender of religious freedom for seven years in a row.
Open Doors said former prisoner Kim Young Soon testified about the situation earlier this year during the annual ‘North Korea Freedom Week’ in April before a group of Congressmen in Washington, D.C. The North Korean refugee is one of the few survivors of the infamous Yodok political prison camp. She said she was thrown into prison for nine years on a trumped up charge of divulging a secret about Kim Jong-Il’s marriage. Her parents and four children were also imprisoned.
“In the Yodok prison camp, her parents died of malnutrition, an eldest son drowned. Her husband was shot to death in 1970 while
attempting to cross the border to escape from North Korea. Mrs. Kim’s youngest son was arrested in 1988 while attempting to cross the border and was put in prison for four years. He was executed in 1993 by a firing squad because he tried to escape from North Korea again,” Open Doors said.
Kim escaped from North Korea and resettled in South Korea and has made it her life’s mission to expose the cruelty and truth about the prison camps in North Korea.
She testified: “I entered prison camp No. 15 at Yodok. I spent nine years there; treated like an animal. What made me feel most mortified was the fact that my father, mother, daughter and three sons, who were innocent of any crime, were also sent to Yodok, all because of me.” Kim said that she and her family members were “forced to engage in heavy labor day and night. On August 5, 1971, I lost my father. I had to wrap his body in a straw mat since there were no coffins in Yodok. Before long, my mother also died of malnutrition. Unbearable sadness cut my heart to pieces.”
Kim said that still with tears in her eyes, she was “struck by another painful accident when my eldest son drowned. I was nearly mad with grief. Yodok was really a hell to me. I cried to God asking that He might burn them all to death in Yodok with lightning.”
She described how “very mountain and field in Yodok was covered with dead bodies because of malnutrition and hunger. In 1973, two detainees were killed by public execution at a place between Sector 3 and 4 on charges of trying to escape from prison. Countless numbers of detainees were killed by public execution and torture.”
She said that, “Due to malnutrition and hunger, little children withered to death with their stomachs swollen.” Adults, she said, “were looking everywhere for young rats which they believed to be a kind of medicine to save their children. And they literally ate up all the snakes in Yodok to avoid painful death from malnutrition.”
Dykstra said that while the world can “rejoice” about the release of two American journalists, “praying and advocating” should continue “for those who have not received pardons; for those languishing in the “hell” that is North Korea.”