Human Rights in North Korea

Holding true to its uniqueness, North Korea interprets ‘human rights’ to mean national sovereignty, and it adamantly denies any accusations of human rights violations. Despite this complete denial, North Korea is arguably the worst violator of human rights in the world. In fact, it has been called “the last worst place on earth.”[1]

North Korean Perspective of Human Rights

North Korea operates under an entirely different perspective of human rights and sovereignty than many other countries. From North Korea’s standpoint, human rights are not inherent in individuals but granted by the state. “[A]s human rights
are guaranteed by sovereign States, any attempt to interfere in others’ internal affairs, overthrow the governments and change the systems on the pretext of human rights issues constitutes violations
of human rights. In this sense, the DPRK holds that human rights immediately mean national sovereignty.[2] In fact, “[t]he North Korean government has stressed that human rights should be primarily based on the protection of national sovereignty and collective rights, and that the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the State should be likewise emphasized.”[3]

In 
its 2009 report to the Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, North Korean diplomats insisted, “[T]he DPRK holds that human rights immediately mean national sovereignty.” This is inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).[4]

“Of course, the regime’s view that international human rights values are anathema—and a direct threat—to its existence as a cohesive political structure may well be true if there is little genuine support
for the regime among its people. Freeing people from oppression is a core principle of human rights.”[5]

“North Korea’s 2009 Constitution also provides an interpretation of human rights at variance with international standards. On the one hand, the Constitution requires regime institutions to protect human rights norms. On the other hand, it proclaims that all institutions and people must ‘struggle actively against class enemies and all law offenders.’”[6] Not surprisingly, the Kim regime takes a harsh outlook toward states that request it be held accountable for human rights abuses. As is characteristic of the juche philosophy and propagandist-oriented ways, the North Korean government has stated that international attention to human rights abuses in North Korea is “‘a plot of propaganda fabricated and persistently pursued by hostile forces’ as part of their psychological warfare to ‘overthrow the State system of the country.’”[7]

Egregious Human Rights Violations

Despite its denial, North Korea’s deplorable human rights record is systematic, pervasive, and particularly egregious in North Korea.

George Orwell wrote, ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ The North Korean boot has been stamping on human faces since 1953, almost with impunity from the international community, craven for a deal, some deal, any deal, with the totalitarian leadership.[8]

Since North Korea’s human rights abuses are numerous, only the songbun system and political prison camps are highlighted to illustrate the atrocities committed by the Kim regime.

a. Songbun

In an effort to outdo his Maoist and Leninist forebears, the Kim dynasty created a camp system whereby the so-called offender is not the only one condemned, not even the immediate family, but often the generation above and below. It is therefore common for those labeled with that totalitarian catch-all favorite of the Soviets and the Chinese, “enemies of the state,” to be small children and elderly grandparents.[9]

According to some, “[t]he most heinous example of…abuses is the North Korean camp system…This classification of people based on ideological trustworthiness determines a person’s fate from the time they are born.”[10] Songbun has been practiced since North Korea was created and “has played a major role in determining the main victims of the human rights violations
that are of concern to the U.N. General Assembly.”[11]

Robert Collins’ definitive piece, Marked for Life: SONGBUN, North Korea’s Social Classification System, illustrates the care and attention to detail that the North Korean regime takes in ensuring all of its citizens are identified as members of three distinct social castes, all hovering around perceived levels of regime loyalty. “Songbun subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state. These many categories are grouped into three broad castes: the core, wavering, and hostile classes.”[12]

The “state-published Political Dictionary states, ‘human rights are to be enforced through dictatorship against the class enemy.’ The songbun system has made the identity of these “class enemies” clear.[13] “The discrimination created by songbun ensures politically-directed denial of the right to make many of the decisions other countries assume to be a matter of individual prerogative—one’s occupation, spouse, housing, education, and medical treatment.”[14]

In a recent ROK Ministry of Unification survey where they were asked to identify the greatest abuse of human rights In North Korean society, North Korean refugees in the ROK answered: the famine (29.6%), public executions (22.6%), torture (19.1%), discrimination based in songbun (18.3%), lack of freedom of movement (6.1%), and lack of freedom to communicate (2.1%). However, among party members from that group, 66.7% insisted songbun was the greatest tool of abuse of North Korean human rights.[15]

b. Political Prison Camps, aka Gulags

Another egregious and more visible violation of human rights and international criminal law by the Kim regime is the establishment and operation of political prison camps, also known as gulags, in which political prisoners are enslaved for any perceived threat to the Kim regime. “North Korea’s State Security Agency maintains a dozen political prisons and about 30 forced labor and labor education camps, mainly in remote areas.”[16]

