From handshakes to hostilities: How dangerous is the situation in North Korea?


[BBC NEWS 2022-05-09]


"When I saw those pictures of them with their arms around each other laughing, it sent shivers down my back," remembers Hanna Song, from her office in downtown Seoul. Her organisation, the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, has been tracking human rights violations in North Korea for more than two decades. The last few years have not been easy.

Human rights are Kim Jong-un's Achilles' heel, Hanna explains. She says that in an effort to stop the North Korean leader from feeling uncomfortable, President Moon "swept them under the rug".

Hanna's organisation interviews North Korean escapees at Hanawon, the resettlement centre where they live for their first three months in the country. Their testimonies play a vital role in documenting human rights abuses. But two years ago, the South Korean government cut off their access to the centre, meaning they could no longer gather their evidence. Then Hanna started hearing from escapees that they were being pressured not to speak publicly about their experiences in North Korea. Some received calls from the local policemen assigned to help them assimilate. "Are you sure it's wise to be doing this?" they asked.

Hanna tried challenging the government over the missing information. "What are you going to do when there is this gap in evidence, just because you wanted to make sure Kim Jong-un wasn't being shamed in front of the international community?" she would ask, to little response.

"What's happening in Ukraine is horrendous," Hanna concludes, "but at least we know."