Today it was announced that after years international negotiations, North Korea is preparing to take the first steps towards shutting down their nuclear reactor. However, for a man imprisoned in the basement of the National Security Agency in Pyongyang, this news, if he could hear it, which he can’t, would mean nothing. Son Jong-nam has been detained and tortured nearly to the point of death, while awaiting public execution for alleged crimes against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. What heinous crimes did this former N.Korean military officer commit? According to Amnesty International, Jong-nam is accused of betraying his country, sharing information with South Korea and receiving financial assistance from his brother, a North Korean settled in South Korea since 2002.

In 1998 Jong-nam committed what is deemed to be a serious crime in North Korea, he, his wife, son, and brother became Christians. Soon after he and his family fled to China, where in 2001, after his wife died, and he was labeled an illegal economic migrant, who was also sending missionaries back to his home country. Jong-nam was sent back to N. Korea. Upon his return, Jong-nam was sentenced to three years in the Hamgyung-buk do prison camp. He was released in May 2004, but before he returned to North Korea, he met his brother in China. The North Korean learned of this meeting with his brother, and arrested Son Jong-nam in January 2006.

According to the organization Human Rights Watch, those who cross the border in N. Korea, even if it is just to find food, face a prison term of up to five years. Those who are imprisoned like Jong-nam face abuses including, “strip searches, verbal abuse and threats, beatings, forced labor, little or no medical care, and severe shortages of food, often described as a fistful of powdered cornstalk per meal. As punishment for disobedience, former detainees said they were forced to hit their own heads against cell bars and to sit up and down repeatedly until they fainted. Such punishments were often inflicted for failing to sit still for hours on end, and collective punishments of entire groups of cellmates were common.”  And these people were the lucky ones, they weren’t sentenced to death.

Why has the United States been willing to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses that are occurring in N. Korea? The answer is simple. It’s all about politics. The United States does not want to risk a negotiated agreement with N. Korea to end their nuclear program over some human rights violations. Sure human rights violations are good to bring up in order to justify a war, as the Bush administration did before the invasion of Iraq, but when push comes to shove, human rights and religious freedom are issues that the United States has ignored for decades.

Christianity and Son Jong-nom are both dangers to Kim Jong-il’s hold on power on North Korea, where Christians make up only 1.7% of the population. These Christians have to worship secretly in small groups of less than eight, because a group of more than eight is considered an unauthorized assembly and a “collective disturbance.” The worshippers have to meet in places such as small house churches, gathering in fields, attics, caves, dugout areas and enclosed spaces inside houses. Jesus Christ represents a challenge to cult of personality which Kim Jong-il has built up, and Christianity beyond its teachings represents contact with the outside world which the government can’t control. This contact can lead to the spread of ideas. The Christian ideas of peace, tolerance, and love if allowed to flourish could topple the regime.

With the exception of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, whose office and campaign I contacted for this article, but the campaign politely told me that the Senator’s office was handling this matter, and his office did not get back to me, there has been no reaction by the politicians in this country to the plight of Son Jong-nom. A letter drafted by Brownback calling for the release of Jong-nom was only signed by only four other senators, and none of the Democratic candidates for president. Both Republicans and Democrats may talk a great game when it comes to human rights and religious freedom, but the reality is that this is a disposable principle that is never allowed to stand in the way of practical politics.

In a letter to both U.S. Secretary of State Rice and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Brownback wrote, “Future cooperation and engagement with North Korea will be far more challenging if its leaders continue to persecute their own people for religious views. The United States has made political and religious freedoms important elements in its diplomatic relations, and we are gravely concerned about abuses of such basic rights in North Korea.”

What Brownback is pointing out is double standard on the issues of human rights and religious freedom that must stop. The U.S. should be using the opening created by the nuclear program agreement to demand the release of Son Jong-nom and others like him. Until the U.S. realizes that its policy of rewarding those who abuse human rights is wrong, people like Son Jong-nom, and many others, will continue to suffer.

OMF.org N. Korea profile

Human Rights Watch: N. Korea

2007 AI Report on N. Korea

 

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