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 Muntarbhorn, Special 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.