UNITED NATIONS – A North Korean defector whose memoir describes his meeting with Kim Jong Il says the world's intense focus on the regime's human rights record fails to see the full scope of its inhumanity to its people.
Jang Jin-sung, who says he tossed away his once-cherished lapel pin of Kim during a dramatic escape from the country, says the international community should look beyond the surface as it tries to hold new leader Kim Jong Un accountable.
Jang's memoir "Dear Leader" came out in English last spring, just as a groundbreaking U.N. commission of inquiry on North Korea turned the world's attention to practices like forced abortions, mass starvation and a system of harsh prison camps holding up to 120,000 people.
"It's like it only counts as a human rights problem if there are literal beatings, camps," Jang said in an interview this week in New York. "But the entire system is brutal and inhumane. The way the surveillance is run ... The physical aspect is just one side of the experience."
In a letter to Kim, the commission of inquiry even warned that he could be held accountable. The U.N. General Assembly late last year approved a resolution urging that North Korea's human rights situation be referred to the International Criminal Court.
North Korea tried to stop the momentum by raising the possibility of allowing a U.N. human rights visit to the country, but moments after it became clear that the resolution had strong support, its diplomats threatened another nuclear test.
Now Pyongyang has shifted its approach. After another prominent defector last month said he had changed important parts of his life story, North Korea declared that anything based on Shin Dong-hyuk's testimony could not be trusted. This week, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong wrote to the U.N. secretary-general saying the U.N. resolution has "collapsed" and is illegal.
Human rights groups and the head of the commission of inquiry, retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, say the report and ensuing resolution are based on the testimony of scores of North Korean defectors and remain solid.
Jang called the drama over Shin's story "kind of disappointing," saying there is so much more to North Korea's abuses than the questioning over which prison camps Shin grew up in and when.
The former propaganda poet pointed to North Korea's pervasive system of surveillance and control. Practically all citizens of the entire desperately poor, nuclear-armed country are sealed off from the Internet. Informers are embedded in every level of society. Entire families can be punished for one person's mistakes or crimes.
Jang says he fled North Korea after he lent a classified foreign document to a friend, who then left it on a train by mistake. He soon made it to South Korea, where he founded a news outlet called New Focus, featuring reports on North Korea based on sources within the country.
Jang's escape is recounted in "Dear Leader." As with other defectors' accounts, many details can be almost impossible to verify. South Korean reports have said his name is a pen name.
"Why would I put my reputation on the line?" Jang said when the question of changing narratives was raised.
But he understands the pressures some North Korean defectors face to make their stories more compelling, perhaps especially as international attention to North Korea's human rights situation has grown.
"It's true that a lot of people are pressured to want to appease people's expectations," Jang said. "But in Shin's case, it was not for money. His motive was just to tell the world. ... It wasn't deliberate fraud. It was more of a mismatch between outside expectations and the world he came from."