Not long ago, a newspaper article told the story of former political prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk’s experience living in one of North Korea’s political prison camps. Shin said that due to the rampant starvation, fellow prisoners were ‘happy’ when one of them died because it meant more food. He recounted having to eat rats and corn kernels from animal feces as well.[17] And thanks to his incredible journey and illuminating book, Escape from Camp 14, the world knows a little more about Shin’s tragic upbringing in one of these gulags:

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.[18]

These gulags, where political prisoners are starved, tortured, and worked to death, have accounted for over 1 million deaths.[19] This figure does not factor in recent intelligence and aerial satellite imagery that shows that the gulags in North Korea are far larger than previously known. Amnesty International estimates conservatively that Kim’s gulags now imprison at least 200,000 people for political reasons. David Hawk’s 2012 and 2003 reports call for the dismantlement of these prisons.[20]

Conclusion

The DPRK has signed onto several human rights treaties, including the ICCPR and ICESCR, but has proven through egregious human rights violations such as songbun and gulags, that its signature has no merit. The fact that the international community knows strikingly little about the North Korea’s human rights abuses – because it intentionally keeps its borders closed off to the world – is in itself evidence that there are potential human rights violations, if none other than the violation of the right to information. In time, hopefully the regime will collapse.

It is not easy to predict when change will come. It was not foreseen that the Berlin Wall would fall when it did, that the Soviet Union would collapse, and that reforms would take place in Arab countries. But bringing down the information wall around North Korea and exposing its crimes against humanity may in time lead to change.[21]


[1] Jack Rendler, North Korea: The Last Worst Place On Earth, Amnesty International: Human Rights Now Blog, May 11, 2011, http://networkedblogs.com/hJTyR.

[2] Robert Collins, Marked for Life: SONGBUN, North Korea’s Social Classification System, 90-91 (HRNK, 2012) (hereinafter “Songbun”) (citing DPRK National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 15(A) of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, Human Rights Council, Working group on the Universal Periodic Review, Sixth Session, Geneva, 30 November-11 December 2009, A/HRC/WG.6/6/PRK/1, 27 August 2009, 4).

[3] In Sup Han, The 2004 Revision of Criminal Law in North Korea: A Take-Off?, 5 Santa Clara J. Int’l L. 122, 130-31 (2006).

[4] Songbun, supra note 2, at 92; see Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Sixth session, Geneva, 30 November-11 December 2009
National Report Submitted In Accordance With Paragraph 15 (A) Of The Annex To Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1,* Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (A/HRC/WG.6/6/PRK/1, 27 August 2009), Section 15. URL: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/151/47/PDF/G0915147.pdf?OpenElement.  

[5] Songbun, supra note 2, at 93.

[6] Id. at 88 (citing Sin, “North Korean Constitution—April 2009.”); see also p. 63 (analyzing North Korea’s criminal code).

[7] Id. at 131.

[8] Lamont Colucci, As the World Watches, North Korean Atrocities Unfold, US News World Report, April 19, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/04/19/north-koreas-forgotten-story.

[9] Songbun, supra note 2, at 87.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at iii.

[13] Songbun, supra note 2, at 93.

[14] Id. at 87.

[15] Id. at 86-87 (citing Lee Kum-sun, Kim Su-am, “Pukhan Inkwon Chimhae Kujo mit Kaeson Chollyak (North Korean Human Rights Abuse and Strategies for Improvement), Ministry of Unification (Seoul: Research Series 09-11, 2009); see also id. at 104.

[16] Robert Windrem, Death, terror in N. Korea gulag, NBC NEWS online, January 15, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3071466/ns/us_news-only/t/death-terror-n-korea-gulag/#.UXdWaL_3DKE.

[17] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[18] Rendler, supra note 1.

[19] Wikipedia, Human Rights in North Korea, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_North_Korea.

[20] David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag Second Edition, April 10, 2012, http://hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HRNK_HiddenGulag2_Web_5-18.pdf.

[21] Roberta Cohen, North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, March 21, 2013, Brookings, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/03/21-north-korea-cohen

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