While North Korea’s global reputation is shaped by its repression and insularity, the eccentricity and absurdity of Kim Jong-Il may have distracted many of us from the true depth of the regime’s cruelty and brutality, which persists to this day under his son Kim Jong-un. A recent report by the United Nations highlights just how extraordinarily harsh life is in North Korea, detailing the widespread, systematic violation of basic rights and the overall depravity of this genuinely, unambiguously evil regime. The report states, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”The report reveals crimes against humanity that entail “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” The following are some key highlights of the report:
- Denial of Fundamental Rights: The commission finds that there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.
- State Indoctrination Machine: The State operates an all-encompassing indoctrination machine that takes root from childhood to propagate an official personality cult and to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader (Suryong), effectively to the exclusion of any thought independent of official ideology and State propaganda.
- Total Absence of Subsidiarity: Virtually all social activities undertaken by citizens of all ages are controlled by the Workers’ Party of Korea.
- No Freedom of the Press: State-controlled media are the only permitted source of information; access to television and radio broadcasts, as well as to the Internet, is severely restricted; and telephone calls are monitored and mostly confined to domestic connections for citizens.
- Anti-Christian Policies: The State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat. Apart from the few organized State-controlled churches, Christians are prohibited from practicing their religion and are persecuted.
- Discrimination and Sexual Violence against Women: Discrimination against women remains pervasive in all aspects of society. Sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society. Violations of the rights to food and to freedom of movement have resulted in women and girls becoming vulnerable to trafficking and increased engagement in transactional sex and prostitution.
- No Freedom of Movement: The State imposes on citizens where they must live and work, while the forced assignment to a State-designated place of residence and employment is heavily driven by discrimination based on songbun. This has created a socioeconomically and physically segregated society, where people considered politically loyal to the leadership can live and work in favourable locations, whereas families of persons who are considered politically suspect are relegated to marginalized areas.
- Forced Abortion and Infanticide: Repatriated women who are pregnant are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and babies born to repatriated women are often killed.
- No Escape: China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who cross the border illegally.
- Sex Trafficking: Many women are trafficked by force or deception from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into or within China for the purposes of exploitation in forced marriage or concubinage, or prostitution under coercive circumstances.
- Denial of Right to Food: The State has used food as a means of control over the population. It has prioritized those whom the authorities believe to be crucial in maintaining the regime over those deemed expendable. Even during the worst period of mass starvation, the State impeded the delivery of food aid by imposing conditions that were not based on humanitarian considerations. The State denied humanitarian access to some of the most affected regions and groups, including homeless children. Decisions, actions and omissions by the State and its leadership caused the death of at least hundreds of thousands of people and inflicted permanent physical and psychological injuries on those who survived.
- State Failure in Food Production: State-controlled production and distribution of food had not been able to provide the population with adequate food since the end of the 1980s.
- Starvation as Punishment: The State has also used deliberate starvation as a means of control and punishment in detention facilities. This has resulted in the deaths of many political and ordinary prisoners.
- The Climate of Fear: The police and security forces systematically employ violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations in order to create a climate of fear that preempts any challenge to the current system of government and to the ideology underpinning it. The institutions and officials involved are not held accountable. Impunity reigns. The use of torture is an established feature of the interrogation process.
- The “Disappeared”: Persons who are found to have engaged in major political crimes are “disappeared”, without trial or judicial order, to political prison camps (kwanliso). There, they are incarcerated and held incommunicado. Their families are not even informed of their fate if they die. In the past, it was common that the authorities sent entire families to political prison camps for political crimes committed by close relatives (including forebears, to the third generation) on the basis of the principle of guilt by association. The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades. Well over 200,000 persons, including children, who were brought from other countries to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may have become victims of enforced disappearance.
- Violations against Prisoners: Gross violations are also being committed in the ordinary prison system, which consists of ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso). Torture, rape and other arbitrary cruelties at the hands of guards and fellow prisoners are widespread and committed with impunity.
Options for addressing and ending these crimes against humanity are limited, given China’s support for the regime and other factors. The report argues, “The Security Council should refer the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court for action in accordance with that court’s jurisdiction. The Security Council should also adopt targeted sanctions against those who appear to be most responsible for crimes against humanity.” Overall, as the report says, “the international community must accept its responsibility to protect the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from crimes against humanity,” even if it is unclear how this responsibility can be fulfilled in their short-term.