US and North Korea: More in common than meets the eye

Hannah Lee

International relations | Asia, East Asia, Pacific

30 November 2018

Though nuclear negotiations steal the show, the US and North Korea both have a troubling record of whisking people off the streets and out of sight, Hannah Lee writes.

The US and North Korea (‘DPRK’) have more in common than meets the eye on at least one issue: abductions. Despite obvious differences, both states have the habit of abducting people for reasons of ‘national security’.

In 2002, Kim Jong-Il publicly acknowledged that the DPRK had abducted 13 Japanese people between 1976-1982. These abductions were generally ad-hoc operations. Young couples on romantic strolls would be bundled into boats by aqua men and spirited away to the DPRK under the cover of darkness. Others were lured by DPRK agents to travel to Pyongyang. The DPRK kept its abductees in what Robert S. Boynton calls ‘invitation only zones’ where they were subject to constant surveillance, isolation and Juche re-education for 30 years.

The DPRK returned only 5 of the original 13. The DPRK provided faked death certificates and explained away the fate of the abductees who it did not return.

This official number is incorrect by at least one. Hitomi Soga was abducted with her mother, Miyoshi Soga. Hitomi later together returned to Japan, whilst the whereabouts of Miyoshi remains unknown.

There are other suspected abductees from Romania, South Korea, Thailand and Lebanon. These people all disappeared in similar circumstances only to surface in the DPRK.

Kim Jong-Il made this shocking revelation to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at the inaugural Japan-North Korea Summit in 2002. The DPRK had just come out of a decade of famine. Kim Jong-Il successfully used his custody of the abductees to coerce 250,000 tonnes of much-needed rice from Japan.

Although specific details remain elusive, the DPRK abducted Japanese citizens to promote its strategic goals. Some were used to teach DPRK intelligence officers the cultural nuances required to successfully assimilate into Japanese society. Their identities were given to DPRK intelligence officers to avoid detection in Japan. All would later serve as Kim Jong-Il’s ultimate bargaining chip.

More on this: The ghosts that haunt Japan’s North Korea policy

In contrast, the US subjected thousands of civilians to ‘extraordinary rendition’ during its War on Terror. This is a process whereby US forces would transfer terror suspects to third party countries where usual legal protections, such as habeas corpus or the Geneva Conventions, would not apply. The transfer of suspects in absolute secrecy can be reasonably described as abduction. Like the Japanese abductees, many of these suspects were whisked off the streetsbefore disappearing into thin air.

Many were victims of a US Army system during the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars that incentivisedlocals to falsely accuse their neighbours of being insurgents. Others, like Mohamed el Gharani, were victims of bad intelligence.

Domestically, US citizens like José Padilla, were deemed ‘enemy combatants’ before being transferred to top-secret locations. There is plenty of evidence that prisoners were tortured by the CIA, the US Army or third parties whilst journeying through this elaborate extrajudicial process that was designed to keep them far away from any legal regime that may have offered protection.

Whilst extraordinary rendition may be dismissed as one of the worst excesses of a post-9/11 world, victims remain detained indefinitely. Many reside in Guantanamo Bay, the US’ infamous black site. Of the 780 suspects detained in Guantanamo Bay since 2002, 731 have been released without charge. In fact, many prisoners are old men and children. Lawyers continue to argue for the lawful release of these suspects.

This is a difficult task because these suspects have no legal status. The details of current CIA operations, and whether ‘enhanced interrogation’ is still used, remain unknown.

Although the full extent of this system remains contentious, it is clear this was all done in the name of US strategic interests. Proponents argue that it was an appropriate response to the strategic challenges posed by the War on Terror. Many may agree that because terrorism is an exceptionally difficult thing to defeat, exceptional measures are justified.

Some in the US have acknowledged that mistakes were made. Some former detainees have successfully navigated this extrajudicial labyrinth to return home. Others were eventually tried in military courts and found guilty of terror-related offences. But some remain in indefinite detention.

This shared legacy of abductions supports the conclusion that human rights remain a fleeting concern in US and DPRK strategic decision-making. Despite stark ideological differences, both the US and the DPRK have committed grievous acts of cruelty when faced with perceived or real external threats.

This unwavering commitment to security transcends culture or human dignity. It proves that a nation state needn’t be a hermit kingdom to be a ‘mad actor’.

Could current US-DPRK negotiations have any impact on the human rights situation in the DPRK? A negative answer would be regrettable but it would also be unsurprising. After all, as the abduction issue proves, the US and DPRK will always prioritise national security ahead of individual lives. As Professor Hugh White puts it, “this is the cold-hearted reality of strategic decision-making.”

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