A few months ago, a young North Korean woman living in South Korea described what happened to her father, who disappeared in 2010. “The police detained him. We visited him every day to give him food and water, but then one day suddenly he wasn’t there.” No answer about his fate was ever forthcoming. In North Korea, when somebody in police custody suddenly vanishes, the assumption is he has been sent to political prison camp, which is worse than death, she explained.
As the world marks International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, it’s important to remember the thousands who have disappeared without a trace while in the clutches of the North Korean government. Enforced disappearance happens frequently to North Koreans accused of political crimes, Christian proselytizing, or simply attempting to flee to South Korea.
The numbers of those disappeared by the state over its history are staggering: North Koreans resettled to South Korea who then return to China and get caught and forced back to North Korea; the estimated 100,000 South Koreans taken into North Korea and disappeared after the Korean war; 11 South Korean nationals abducted in 1969 from a Korean Air flight hijacked and diverted to Pyongyang; South Korean fishermen taken on the high seas in the 1960s and 1970s, and foreign nationals from Japan, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Europe, and the Middle East who were kidnapped by North Korean agents and never seen again.
Today, as we stand in solidarity with victims of enforced disappearance, the world should remember that North Korea is ruled by a government that has made enforced disappearances a matter of state policy. This is not episodic; this is a repeated rights violation that North Korea commits with impunity. Such practices are one reason why North Korea is considered a human rights pariah nation where crimes against humanity are state policy.
The United Nations and the international community should demand that North Korea immediately compile, and turn over all information related to those who have disappeared in its custody. In view of this endemic state practice, there should be no hesitation among the other nations of the world in putting human rights at the center of all political dialogues with North Korea. Leaders around the world should put themselves in the shoes of Japanese, Thai and North and South Korean families who still wonder, after decades, what has happened to their loved ones who remain disappeared without a trace.