The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As I was working on some gender discrimination in NK research, I was encouraged in a small way by reading some choice words from Vitit MuntarbhornSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In his Report (A/HRC/13/47, 17 February 2010), the Special Rapporteur highlighted a couple of encouraging developments that happened in North Korea. While the rest of the document discusses the many egregious human rights issues in the country, there was a brief moment of positivity, something that I think can’t be taken for granted in the NK human rights arena.

Excerpt from Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,
 Vitit Muntarbhorn, pp. 5-6:

It is clear from six years of observing the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that the abuses against the general population for which the authorities should be responsible are both egregious and endemic. 

This is not to deny that there have been some constructive developments throughout the years in regard to the country’s development and engagement with the international community. First, as has been recognized consistently by the Special Rapporteur, the country is a party to four key human rights treaties (on civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, women’s rights and child rights) and has engaged with the monitoring bodies under those treaties. Second, a number of United Nations agencies are present in the country to render assistance, and cooperation with the authorities on some fronts has been positive, for example with regard to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) work on child immunization. Third, at the end of 2009, the country sent representatives to Geneva to participate in the universal periodic review of its human rights record and expressed its willingness to cooperate with this new United Nations procedure. It remains to be seen to what extent the authorities will accept the numerous recommendations emerging from the review and how they will substantiate follow-up measures as a consequence of the review. Fourth, interestingly, in the 2009 reform of the national Constitution, the words “human rights” were inserted into the text. Yet, it seems that this country’s notion of human rights is much related to the protection of the State- cum-elite and the rejection of external threats, rather than the human-centric notion of universal human rights. As a response to international influence, there have been some law reforms, such as periodic adjustments of the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, and new policies such as those concerning the development of children. 

However, the more constructive side of developments is undermined by the omnipotent State seeking to prop up a regime which is out of sync with the general population and which tries to perpetuate its survival at the cost of the people. The general scenario is bleak for a variety of reasons. First, the non-democratic — indeed totalitarian — nature of the power base has created a pervasive “State of fear” or “State as one big prison” for the mass base which is not part of the elite, with inordinate constraints imposed on the rights and freedoms of the people. The power base does not tolerate dissent; indeed, it suppresses it with all the might of the State. 

Second, society suffers an extensive surveillance and informant system, leading to political dystopia. Practices to instil fear among the population are rampant, including public executions, torture, collective punishments, and mistreatment of women and children. They have given rise to poignant nomenclature such as “pigeon torture” and “airplane torture”. 

Third, the national resources are distorted in favour of militarization and the ruling elite. This is most evident in regard to the expenditure on the nuclearization process, a development castigated by the international community through various United Nations resolutions. This mis-expenditure has not only depleted the national budget, which should have been spent on the welfare of the population, but it has also compromised international peace and security. As a testament to the latter, various sanctions have been imposed by the Security Council. On the home front, the mention of human rights in the Constitution is illusory, as the Constitution also now entrenches a “military first” policy. The preferred orientation, namely “people first”, is absent from both the text and reality. 

For further information on North Korean human rights, check out the publications of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). HRNK also has a list of resources on its North Korean Human Rights Resource Center page.



Summary of “A Quiet Opening”

InterMedia published a fantastic report in 2012 about the information environment in North Korea. Here’s a quick highlight of some of the key points, but please read this very informative study! It’s available here.

InterMedia: A Quiet Opening

A Quiet Opening is a 2012 study by InterMedia that highlights the changing information environment in North Korea (NK) and assesses levels of access to outside information within NK. It examines the general media environment in NK, focusing on television, DVDs, and radio, and new information technologies such as mobile phones, computers, USB drives, and MP3 players. The report is based on survey data from a 2010 BBG Refugee and Traveler Survey in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, PRC (sample size: 250) and a 2011 Recent North Korea Defector Survey (sample size: 420) and subsequent structural equation modeling (SEM) analysis.[1] A key finding is that a strong relationship exists between outside media exposure and positive perceptions held by North Koreans of the outside world.[2]


