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The Peninsula

Insights from German Unification: Dealing with Political Prisoners after Unification

Published October 5, 2015
Category: Inter-Korean

With Germany marking the 25th anniversary of unification this is the fifth part of a five part series looking at insights from the German unification experience for the Korean peninsula. Part I on the challenges of integration can be found here. Part II on political unification can be found here. Part III on integrating the bureaucracy and the military can be found here. Park IV on the social challenges of unification can be found here.

By Troy Stangarone

During East Germany’s 41 years of the existence there were some 250,000 political prisoners. In contrast, the UN Commission of Inquiry’s report indicates that today there are between 80,000-120,000 political prisoners in North Korea whose statuses will need to be addressed once unification occurs.

In the case of Germany, the Treaty on German Unity laid out in Articles 17 and 18 that the decisions of courts handed down by East Germany should remain valid, but that Germans could seek to have the convictions overturned and that a process for the rehabilitation and compensation of political prisoners should be established. However, it was not until 2007 that Germany began providing compensation to political prisoners and it was restricted to low income individuals who had been imprisoned at least 180 days. Additionally, the compensation was limited to a monthly payment of 250 euros, which was increased to 300 euros at the beginning of 2015.

Given the large numbers of individuals held in camps and the regular prison system in North Korea a process will need to be developed to address their status in the short-to-medium term. Decisions will need to be made on what legal code to use in reviewing prisoner cases, what review process to use, and how decisions can be appealed. However, because not every prisoner may be innocent even by South Korean standards, simply releasing everyone from regular prisons or the camps will not be a viable option. Additionally, consideration should be given to a review of all prisoners in North Korea to determine if criminals have already fulfilled a reasonable sentence or if the conditions of the camps warrant a commutation of the remainder of a sentence.

While this process is going on, efforts will need to be made to improve the conditions of the prisoners, provide medical and mental health assistance, and address other needs they may have.  Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is likely present among the North Korean prison populations. Prisoners would need to be screened and treated for MDR-TB to prevent spreading the disease further into North and South Korea.  In addition, a determination will need to be made on whether compensation will be provided and how best to integrate them back into society and the workforce as they may have special needs beyond the average North Korean.

The issue of political prisoners also has an international dimension. Foreign firms that did business with East Germany either knowingly or unknowingly used labor from political prisoners. The most famous case is Ikea, which admitted in 2012 to having used prison labor in East Germany and agreed to provide compensation. At the time, Ikea paid the East German government directly, but the money would often simply be pocketed by the government and not reach the workers. In the Korean case, a medium term issue will be determining if the government should pursue foreign firms that may have used forced labor for compensation, and more specifically whether Korea should reach a separate understanding with China on this issue as the largest trading partner with North Korea. Additionally, this issue also extends to the 1800 contract workers who have been sent abroad to earn the regime hard currency.

Lastly, consideration should be given to issues that arise from unification if it does not follow the relatively peaceful model of Germany. While South Korea will need to seek assurances that the prisoners will not be harmed during the process of peaceful unification, if North Korea were to collapse into a state of violence through a civil war or if a low scale rebellion were to break out during the process, steps would need to be taken quickly to ensure the protection of the prisoners as  North Korean prison officials may seek to avoid prosecution by destroying evidence — including the ability of victims’ to testify against them.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Matthew Cook’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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