Chief of memorial to victims at former East German political prison helps promote N.K. human rights
During the Cold War period, the Stasi, the East German secret police, was notorious for its intelligence gathering, rigorous interrogations and persecution of political prisoners.
The communists ran gulags in East Berlin, inmates being mostly ordinary people who had applied to live in the West or attempted to flee across the wall. They were forced into harsh conditions and hard labor before being sold to its affluent western neighbor for cash.
Much of the same is happening in six prison camps throughout North Korea, one of the world’s most reclusive and few remaining communist countries. Up to 200,000 people face torture, public execution and other abuses there. The bulk of them were incarcerated for things like singing a South Korean song or joining a reading club.
After German unification in 1990, the Stasi headquarters in East Berlin was transformed into a memorial and research center. German academic circles are now brimming with studies on everything about the infamous facility and the East’s state security service.
“I think what I know of North Korea is more similar to the beginning of the communist dictatorship in East Germany where we had also prison camps and the method of physical torture and so on,” Hubertus Knabe, director of the Berlin-Hohenschnhausen Memorial, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“But later on they developed a more sophisticated system of oppression and tried to control people in a more indirect way. They also tried to avoid physical force because they were afraid of negative reports in the West.”
Knabe is a human rights activist and historian known for his work on oppression in East Germany and other former communist states in Eastern Europe. His own parents escaped the East shortly before his birth.
The 53-year-old German began heading the museum and memorial in 2001 after spending eight years as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives’ research unit. He also worked as spokesperson for the Green Party in the northwestern city of Bremen from 1983.
He was in Seoul recently to participate in a forum on human rights in North Korea as part of the European Union’s Human Rights and Democratic Transition Dialogue Program with Korea. The two-day event was co-hosted by the Munich-based Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
With human rights in the North a little-known issue among Germans, the museum and memorial held an event on North Korean political camps in June last year.
Hubertus Knabe, director of the Berlin-Hohenschnhausen Memorial. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
“We try to understand the dealings with political crimes in East Germany. It’s not only a historical issue but there are still communist regimes where people are suffering and imprisoned. I think the hardest case is North Korea ― so we decided to inform the public about the situation,” Knabe said.
“I’m curious what will happen after the regime comes down in North Korea. We will get access to documents and political police there as well, how they operated, what kind of instructions they were given and who are responsible for these systemic human rights abuses.”
The four-day exhibition, themed “A People behind Bars ― The misery in the labor camps of North Korea,” features drawings of the camps and prisoners and expert discussions on the possibility of political transition in the unruly country.
Participants include Kim Hye-sook, who spoke about life during her 28-year detention; Ha Tae-keung, a former anti-North Korea activist and now a lawmaker of the ruling Saenuri Party; and Roland Brauckmann, Amnesty International’s Korea coordinator.
The gulag is not the only thing in common between Korea and Germany. Stressing the significance of thorough preparations for future integration, the two countries should step up cooperation, Knabe said.
“One of the main mistakes was that Germany hadn’t been prepared in any way for the situation. All the politicians thought that this regime was to stay for eternity and didn’t even think about the possibility of reunification. It was written in the constitution but politicians didn’t reflect it and they didn’t have any concept on how to make it happen,” he said.
“The (East German) communist regime came down 20 years ago. I hope that one day North Korea will be the same. The question is, what’s the best strategy to predict the process to end such a regime?”
Given a protracting slump in inter-Korean relations, Seoul should “go step by step to normalize” the situation with a long-term strategy, Knabe said.
Enacting legislation aimed at improving human rights in the North could be one thing, he said, which requires politicians to trounce partisan bickering and craft a future-oriented cooperation framework.
Such a bill has not passed parliament here since its introduction in 2005 as progressives argue that it could enrage Pyongyang and strain ties, calling it “foreign intervention.”
Despite abject living conditions in the impoverished state, the bill has been put on the back burner as rival parties focused on elections and other contentious bills.
“I’m not sure if a bill is the main point for improving human rights, but one thing is clear ― that if you don’t articulate problems and don’t act against human rights abuses not just to upset the North Korean regime, then you are acting against your own political objectives,” Knabe said.
“You cannot speak about human rights and establish democracy and close your eyes only for not upsetting the dictatorship.”
The Seoul government, meanwhile, must deal with wild swings in Pyongyang’s mood and balance the desire for better cross-border ties with its long-kept principle that the North apologize for its hostile acts and make denuclearization efforts before reconciliation.
Critics have called for the South’s government to be pragmatic and keep up humanitarian aid and personal and economic exchange regardless of the political standoff.
“There must be a picture where political and economic cooperation is on one side and human rights (are) on the other,” the scholar said.
“Germany and China, for example, have a lot of cooperation. But when it comes to human rights, we’re not afraid to criticize China. There was even a press conference where the chancellor did this.”
Another key factor is personal relations such as regular family reunions between the two Koreas, Knabe said.
In the case of Germany, the West’s government in the 1970s and ‘80s sponsored student tours to the East, allowed family gatherings and encouraged partnerships between eastern and western cities.
“At the first moment people probably didn’t see why strong personal relations are so important but it became a very important cause for reunification,” he added.
“It’s difficult to change or improve the situation because the North Korean regime is so isolated. But we made an experience in Europe that there’s a paradox when developing relations with communist regimes; this political process of cooperation ends in more influence in societies as people are allowed to travel and relations between the people became stronger.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org