  1. Word of mouth is still the most important source of information in NK.
  2. DVDs are the most common and perhaps most impactful form of outside media in NK.
  3. Interviews and survey analysis indicate that North Koreans’ specific knowledge and particular beliefs about the outside world are most affected by the relatively greater quantity of information broadcast through outside radio or TV news.
  4. South Korean and other foreign films – for entertainment – have much higher production values than NK media because they are seen as credible since they are not propaganda.
  5. Korean Chinese and Chinese in Korea play an important role in circulating prohibited goods, particularly DVDs, inside NK.
  6. DVD sellers appear to be state officials and wealthy traders since they enjoy some level of protection from law enforcement.
  7. Listening to foreign radio is more dangerous than viewing TV or DVDs, but it is the only nationwide source of real-time outside media in NK and the only source of outside news for those unable to receive TV broadcasts from China or South Korea; listeners tend to be more male and somewhat older than audiences of other types of foreign media; most listening occurs at night.
  8. A primary reason for listening to foreign radio is to hear about international politics because of economic implications, such as effect on exchange rates and contraband trading. 
  9. Interviewees believed that those with greater economic means had significantly more access to outside information than those with fewer economic means.
  10. North Koreans value new information in radio broadcasts, especially about the NK leadership and ROK.
  11.  Demand outweighs supply of foreign media.
  12. “Fewer citizens appear to be reporting on each other” for watching, listening, and possessing foreign media. This seems to indicate increased trust/reliability among groups of people.
  13. SEM analysis of survey data collected from recent NK defectors indicates that those with exposure to outside news or entertainment media are more likely to be favorably disposed toward South Korea and the U.S.
  14. Outside media exposure positively impacts beliefs and attitudes about the outside world.
  15. NK authorities appear to “step up” jamming radio signals around significant events.
  16.  Generally, a strong mix of shortwave (SW) and medium wave (AM) gives a broadcaster the greatest chance of being heard in NK.
  17. Maintaining a strong radio presence is of great strategic importance to the ROK and the U.S.
  18.  Elites in North Korea: elite listeners rely on radio for hard news and analysis otherwise unavailable in NK; political elite enjoy special status and privileges; enjoy access to more outside information; earliest adopters of new technologies such as computers, USB drives, MP3 players, and mobile phones from China; have ability to secure more energy, purchase luxury goods, including media devices.
  19.  Less-educated, non-elite, rural North Koreans tend to favor cultural fare and entertainment programs in foreign radio content.
  20. Since 2011, there is a domestic mobile phone service operated by Egyptian firm Orascom, but this network is monitored and limited to NK. However, there is a growing illegal network along the Chinese border areas with the use of illegal Chines mobile phones. InterMedia reports that illegal mobile phones have greatly impacted trade, defections, and the general flow of information coming in and going out of NK. Illegal mobile phone use consisted of primarily making calls to China. Interviewees did not send or receive text messages or take pictures or video with their phones.
  21.  Unlike a free-tuning radio or modified computer, it is not illegal to own a computer, MP3 player, or USB drive. So, “legal devices can very easily and discreetly be used to access foreign media content.”
  22. To maintain tighter control, TVs, radios, computers, and tape recorders must be registered with authorities. Telephone lines are wiretapped, and mobile phones must be subscribed at Koryolink offices.
  23. Recent developments, such as an internet server in Pyongyang and over 1000 registered “.kp” domain names, indicate NK is developing a more sophisticated internet strategy. 

[1] SEM analysis: often used to assess the effects of media exposure on behavioral change.

[2] SEM analysis of survey data collected from recent North Korean defectors indicates that those with exposure to outside news or entertainment media are more likely to be favorably disposed toward South Korea and the U.S. This confirms that outside media exposure positively impacts beliefs and attitudes about the outside world.

General Staff Statement Says KPA “Ready to Promptly Launch Operations Any Time”

Also note: October 10th is Party Foundation Day in North Korea, which marks the beginning of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). Party Foundation Day is a public holiday in North Korea.

North Korea Leadership Watch

The Korean People’s Army [KPA] General Staff issued a statement on 7 October (Monday) which said that the KPA’s “the units of all services and army corps level of the KPA received an emergency order from its supreme command on October 5 (Saturday) to reexamine the operation plans already ratified by it and keep themselves fully ready to promptly launch operations any time” in response to ongoing joint US-ROK maritime exercises under way in the East Sea (Sea of Japan).  The General Staff described the routine exercises, scheduled from 30 September to 13 October involve the aircraft carrier USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group and include anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare drills, air defense exercises and education and cultural exchanges.  The KPA General Staff also said that the US “should bear in mind that the more frequently and the deeper its imperialist aggression forces’ nuclear strike means including the nuclear carrier…

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