Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Baird's Folly

Over a week ago, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird announced that Canada was boycotting the UN conference on disarmament because North Korea, which has been developing nuclear weapons among other things, was elected as the chair. It was a noble gesture and one that stressed that Canada is a serious player in international affairs.

That good feeling has since diminished and has been replaced with well-repeated and equally well-worn platitudes of human rights.

John Baird's recent meeting with China is as one of a hapless creature lulled into a false sense of security by a snake:

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister addressed human rights and the fate of one of China's most wanted fugitives on Monday, during a visit aimed at building stronger economic ties with the communist superpower.

Speaking from Beijing, John Baird said he was assured by Chinese officials that white-collar crimes would no longer be punishable by death and that he has "no reason to doubt that commitment."

The statement could pave the way for the removal of Lai Changxing, who faces deportation as early as next week following a 12-year legal battle to remain in Canada.

Wanted since 1999 on allegations he masterminded a $10-billion smuggling ring that cheated the Chinese government out of import duties, Mr. Lai will try to convince a Federal Court judge that he won't get a fair trial in China and could be subject to torture or death.

Mr. Baird was reluctant to weigh in on the case as it's currently before the courts, but noted this was one subject on which Canada and China tended to see eye to eye....

Mr. Baird travelled to Beijing over the weekend to meet with government officials and Chinese business leaders as well as the representatives of Canadian companies operating in the country. He will also visit Shanghai before departing for the Indonesian island of Bali to take part in the Association of South East Asian Nations regional security summit.

His visit is meant to lay the groundwork for a subsequent visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

After a full day of meetings Monday, Mr. Baird said he had "frank and open" discussions with his Chinese counterparts about human rights, addressing such "specific" issues as migrant labour rights, minority culture issues, including the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and legal aid.

But the "No. 1 priority," he said, was jobs and the economy and much of the discussion centred around both countries' growth despite the economic downturn.

"They are our second-largest trading partner. Obviously, making my first bilateral visit with China to outline the importance that I and the government place in the relationship with respect to Chinese investment in Canada, it's very welcome, particularly in the energy and natural resources sectors," he said.

"We had a good exchange on that and I said we welcome more on that."

Yes. We all know China has always kept its word, which is why human rights discussions are actually quite redundant.


China has never been a friend to its own people. Its treatment of religious minorities is well-known to be nothing short of barbaric and appalling.  Did Mr. Baird take this into account at all? Did he bother to examine China's past and recent involvement with its vassal state, North Korea, which, not a week ago, Mr. Baird fumed at its highly improper and farcical appointment to a conference on disarmament?

China has backed North Korea and its chief dictators, the Kim dynasty, since the Korean War in 1950. As it sits forever on the UN Security Council, China has pulled its weight in making sure North Korea is never punished for anything it does to its own people or its neighbour, South Korea, with which it is still at war.

And then there is the human element.

There are many horror stories coming out of North Korea. One defector's story:

Kim Hye-sook reaches for a wooden coffee stirrer on the table in front of her to illustrate how public executions were carried out in the North Korean labour camp that was her home for nearly three decades.

"A day before the executions, prison guards would put huge banners to tell everyone what was going to happen, and on the day everyone would be ordered to attend," the diminutive 50-year-old explains. 

"They would take the prisoner to a stake, tie them up and blindfold them. The firing squad would let off 30 or 40 shots until the prisoner's body had turned to honeycomb. Every time the bullets hit, the stake would crack backwards." 

Obtaining testimony about North Korea's gulag system is notoriously difficult. Once inside a labour camp few political prisoners are granted their freedom and even fewer ever make it over the border to describe their ordeal to the outside world. 

Kim is one of the most recent defectors to find safety and - in her first interview with a Western newspaper - she describes a penal system that is shocking in its barbarity as North Korea continues to defy the international community with a human rights record that echoes the worst excesses of Stalin's Soviet Union.

