Those on the outside trying to understand what goes on inside North Korea have long had to trust the people that manage to flee the country. Testimony from defectors plays a vital role for researchers and activists trying to get an insider’s perspective, providing unique and important, but often unverifiable, information.
Charles von Denkowski is a doctoral student on North Korean state crime at the Ruhr University of Bochum. With a background in criminology, he has been researching the relationship between policing and state criminality in North Korea for the last four years.
“I would like to do field observations – spend a couple of weeks in a camp, and participate in interrogations by the State Security Department,” he says. “The problem, of course, is that it would be a life-threatening situation.”
Like other researchers, he has to rely on secondary sources, such as eyewitnesses and NGOs which collect defector testimonies. He finds sources through working with reputable and trustworthy organizations, he says, which he believes wouldn’t intentionally deliver false information.
Charles von Denkowski speaks on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea at the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG)
Because false information exists, it can spread quickly. A recent example of this was a report of a scientist who allegedly defected to Finland and gave evidence-backed testimony that North Korea was carrying out “biological warfare tests” on its own citizens.
After extensive coverage by news outlets around the world, the journalist who published the original scoop revealed that the story was based on false information coming from a North Korean human rights organization. This update, however, which revealed a more complex reality, received much less attention.
One the one hand, it is reasonable to accept that activists trying to raise awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea often use information they cannot prove to be true, especially when complete verification is almost impossible.
One the other, it is also possible that defectors would lie to journalists or researchers. In fact, some experts claim that defectors feel pressured to tell shocking stories about North Korea, as the demand for them is so high.
Because false information exists, it can spread quickly
False information on human rights abuses in North Korea is detrimental to the work on transitional justice in the country, but researchers have to make do with the information available, and issues regarding verification are of key importance.
Well-respected NGOs are regarded as such because they work thoroughly with authentication, and defectors in South Korea go through rigid systems of interrogations, designed to sift out potential spies. Von Denkowski points to the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), as a trustworthy South Korea-based resource for open and verified information on human rights abuses in DPRK.
Aside from working with reliable sources, researchers can, of course, apply their own methods of verification. In von Denkowski’s case, he often interviews sources multiple times.
“I would ask the same questions again, one year later, to see whether they give me the same answer,” he says.
In the end, common sense applies: the more people who say the same thing, the more likely it is to be true. Nevertheless, “you can never have final proof that the person in front of you is telling the truth.”
SPEAKING WITH PERPETRATORS
Von Denkowski’s research represents a new approach towards examining state crime in North Korea. He is, for instance, mostly interested in interviewing those who have committed these crimes, not just their victims.
“It is important to speak with people who executed crimes against humanity and carried out the policing that allowed it to go on,” he says. “I’ve talked to people who tortured or shot other people, but now some of them serve with NGOs and raise awareness on the denial of humanity in North Korea.”
It’s difficult to work with former North Korean state security agents, especially as a foreigner.
“Many are traumatized, highly stressed and want to keep their memories of policing deep down in their souls,” von Denkowski says. “I’ve had people cry during interviews.”
APPROACHING WITH CAUTION
In very sensitive cases, academic ethical standards are followed. A man, who von Denkowski refers to as “Former Policeman No.2”, started crying uncontrollably when he recounted how he in 2004 or 2005 guarded repatriated refugees from China, including pregnant women, at a police station close to the border.
“I’ve talked to people who tortured or shot other people”
The witness remembered that these people were kept in such poor conditions that they had to help each other drink their own urine.
“This person was a reliable source, but mentally he was very harmed,” von Denkowski says. “In this case my research was secondary, I cared more for this person.”
He adds that researchers interviewing defectors must be very careful with questions stirring up memories of atrocities, so not to cause more trauma.
In future prosecution of North Korean crimes against humanity, von Denkowski says there must be a legal provision in place to treat former perpetrators who have worked with human rights organizations less harshly.
He says that in order for perpetrator defectors, as he calls them, to support work on human rights in North Korea, they should be encouraged to work through their past.
“These people deal with a lot of personal guilt,” he says.
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Featured Image: North Korea - Long Way Home by Roman Harak on 2010-09-06 06:04:24