Korean Activist Held and Tortured in China Seeks to Get Even

August 8th, 2012

Looking thin and gaunt, but wearing a strong and determined expression, Kim Young-hwan, a leading South Korean advocate of North Korean human rights, told foreign reporters Monday that he was severely tortured by Chinese authorities while being detained for over 100 days in China for trying to help North Korean refugees there.

Despite my repeated requests for an interview, Kim, who was just released last month after being tortured and detained in China for months, had been refusing to talk to me about his ordeal. But today, for the first time, he broke his silence, answering foreign journalists’ questions for the first time since he came back to Seoul. A former supporter of North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology, Kim later became a critic of the North’s human rights transgressions, and was caught and arrested, along with three other rights activists from South Korea, in China near its border with North Korea in March. They were held inside China until July, when they were finally released. The four comrades had also gone there to investigate reports of violations of the basic rights of North Korean defectors hiding close to the border, and to provide support to underground pro-democracy groups inside the communist North.

During his confinement, Kim says he was in “absolute isolation” while he was electrocuted for as long as five to eight hours and kept from sleeping for six straight days so he would reveal the Chinese citizens who were helping his organization. He was also pressured to name other South Korean rights groups working on behalf of North Koreans who had fled from the North and were hiding in China. Kim also said the horrendous treatment he received in China was an “international human rights problem, not just a matter of interest to China and South Korea.” And he explained that he had decided to go public with the story of his horrible experience in China to improve Beijing’s “appalling treatment of foreign political prisoners.”

Although “no detailed plans have been laid out yet,” Kim says he will follow three different approaches in dealing with his mistreatment by China.” First, he plans to file a criminal lawsuit against the Chinese government in China’s court system. Second, he will urge the South Korean government to directly contact Beijing and lodge an official complaint about the matter. And third, he intends to have the case judged under international law in global bodies like the United Nations. So far, Kim says, he has not been satisfied with South Korea’s handling of his situation. He believes “Seoul has continued to pursue a quiet diplomacy” and hopes it will take more forceful action in the future. In addition, he added that the torture he underwent in China shows there is a “serious flaw” in relations between South Korea and China, and ties between the two nations are “not normal.”

Kim also said he should have been given consular access earlier, and has explained that he “would not have been tortured if he had received it sooner.” He claims that he asked for consular access “a short time” after he was detained by Chinese security agents, but was refused such access until “almost a month later.” South Korea’s government has said its consular access to him was delayed because China rejected his request. On Sunday, a spokesman for a group supporting Kim said he would go through a medical checkup this week on August 8th amid speculation that he may try to present medical findings to support his claims that he was tortured while imprisoned in China. With Beijing denying that it tortured Kim, Seoul wants to have hard evidence proving the alleged torture took place before bringing up the issue before a Chinese court or international organization.

The 49-year-old activist has said Chinese security officials tortured and beat him, but only during the early days of his detention, apparently to hide any evidence of torture. Kim, who has been increasingly stepping into the international spotlight with his story since he returned to South Korea last month, insisted that he does not want his “highlighting of China’s abuses of human rights to overshadow the dismal rights violations of North Korea.” However, he stressed that he plans to “continue raising this problem” because it is “very important” to make Beijing improve its terrible human rights record, including the use of torture by Chinese security services.

Picture: J. Chang

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About the Author

Jennifer Chang

Jennifer Chang is a freelance broadcast and print journalist. She is now a Seoul-based correspondent with Global Radio News in London, and makes appearances as a reporter on English-language TV networks around the world. She also contributes articles to various publications such as the Christian Science Monitor's Global News Blog and Asia-Pacific Business and Technology Report, a magazine with subscribers in over 30 Asia-Pacific nations. Prior to working for GRN, she covered North and South Korea for the U.S. network, CBS Radio News.

Join the discussion

  • A Martin

    So glad he made it out alive.  I think we should stop the agreement we made to allow China in WTO as I knew that was a mistake when it happened.  As long as the West considers money and trade more important than human beings,this garbage will continue.