Kim's only crime was what Kim Jong-il's regime calls yeon-jwa-je - guilt by association. In the 1970s her grandfather defected to South Korea and under North Korea's system of collective punishment for political crimes, the entire family was rounded up. "We were living in Pyongyang," she explains, referring to North Korea's capital. "I was just 13 at the time and the whole family had been classified by the state as a 'dangerous element'." Ordered to leave her home by armed guards, she would not see the outside of a labour camp for 28 years....

Kim was taken to Buk chang, a gulag run by the interior ministry, which refers to it by its bland official title: Kwan-li-so (penal-labour colony) No 18...  

The regime is slightly less strict than the camps at Yodok and Kaechon, but beatings, starvation and summary executions are common. "We were always hungry," recalls Kim. "Every day was a struggle to find food. The camp provided a single meal of corn gruel, but it was never enough. We would go out looking for anything green to eat ..." 

Then there were long bouts of forced labour - the average working day was 16 hours. The "lucky ones" worked on farms or in the prison but most in coal mines that fed the nearby power station, slowly succumbing to exhaustion and disease. As decades passed, Kim's grandmother died after years of hunger and her mother and brother were killed in work accidents... 

Freedom for Kim came in 2001 in an amnesty for political prisoners to celebrate Kim Jong-il's birthday. But it would not be the last time she saw Bukchang. With the help of friends, she crossed the border into China. 

Many Han Chinese treat ethnic Koreans with contempt and sexual trafficking is rife. "I crossed over with a 23- and a 27-year-old," Kim remembers. "They were sold for 30,000 yuan ($5472)." 

Kim, who was 43, was saved by her age and found work in a Korean barbecue restaurant. But even though she had escaped North Korea, her boss asked her to return to buy piglets. As an illegal immigrant she felt she had no choice but to agree. 

The North Korean Government views any attempt to leave the country without permission as political dissent. Kim lasted two weeks before she was found and returned to Bukchang in the summer of 2008. Held in a less restrictive corner of the camp while the authorities decided what to do with her, she managed to escape and returned once more to China. From there she made her way overland, via Laos and Thailand, to South Korea, where she now lives. 

The North Korean Government refuses to acknowledge the existence of labour camps. But satellite photos show at least six across the country, housing an estimated 200,000 people.

Another one describes her escape from North Korea and her adjustment to life in South Korea:

I defected to South Korea in search of freedom of speech and movement. I had longed to put my feet on this soil, even in my dreams. After a long time in China, in January 2008 I finally arrived at Incheon International Airport in South Korea. My heart was pounding violently as I went inside the immigration office at the airport. I struggled to gather enough courage, wondering how I would start my speech and how weird I would look in their eyes.

I declared that I was a North Korean seeking asylum and was quickly ushered into another room. Then two men suddenly appeared who seemed to be senior officials. They closely checked my documents and began to ask me if I was actually Chinese. They informed me that I would be incarcerated for an unspecified period of time and then deported back to China if I was in violation of Korean law. Moreover, if the Chinese government learned that I was not actually a Chinese citizen, I would be jailed, heavily fined and then deported again: back to North Korea. I resisted the pressure and asked the officials to call the National Intelligence Service. After three hours, I left the airport in an NIS car and traveled to downtown Seoul.

Four months later, after I had been through my orientation for life in South Korea, I entered the house where I would be living. I found nothing; no TV set, no furniture, not even a spoon, I felt empty. I started out with mixed feelings of fear and excitement, but settling down turned out to be far more challenging than I had expected. I realized there was a wide gap between North and South, ranging from educational background to cultural and linguistic differences. We are a racially homogeneous people on the outside, but inside we have become very different as a result of the 63 years of division.

Does Mr. Baird think that North Korea could pull off this kind of oppression on its own? There wouldn't even be a North Korea (at least not one we recognise now) without China. What good does it do to punish North Korea but let its puppet-master escape whipping? How badly do we need China with its industrial espionage and disgusting human rights abuses that we would forget about the North Koreans?

I hope Mr. Baird has "frank and open discussions" about that.

(hat tip)

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