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North Korea Claims One of Our Own

Guest Column
Alice Suh

“While I was there, three women delivered babies on the cement floor without any blankets. It was horrible to watch the prison doctor kicking the pregnant women with his boots. When a baby was born, the doctor shouted, ‘Kill it quickly. How can a criminal in the prison expect to have a baby? Kill it,’” says Lee Soon-ok, a North Korean prison camp survivor.

“When I was 10 years old, we were put to work digging clay and constructing a building. And there were dozens of kids, and while digging the ground, it collapsed. And they died. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents.” This horror story is from Kang Chol Hwan, imprisoned when he was nine years old for political statements made by his grandfather.

The real crisis in North Korea today is not what Kim Jong Il’s nuclear program, it is his treatment of North Korean citizens. Last month, satellite photos confirmed the existence of at least a dozen political prisons and thirty forced labor camps. Eyewitness accounts tell of horrors that rival Stalin’s gulags and Pol Pot’s killing fields. These camps are vast--at least two camps are larger than the District of Columbia--and today hold an estimated 200,000 political prisoners. Those who escaped have testified that up to a quarter of the prison population died each year under horrific conditions. The camps are continually refilled with others deemed disloyal to the government, along with three generations of their families. Children are imprisoned for their grandparents’ words.

Yes, this is heartbreaking. But why should time-strapped MIT students care about this? Because in 1987, one of their own was taken. Jae Hwan Lee was a first-year MIT graduate student on vacation in Austria when he was allegedly kidnapped by North Koreans. In 2001, North Korean officials announced his death in a political prison camp but released no further information. No one at MIT was aware of his death when I contacted them--not President Vest, not former President Paul Gray. No one has made a public statement about this. No one has publicly pressed North Korea to release the details surrounding his death.

Lee was a South Korean graduate student in his first year at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Euiwhan Kim (ScD ’89), then the president of the Korean Graduate Students’ Association, did not know Lee personally but said he remembered hearing that “he was very smart, very bright...[it was] rumored that an MIT professor went to a conference and scouted him for grad school.”

After a three-month tour of Europe with other college students, Lee returned to the United States on July 17, 1987 and stayed at his uncle’s home in New Jersey. Lee then left three days later, claiming he was going to a concert in Vienna. This was the last time Lee was seen outside of North Korea.

On August 12, Lee appeared on North Korean television and radio, announcing his defection to North Korea. The business school student claimed he was “disillusioned with the South Korean society...and with the capitalist world where corruption and immorality prevail.”

North Korea has a history of abductions dating back to 1953. South Korea claims that 487 of its citizens are being held against their will in the North. In a stunning confession made last September, North Korea publicly apologized for kidnapping thirteen Japanese, but has so far remained silent about the South Koreans.

When Lee appeared in North Korea, US and South Korean government agencies were naturally concerned. His family and friends at MIT did not believe that he had willingly defected. Lee was from a wealthy Christian family, the son of a South Korean congressman and member of the ruling party.

Paul Gray, then the president of MIT, recalled that there had been contact between MIT and the State Department in the days after Lee announced his defection.

President Gray said that he had contacted “several members of the congress whom I knew well enough. One was a member of a House or Senate committee East Asian affairs.” Gray did not wish to reveal the name of this congressman, saying only that he was still a part of the Massachusetts delegation to Congress today. There was little more that could be done, he said. “All you could do is pass it along to the congressperson and if they don’t succeed, you don’t hear any more.”

The KGSA also wrote letters to Massachusetts congressmen, including Senator Ted Kennedy.

They may have had some delayed impact. Senator Ted Kennedy has recently been an outspoken voice for North Korean refugees, inviting survivors of prison camps (such as Soon-Ok Lee) to Congress to testify about their experiences.

Of the MIT community’s response, Kim said, “I think most MIT students were indifferent, except for KGSA.” Even KGSA was very active at first, meeting with the president and the family, but their efforts slowly waned as they exhausted all possible courses of action.

After 1987, news of Lee was scarce. North Korean journalists reported at a 1988 Red Cross meeting that Lee had gotten married and was living well in the North.

In 1999, the National Security Agency learned that Lee was being held in a detention center for political prisoners. South Korea’s intelligence service also told Lee’s family that North Korea had broadcast over loudspeakers across the demilitarized zone that Lee was a defector.

“I was puzzled,” said Gray. “The North Koreans claimed he defected and then they said he was in a concentration camp. It doesn’t make any sense.” Soon after, Lee’s family again contacted the president of MIT, now Charles Vest.

“His family did indeed write to me,” Vest said, “asking for MIT’s assistance in seeking his release from prison in North Korea. After seeking advice on best avenues to pursue this, I contacted the Department of State and raised the issue of North Korea's treatment of Mr. Lee with them.”

Their efforts, however, were futile. On February 15, 2001, the North Korean Red Cross was instructed to inform their South Korean counterparts of Lee’s death. They gave no details as to when, where or how he died. Lee’s death, unnoticed in the United States, was reported in the following days by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, BBC broadcasts and Channel News Asia. The New York Times later reported his death while interviewing Lee’s parents in an article on Nov. 18, 2002 about the Korean kidnappings.

Euihwan Kim believes that MIT should make a public statement about Lee’s death. Our only excuse for not acting before was that we didn’t know. We didn’t know that North Korea had vast concentration camps. We didn’t know of the testimonies of survivors, of the infanticides and forced abortions, the live burials, the biological testing, the molten iron poured down the throats of religious believers. We didn’t know an MIT student could die in such a place, that Jae Hwan Lee died in such a place.

MIT, now you know. President Vest, now you know. Will you not speak?

Alice Suh is a senior in Course 9.