North Koreans in EuropeLater this month, the North Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD) will send a delegation of young students with disabilities to the United Kingdom. Performing musical and dance routines which will presumably feature little of the ideological dogma inherent in North Korea’s cultural output, the delegation will temporarily join over 1,000 state-sponsored North Koreans living in European countries, including labourers, businesspeople, and diplomats.
Following a meticulously planned visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to Pyongyang in early May, the Europe-bound student delegation will afford the government of North Korea with a further opportunity to counter sharp criticism of its human rights record under the guise of the KFPD — nominally a well-meaning, under-resourced civil society organisation, but in reality an institution created to foster divisions within the international community, generate international goodwill, and extract material goods and hard currency.
The international focus on North Korea’s nuclear and chemical weapons inevitably over shadows the regime’s egregious abuse of human rights. Much as we would be heartened to see genuine progress in the treatment of the country’s disabled population, and a fundamental change in the way it treats the rest of its people, we would be naïve not to see the cynical flurry of activity around the treatment of disabled people as anything other than a mirage and as a way of deflecting criticism of what the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea described as a “state without parallel.”
For North Korea’s decision makers, the leverage to be gained through the KFPD delegation to Europe is not insignificant. European states and civil society organizations have a history of modest investment in disability projects in North Korea and see it as a legitimate form of engagement. Yet, the limitations of engagement as a viable foreign policy are constantly underlined by the insistence of North Korean diplomats that dialogue must center on humanitarian, political, or economic discussions, rather than human rights — a request which should be rebuffed. If the price of engagement with the government of North Korea is self-censorship, then this is too high a cost.
Let us not forget that the Commission of Inquiry noted reports of infants with disabilities being killed or abandoned, the segregation and forced sterilization of persons suffering from dwarfism, and systematic discrimination against people with disabilities. North Korea’s delegation to the United Kingdom will surely seek to avoid such realities or comment on the billions of dollars spent on missiles designed to destroy, rather than improve, human lives, but we must never shy away from asking North Koreans difficult questions.
Equally, we should be aware that the vast majority of overseas North Koreans in Europe will never enjoy the surroundings of London, Oxford, and Cambridge — the destinations for the student delegation. Instead, they will lead lives of hardship and exploitation in the construction, garment, and agricultural industries, and work for European companies that desire cheap, expendable, and obedient labour.
A smaller number of overseas North Koreans in Europe function as IT technicians, medical professionals, and businesspeople. Some are tasked with generating hard currency, both legally and illegally, for Pyongyang, while others function as sleeper-cells on behalf of North Korea’s Bureau 35 or External Liaisons Department.
Ostensibly working as legal outposts of an inward-looking regime, the arrest of Ri Jong-chol, who had a licence in pharmacy and was living legally in Malaysia with his family, in connection to the assassination of Kim Jong-nam should prompt European countries to pay closer attention to the role of North Korean nationals in their territories — particularly given the presence of over 1,000 North Korean defectors in Europe.
The most renowned cohort of North Koreans living in Europe are undoubtedly its diplomats. As my colleague Fiona Bruce has recently noted, North Korean diplomatic personnel have long operated as extensions of Pyongyang’s domestic arms of terror, corruption, and belligerence. Free to move across the European continent to conduct illicit activities, North Korean diplomatic missions are suspected of using returning freight containers and diplomatic pouches to smuggle out strategic supplies and luxury goods; technical data needed for the development of weapons of mass destruction; munitions and industrial mechanical equipment; and perhaps most insidiously, they are also suspected of smuggling hard currency into countries for the purchase of illicit goods by strapping bundles of banknotes to the bodies of North Korean travellers, including official delegations.
North Korea’s illicit activities in Europe are inherently interconnected with its human rights abuses. The accumulation of funds by North Korean businesspeople and diplomats, and the funds generated by the exploitation of overseas North Korean workers, buttress a system that runs concentration camps and denies its population the most basic freedoms. All the while, abuses of a different kind are committed against North Korea’s reluctant participants — particularly its young disabled students — who are used as political leverage.
Human rights are non-negotiable. There are no opt-out clauses or room for selective interpretation. The abuses inflicted by the government of North Korea upon those with disabilities and its overseas workers are abhorrent. In the face of competing security threats on the Korean peninsula, we must remain vocal on human rights; for in the words of John F. Kennedy, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
*The author is a crossbench member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords.
Lord Alton of Liverpool