By Hala Anderson, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor and Benjamin Fu, HRNK Research Intern
August 27, 2020
In North Korea, a system of prison camps rivaling those of 20th-century totalitarian regimes in size, duration, and scope of human rights violations, subjects prisoners to daily torture, sexual and physical violence, poor sanitation, and starvation. Yet, it has become clear that North Korean human rights, especially in prison camps, are not a priority for major players in the international community. South Korea, in an effort to maintain relations with the North, has launched investigations into human rights organizations focused on North Korea. Meanwhile, the United States continues to leave human rights out of its negotiations with North Korea and China has yet to stop forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees. If states won’t push a human rights agenda for fear of retribution from North Korea, perhaps their people will. Art has the power to draw attention to human rights atrocities and needs to be harnessed to inspire action in the name of North Korea’s prisoners.
Abstract art and realistic illustration acting together can not only force viewers to confront human rights violations, but also make them more accessible to a wider audience. According to Christine Chinkin, an expert on effective implementation of human rights law, “visual image can take familiar ideas from the realm of human rights and transform their meanings in ways that speak across time and space.” Throughout history, art has been critical to exposing human rights atrocities. For example, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” became a universal symbol for the devastation of war, and Otto Dix’s artwork revealed the ugly reality of post-WWI Germany to a willingly ignorant audience. Art, with its ability to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, is ideal for communicating the devastating effect of human rights violations across borders. This ability is extremely valuable for human rights organizations looking to save North Korean prisoners who are hidden in a country that denies their very humanity.
North Korea is notoriously secretive, ranking last out of 180 countries in the 2020 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom report. The Korean Workers’ Party takes extreme precautions to construct a positive narrative about the state. For photographers, this means strict oversight over what they shoot, with restrictions on photo content and location as well as photo checks before leaving the country. Thus, the majority of photos from North Korea lack emotional impact, feel manufactured or overdone, and simply do not depict the reality of North Korea, let alone the human rights violations in its prison camps. When it comes to diplomacy, international initiatives, or obtaining aid, North Korea refuses access to all but a few, select areas of the country. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (UN COI) on human rights in the North Korea was not allowed any access inside the country, and humanitarian aid organizations are often denied access to the most needy populations. More recently, North Korea continues to report zero confirmed COVID-19 cases seven months into the pandemic, while requesting foreign assistance and denying access to reporting into its handling of the pandemic in Pyongyang. Additionally, North Korea attempted to deflect negative press on its handling of COVID-19 to South Korea, claiming an illegal re-defector to the North had brought the virus into the country, despite Seoul maintaining that the man did not appear to be infected before leaving. Despite hundreds of defector testimonies, inside sources, and satellite imagery, it is impossible to get an accurate representation of life in North Korea. This secrecy has a dangerous effect: it’s easier to ignore a situation that one cannot see let alone relate to.
To expose the human rights violations in North Korea’s prison camps as Cindy Warmbier, mother of UVA student Otto Warmbier who died after being imprisoned and tortured in North Korea, said during an HRNK virtual event, “All we need is one photo.” Unsurprisingly, photography of North Korea’s prison camps is extremely difficult to obtain at this point. Ishimaru Jiro, a Japanese reporter from Asia Press, was able to covertly take pictures of the exterior of the re-education through labor camp (kyo-hwa-so) No. 4, Kangdong, as published in a 2019 HRNK report. While the photos make the presence of the prison camp undeniable, they were not only difficult and risky to retrieve, but they show no North Korean prisoners. Illustration can reveal human rights atrocities in North Korean prison camps where photography cannot. A few sets of drawings of conditions and torture in political prison camps have already been created by former prisoners including Kwon Hyo-jin, Shin Dong-hyuk, and prison guard Park Ji-hyun, who created these illustrations in the early 2010s and had a significant impact, their works appearing in media outlets several years after their initial release. Naturally, when no further illustrations were produced, their impact dwindled. More frequent and modernized production of illustrations could be a powerful tool for North Korean human rights organizations, especially if used in publications and reports. When paired with images, there is an increase in retention of written material and an 89% increase in comprehension which means that illustrations can give publications a stronger, lasting impact. Prisoner testimony allows us to know what goes on in North Korea, and illustrations make it real, bringing pain and suffering to life. An ultimate goal, as informally proposed by Justice Michael Kirby, chair of the 2014 UN COI, is to illustrate the COI findings. Adding illustrations to a report as detailed and internationally known as the COI would likely increase the influence of the report and expand its readership and impact.
Of course, illustration is not photography, and defector accounts are not always fact. In 2015, former prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk’s account of his escape from Prison 14 was found to be flawed which led to a small media fiasco. Even small flaws in escapee testimony can discredit their claims, which, in an era where under 20% of the global population trusts the system of governments, media, business, and NGOs, can prove detrimental to human rights campaigns. However, as HRNK author David Hawk, former Executive Director of Amnesty International and expert on North Korean political prison camps, says, errors in testimony “do not detract at all from what we know about how the camps operate.” Much like escapee testimony, although illustrations may not always be entirely accurate, deliberately or otherwise, they are nevertheless a valid testament to the experiences of former prisoners and conditions in North Korean prison camps.
Art is equally important to illustration, providing a less-constricted, more emotional representation of an event. Art can “allow us to experience, reflect deeply on, and experiment with complex realities... drawing attention to urgent concerns, bearing witness, memorializing the past, dignifying humanity, resisting oppression, and cultivating empathy and trust among former enemies,” according to IMPACT, an initiative from Brandeis University that uses art to foster a less violent world. One of the best examples of the power of art are Otto Dix’s grotesque paintings of life in Germany after WWI. Painting disfigured veterans, prostitutes, and other “anguished, exploited” characters, Dix used extreme images to force viewers to not only confront but also experience an unpleasant world of people damaged by a war that could no longer be glorified. Exposing reality in such a jarring, undeniably human, manner is an extremely valuable tool to help people understand the appalling reality of North Korean prison camps.
An advantage of art is its versatility and diversity, which allows it to reach many audiences. While Otto Dix’s art is far from realistic, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” uses more extreme abstractions, moving the viewer not by depicting rubble and ruins, but rather by the devastating effect on humanity. Picasso smashes people, animals, and objects together to create a work that not only depicts terror and agony through the subjects, but also exudes it through brutal expression. Whereas the message of illustration is grounded in reality, the message of art can be expressed through abstractions that resonate deeply with audiences’ emotions.
Abstract art is necessary in conjunction with realistic illustration, each showing what the other cannot. Illustration conveys a painful reality, accurately exposing atrocities in imagery, while art, not confined by the bounds of reality, is able to express emotion in a more raw and deeply human manner. Together, they transcend borders to engage the emotions, senses and thoughts of millions. Where illustration lacks emotion, art creates. Where art lacks reality, illustration exposes. Their power stems from their interdependence, and, when harnessed, can galvanize people around the world to fight for human rights in North Korean prison camps.
Hala Anderson is a junior at Stuttgart High School with an interest in international relations.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.