On Thanksgiving Day, Amanda Mortwedt Oh moved from Washington, D.C., to South Korea with her husband and their 10-month-old twin daughters. No small feat, yet she didn’t think twice about the opportunity.
Having worked with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) while in D.C., moving to South Korea allows her greater access to escapees from North Korea – an estimated 30,000 people compared to the 200 or so living in the United States. The proximity will increase Mortwedt Oh’s understanding of the issues that drive her life’s work: promoting human rights through monitoring and investigating North Korea’s political prison camps.
HRNK is a bipartisan nonprofit organization that conducts original research and publishes information about North Korea’s human rights abuses. One of its main priorities is to increase awareness of North Korea’s political prison camp system with the hope that intensified pressure will result in improvement in the daily lives of prisoners and the end of the gulag system.
“I like to think of HRNK as a small organization with a big mission,” said Mortwedt Oh, a 2012 J.D. graduate of the University of St. Thomas School of Law and 2013 LL.M. graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
The human rights abuses occurring in North Korea have been referred to as a slow-motion holocaust by experts on North Korea, including HRNK’s executive director Greg Scarlatoiu. Mortwedt Oh explained, “It doesn’t mean that the situations are the same, but this description has helped me think about a place that carries out the systematic killing of people through a political system that sends them, and up to three generations of their families, to political prison camps and labor camps where they typically succumb to starvation, disease, torture or execution.”
In March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry (UN COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (official name of North Korea). Drawing from HRNK’s research and publications on human rights abuses in North Korea, Mortwedt Oh made significant contributions to a report that was submitted to the UN COI for consideration during its investigation. The report was influential in the UN COI’s unequivocal conclusion in February 2014 that “[s]ystematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights ... constitute crimes against humanity.”
“It has been nearly three years since the international community was informed that heinous, unjustifiable and egregious acts were being committed against fellow human beings,” Mortwedt Oh said. “My job at HRNK is to help remind others of this very troubling fact through giving voice to those victims who unfortunately can’t speak for themselves. Right now, people are being imprisoned, tortured and murdered based on their perceived political loyalty to Kim Jong-un’s regime.”
Human Rights Issues in Cambodia and North Korea
Prior to attending St. Thomas Law, Mortwedt Oh was on active duty with the U.S. Army. She is now a captain in the Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She entered law school with a strong leaning toward international law, and through opportunities afforded to her while in school, was able to determine that she really wanted to work on human rights issues.
A summer abroad program was one of her most formative experiences: She participated in an externship at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, a hybrid court in Cambodia.
“I really saw the aftermath and consequences of a terrible, controlling and deadly regime,” Mortwedt Oh said. “The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians. This level of atrocity simultaneously riveted my attention yet horrified me.”
She shared her experiences at the court in a 2012 article, “A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand: The Case for Ending the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia,” published by the University of St. Thomas Law Journal. The lessons she learned in Cambodia inform her current work.
As the project officer for HRNK’s prison camp monitoring, she manages the implementation of research involving former prisoner testimony and satellite imagery analysis, culminating in publications designed to advocate on behalf of victims and inform human rights policy decisions.
She admits that what she sees and hears can be very disturbing – that the various forms of torture happening in the camps make her feel physically ill at times – but is quick to add that the strength she maintains to endure the work is “nothing compared to the strength of the former prisoners and North Korean escapees who make it out to share their stories.”
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