Home Page > Uncategorized > A Day in Seoul with North Korean writers

However the night is deep, the dawn is sure enough to come. Although today’s reality in North Korea seems dismal, the new world will certainly come.

This was the wish expressed at a seminar in Seoul on October 24th, 2013, by the North Korean writer in exile, Do Myunghak. PEN members who attended the 2012 PEN Congress in Gyeongju, may remember Mr. Do; during a panel discussion about North Korea, he suddenly got up from behind his microphone, walked to the front of the stage and crouched low, head to the floor, to demonstrate how, when imprisoned for writing a satirical poem, he was made, as one small routine form of humiliation, to sweep the floor with his hair.

I was invited to speak at the seminar, jointly hosted by Korean PEN and the North Korean Writers in Exile Centre, as the first event in a two-day programme about human rights in North Korea. The subject of North Korea is one that many South Koreans are ambivalent about; while there is support for reunification and concern about human rights expressed by older people, among them writers and intellectuals, young South Koreans are said to be somewhat indifferent to the plight of North Koreans, and see only economic risks in reunification. North Koreans in exile are not a cohesive group—many are economic refugees; they are completely cut off from North Korean families; they experience a form of racism which makes integration into South Korean society difficult. And their activism is tempered by fear of repercussions against their families; leaving North Korea is a crime punishable by long prison sentences if they are ever caught. According to the cautious estimates of UN bodies, there are at least 100,000 North Koreans currently held in prison and labour camps in North Korea. It takes courage to speak out about North Korea, even in exile.

Despite well-document human rights abuses by government of the DRNK, the Democratic Republic of North Korea led since its creation by a single dynastic family, PEN has never had a single North Korean writer on the WiPC case list. Because the DRNK is a closed, totalitarian regime, it is impossible to document individual cases. Unlike it closest ally, the People’s Republic of China, the DRNK makes no pretense of due process; there are no court records of crimes and sentences. As Jang Haesung noted ironically in his speech at the seminar, North Korean writers envy those imprisoned in China and elsewhere, because at least they know why they are charged and incarcerated. “You can feel happy if you know why you are arrested.”

I think the time has come for PEN to acknowledge the freedom of expression situation in North Korea, even if we cannot do so in our traditional way of lobbying a government on individual cases. In my speech I talked about the current UN Commission of Inquiry into the Human Rights situation in North Korea. All PEN centres should encourage the representatives of their own governments at the UN to champion this process, to urge the UN to extend its mandate if necessary (the Commission reports early in 2014), and to support the work of the Special Rapporteur on North Korea as well. The WiPC will issue a RAN to this effect in the near future.

I also urge you to take time to read the statements by Mr Do and Mr Jang. And finally, please read the heartfelt letter to his North Korean colleagues read by Mr. Do at the end of our meeting. As he pointed out, it is not actually possible for North Korean writers still in North Korea to work with, or even to communicate with their colleagues in exile. (Most North Koreans are prohibited from reading anything from outside North Korea, the country only has an internal “intranet” and radios and TVs are blocked pre-sale from receiving transmissions from outside the country. This isolation is slowly being eroded by technological advances.)

Mr. Jang asked that South Korean and North Korean writers in exile work “hand-in-hand” to make the plight of North Koreans a concern for all South Koreans. I hope that the broader community of PEN will also make an effort, even in the face of ongoing resistance to a change in the status quo from most states.

As Mr Do wrote to his silenced on the other side of the border:

Until the day comes, both you from inside and we from outside need to work together to win back our lost pen.

Marian Botsford Fraser
Chair, WiPC