Shin Dong-kyuk is the only man known to have been born and to escape from a North Korean prison known as Camp 14. A memoir detailing Shin Dong-hyuk’s life, “Escape from Camp 14” was published in English last year and recently hit the bookshelves in South Korea this month.

The unflinching account from a defector revealed how he picked corn kernels out of cow manure to eat as he competed with his family for food at one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps. He was also forced to watch his mother’s hanging and his brother’s execution.

He was born in a “total control zone” where prison authorities wield complete power and where guards beat children to death with no hesitation. His account put a human face on the abuses in North Korean prison camps, a brutal system which has survived twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and much longer than the Nazi concentration camps.

In March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva agreed to examine what it called “grave, widespread and systematic” violations of human rights in North Korea, including the use of prison camps.

South Korea, for its part does not avoid its share of international condemnation. Margaret Sekaggya, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, concluded a 10-day visit to South Korea on Friday by offering some harsh criticism for the country’s treatment of activists, who she said are subjected to harassment, physical violence, intimidation and unlawful surveillance due to their criticism of government policies. Ms. Sekaggya said that South Korea does not meet international standards in several areas, including the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association and labor rights, even though the country’s constitution guarantees them.

North and South Korean officials meet in Seoul on Wednesday and Thursday for their first high-level dialogue in six years. The meeting will be the first dialogue at a senior level since Kim Jong Un took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il in 2011.

The two Koreas agreed that in the talks in Seoul they would discuss reopening their joint industrial complex, as well as resuming cross-border tours and the Red Cross programs of reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The industrial complex in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and cross-border tours to the Diamond Mountain resort in southeastern North Korea had been two of the best-known symbols of South Korea’s past efforts to use economic cooperation to encourage the North to open up.

Prominently absent in the agenda for the Korean talks was any direct mention of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, or any discussion on the known human right abuses taking place in North and South Korea. Under Mr. Kim, North Korea has declared that it is no longer interested in talks on ending its nuclear weapons program, and its ruling Workers’ Party adopted a national strategy of reviving the country’s moribund economy while continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal. Regarding human rights abuses, officials from both countries deny any wrongdoing.

Dialogue at any level marks a positive sign in the countries’ recent history, which has seen North Korean nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches and “military exercises” by the South. However, given the importance of subjects such as the danger of nuclear weapons and the infringement on human rights by both countries, it is hoped that these talks are only the beginning of further discussions between the neighboring countries, which would ultimately include input from other interested parties and nongovernmental agencies.


The Death Penalty: Does the Punishment Ever Fit the Crime?

“Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated can be compared. For there to be an equivalency, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Albert Camus—”Reflections on the Guillotine, Resistance, Rebellion & Death” (1956).

Lindsay June Sandifor, a 56-year-old British woman caught smuggling blocks of cocaine in her suitcase has been sentenced to death in Indonesia. Even though prosecutors in Bali had asked for a 15-year sentence, the panel of judges handed down the death penalty. Ms. Sandifor was arrested last May after she was found to have blocks of cocaine weighing 4.7 kilograms (10.4 pounds) in her suitcase when she arrived on the island of Bali.

At the trial, the grandmother from Gloucestershire, England, said she was smuggling the drugs to protect her son. She said one of her co-accused had threatened to kill him if she did not comply. However Indonesian police said she was at the centre of a drugs importing ring involving three other Britons and an Indian who have also been arrested.

Southeast Asian governments impose the toughest drug sanctions on the planet and many impose the death penalty for individuals convicted of drug trafficking. The death penalty for drug cases has received a great deal of criticism from people who think that the penalty does not fit the crime and amounts to a disproportionate sanction.

Meanwhile, in India, the clamor for death sentences for the culprits of the brutal Delhi gang rape, which resulted in the death of a 23-year-old victim and the severe beating of her male companion, grows stronger. The head of India’s rights panel this past Tuesday said death penalty in any case is against the universal declaration of human rights. “[The] death penalty in any case is against universal declaration of human rights,” National Human Rights Commission chairman KG Balakrishnan said. However, it seems by most accounts that a vast majority of the Indian people want the death penalty imposed on the assailants.

According to Amnesty International, the trend internationally is unmistakably moving toward abolition. Use of the death penalty worldwide has continued to shrink, and use of the death penalty has also been increasingly curtailed in international law. Since 1990, an average of three countries each year have abolished the death penalty, and today over two-thirds of the world’s nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice.

Clearly, there is ever more recognition that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to crime, and that the imposition of such a penalty is very costly to democratic governments that must provide for procedural due process protections in its imposition.  But, are there crimes that deserve the death penalty? Can we as a society agree as to what crimes deserve the penalty of death? If governments cannot reach a consensus on what crimes deserve the death penalty, should the death penalty be abolished?



23 year old intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was arrested in May 2010 for allegedly handing hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and videos of helicopter attacks to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Manning is charged with disclosing classified information and the capital offense of “aiding the enemy,” for which the death penalty can be imposed. Military prosecutors are requesting life in prison. Manning’s attorney, David E. Coombs, has filed a motion to dismiss the case based on the government’s violation of his client’s rights under Article 13 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The case is currently scheduled to start trial in March 2013.

After his arrest, soldier Manning was held in a camp in Arifjan, Kuwait for three months and then moved to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, where he was held in maximum security for approximately 8 months. The oppressive, borderline-torturous measures to which he was subjected during his imprisonment have been known for some time, but last week, as he testified about such treatment, we were able to hear some of the details.

According to the soldier’s account, for the first 4 months of his detention, he was in solitary confinement and only allowed to leave his cell for 20 minutes per day. He was made to stand for long periods of time, and forced to remove his underwear at night for fear that he would use his underpants to commit suicide. Since he was considered a possible risk of self-harm, he was under observation throughout the night, with a fluorescent light located right outside the cell blazing into his eyes. When he would try to cover his eyes with his suicide blanket, or turn on to his side away from the light, the guards would bang on his cell bars to wake him up so they could see his face.

A 14 month long formal UN investigation conducted by UN special rapporteur Juan Mendez, denounced those conditions as “cruel and inhuman.” In his report to the UN General Assembly he stated: “[i]mposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.”

President Obama’s state department spokesman, retired air force colonel PJ Crowley, resigned after publicly condemning Manning’s treatment. A prison psychologist testified this week that Manning’s conditions were more damaging than those found on death row, or at Guantánamo Bay.

Article 13 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that: “[n]o person, while being held for trial, may be subjected to punishment or penalty other than arrest or confinement upon the charges pending against him, nor shall the arrest or confinement imposed upon him be any more rigorous than the circumstances required to insure his presence, but he may be subjected to minor punishment during that period for infractions of discipline.”

Article 16 of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, which the United States ratified in 1994, states in part: “[e]ach State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment […] when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

Does the seriousness of the alleged crime committed by soldier Manning justify the treatment to which he was subjected during his detention?

How is the information about the conditions of soldier Manning’s detention as well as what transpired in Abu Ghraib affecting America’s image around the world?

Have United States officials acted in violation of International Law? What should be the United States government official position in this matter?