Repatriation in North Korea: The Babies on Death Row

A Pregnant Pause

Ask someone for his or her opinion on abortion and you are likely to find they have one. It is a topic that most of us are likely to brush against, if not personally then through TV, films and the media. A recent YouGov poll revealed that only 7% of the UK population would like to see abortion banned all together. The reasons for this high tolerance to abortion within our population is varied but may be influenced by the typical demographic of the women seeking abortions. Abortion statistics published by the Department of Health in 2012, show that of the almost 200,000 abortions carried out in 2011, the rate was highest for single women, aged 20 and with 90% of abortions being carried out at less than 10 weeks of gestation- enabling the use of much less invasive procedures.

Imagine however, that the abortion was not of the woman’s choice, but forced upon her, with any suggestion of autonomy completely shattered beyond recognition. Imagine the baby not as an unwanted and unrecognisable foetus that can barely be distinguished from a potato on an ultrasound, but a heart-beating, tummy-kicking and living being that has been nurtured by their mother for months. Finally, consider that following an induced pregnancy, even if born alive, the baby is not allowed to live. This is no longer a clean-cut matter of abortion (or at least as clean-cut as it could ever be) but undeniably foeticide, infanticide and therefore murder on a grave scale. The saddest part of this is that one not need to imagine this scenario – in fact, it only takes a look at one or two testimonies from victims of these violations of human rights to begin to gain a tenuous grasp on the scale of this very frightening reality.

Isolated cases of forced abortion are likely to be ubiquitous world wide, for example if a woman is being forced by a partner to undergo an abortion. However a continued systematic and governmentally implemented use of forced abortion; as a method to protect against a mixed ethnicity population as in North Korea, or control the population size in alignment with the one child rule in China is a highly prevalent and unusual form of torture. In this article I am going to focus upon the treatment of North Koreans repatriated to the DPNK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), with a focus on the additional challenges faced by pregnant detainees, however it is important to note that this is just one of a catalogue of examples of violations of human rights that face North Koreans following deportation from China and re-entry to the DPNK.

The Pathway to Persecution

The repatriation corridor is not a place one would freely wish to enter; as such North Korean escapees in China find themselves in a very vulnerable position as they attempt to live life evading the Chinese police. This risk of exploitation may be attenuated in women who due in part to the gender imbalance within China, are at risk human trafficking- which could involve forced marriages and rape.

Testimonies from escapee prisoners and satellite footage have enabled the outside world to gain some understanding of the detention facilities, prisons and labour training centres that house an estimated 200,000 prisoners. In a country where leaving dust on the portrait of the leader, exercising certain religious beliefs or attempting to leave the country without permission are all against the law- it is difficult to imagine that the crime fits the time. Indeed, the latter ‘crime’ of leaving North Korea without permission, flies in the face of article 13 (2) in the Universal Declaration of Human rights that states that everyone has a right to ‘leave any country, including his own, and to return to his own country.’ Individuals however do not have the right to enter any country of their choice, with this right being granted by the discretion of the state.

That fact that individuals forcibly repatriated to North Korea will face persecution is undisputable, and so after making the difficult decision to cross the Tuman river, most of the escapees are refugees in situ. To knowingly send these individuals to torture therefore is to break the principle of Non-Refouelment- an element of international law to which China should abide by. Failure to uphold this principle shows the harsh and unavoidable reality that thousands of North Koreans will one day face persecution on discovery

Terminating the Innocent

The evidence of forced abortion in female prisoners is overwhelming, and in this article I will be drawing on experiences published by The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). The descriptions of what happens to these women are graphic, emotive and retold with a repetition that is utterly heart breaking. Female escapes that have become pregnant by Chinese men face forced abortions on their return to the DPNK. This may be carried out by the induction of pregnancy in women- who may be at full term- with the aim of inducing a premature stillbirth. A baby born alive will be killed in front of their mother, who is then sent straight to work.

This act of forced abortion brings to light a number of horrific and frankly terrifying ethical problems- outwith the debate surrounding abortion as a valid medical practice to begin with. The rights of a woman to autonomy are completely voided and the psychological impact of having to lose a baby in such a brutal manner is impossible to imagine. This pain is augmented by the fact that these are ‘messy’ abortions. In the best possible circumstances the process of a termination carries with it significant risks to the health of the mother and these risks, which tend to increase with the length of gestational period at the time of the procedure. These include the risk of infection, possibly leading to sepsis, infertility and even death. The gradualists approach to the assignment of personhood would argue that the psychological risks of depression and suicide are also increased with a rise in foetal age. In the unhygienic, cruel and isolated surrounding of a prison it is clear to see that any risks to the mother will be much amplified.

The reasons behind forced abortion are complex and may be intrinsically linked to the principle of the Juche ideal. This is the political maxim that promotes the idea of North Korea being ‘self-reliant’ and its own master. Earlier this week, former North Korean spy Kim Hyun-hee said ‘North Korea is not a state, it’s a cult’. Keeping this description in mind, it is possible to gain a glimpse into the reasoning used by the regime to carry out ethnic cleansing. Its practice therefore has roots that go beyond punishment of citizens who have fled, and reveals the racial motivation that dictates no half-Chinese babies should be born in North Korea.

In a situation where even the most unembellished of testimonies have the risk of sounding dramatized; accusations of hyperbole may often follow evidence given for forced abortion. Sadly these testimonies are not exaggerations but rather evidence that adds to the fact that human-on-human suffering is by no means a problem confined to the days of the Holocaust, but rather an ever present reality threaded throughout the fabric of our world.

For anyone wishing to read more about the plight of North Koreans who have been forcibly repatriated, the HRNK report, ‘The Hidden Gulag: The Lives and Voices of ‘Those Who are Sent to the Mountains’ (2nd edition) is an excellent place to start and try to understand the facts, reasons and methods of preventing this undeniable evil.

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