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.

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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]

KEY POINTS:

  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.

HRNK releases its third David Hawk report on NK’s political prison camps!

For the newest information on North Korea’s political prison camps, please read the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s (HRNK) report, North Korea’s Hidden Gulag: Interpreting Reports of Changes in the Prison Camps, by David Hawk. It is available here.

North Korea's Hidden Gulag“The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a US-based non-governmental organization, has launched a new report by David Hawk, updating the current status of the North Korean political prison camp system. The report was made possible by funding from the Open Society Foundations (OSF). The report confirms the closure of two of North Korea’s known six political penal labor colonies, finding “extremely high” the total number of prisoners remaining incarcerated on political grounds, reported missing and unaccounted for, and who have died in detention. The report builds on the 2012 HRNK report Hidden Gulag Second Edition by the same author, drawing on recent satellite imagery analysis, interviews with former camp prisoners and guards as well as new sources of information within North Korea.” (emphasis added)

Full press release is here.

 

Commission of Inquiry now taking submissions!

In case you haven’t heard, the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK is currently accepting submissions about human rights violations in North Korea. If you would like to submit evidence to assist the Commission, please read this: COI information sheet.

Additionally, the COI is currently hearing testimony from defectors on the human rights situation in North Korea. Here’s a NYTimes article featuring Shin Dong-hyuk. The Commission will reportedly be in Seoul until August 27th.

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Shin Dong-hyuk attended a public hearing at Yonsei University in Seoul on Tuesday.

The Commission’s contact info:

For any query relating to the COI or to provide information relevant to its mandate, please write to: coidprksubmissions@ohchr.org

or

Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea OHCHR
United Nations Office at Geneva
CH-1211 Geneva, Switzerland

Guest Blog Posts Coming Soon!

I’m honored to have Professor Morse Tan’s articles on my blog. Stay tuned for his deeply insightful works about North Korea!

morse_tan

 

Professor Morse Tan, J.D., Northwestern University, teaches at Northern Illinois University College of Law and has published in   leading law journals in his fields, including as one of the leading legal scholars on North Korea in the Western Hemisphere. He is currently working on a book with Routledge Press on the dual crises of security and human rights in North Korea.

Are you looking for some great blogs about North Korea?

word-cloud-blog

My blog is pretty new, but I have fortunately had some inspiring blogs about North Korea to lean on. Here are a few blogs I recommend and hope to emulate – in terms of level of insight and prolificacy – someday:

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s blog

North Korea: Witness to Transformation

38 North

One Free Korea

North Korea Leadership Watch

Leave me a comment if you’d like to suggest other blogs!

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The Arduous March: Was It a Man-Made Famine?

North Korea famine

Experts say yes, the effects of the Arduous March, which left up to 3.5 million people dead from starvation and related illnesses, could have been significantly lessened if the North Korean regime would have distributed international food aid to all political classes.

Joseph, a recent defector, is one victim of millions of the Kim regime.[1] He was a young teenager when his father passed away from starvation in North Korea. Joseph’s sister attempted to travel to China to earn money in order to provide food for him and her, because there was none in North Korea, but Joseph does not know if she was successful. At only thirteen years old, Joseph became an orphan on the streets and was forced to fend for himself. Joseph says he barely survived each day because he constantly had to search for food.[2] Fortunately, Joseph was eventually able to escape North Korea into China. Joseph’s escape from North Korea and starvation is an extremely rare feat for North Koreans. Tragically, though, many more people are currently starving or have died as a result of widespread famine in North Korea.

As Sung-Yoon Lee notes, “North Korea is the most industrialized, urbanized, literate country to undergo a famine,” which is also the “most unique aspect of North Korea.”[3] Unfortunately, North Korea’s uniqueness manifests itself yet again in a manner that negatively impacts a large percentage of its 24 million people. The famine in the 1990s is argued to be a man-made event, not in the sense that the Kim regime intentionally engineered the famine, but in the sense that the regime stood by and did nothing to alleviate the suffering of its people who lacked food while it [the regime] had the ability to provide for them.

Brief History

In substantial ways, the North Korean famine, which has come to be known as the Arduous March,[4] can be traced back to the Kim dynasty. The Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea for approximately 60 years since the start of the Korean War. It consists of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, and grandson Kim Jong Un. Each Kim has fixated on dictating over a self-reliant country that takes no abuse from outside “aggressors,” such as the U.S. and Japan. This “juche” philosophy was first espoused by Kim Il Sung:

Juche was formulated to justify Kim Il Sung’s dictatorship and succession of power to his son, Kim Jong Il, emphasizing peculiar aspects of the North Korean environment…the ideology also serves as a tool that justifies the leader’s demand for the populace’s unquestionable loyalty…juche ideology is the ultimate paradigm that guides State activities.[5]

Overall, an incredible amount of North Korea’s power is derived from this skewed and wasteful national policy of regime control. The irony, however, is that North Korea is not self-reliant. This is made painfully obvious by the country’s inability – or unwillingness –  to fill the stomachs of its starving people without foreign aid. Despite this, the Kims continue to proclaim the idea of juche through the use of monumental propaganda campaigns amidst the prevalent starvation, abuse, and civil and political oppression of North Koreans.

Kim Il Sung’s descendant and son, Kim Jong Il, spent his life bolstering North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. From 1994 to 2011, “The Great Successor” ruled with an incredibly harsh iron fist and instituted disastrous economic policies. He spent a significant amount of North Korea’s treasure on nuclear programs rather than ensure his own people were fed.

The North Korean State managed to survive only because of the financial support of China and Russia. Kim Jong Il did not, however, pay back the loans from these allies, and therefore lenders soon stopped their ‘friendship prices’ with Kim.[6] “Without cheap fuel oil and raw material, the DPRK could not keep the factories running, which meant it had nothing to export. With no exports, there was no hard currency, and without hard currency, fuel imports fell even further and the electricity stopped.”[7] And so the cycle of the famine began.

“North Korea started running out of food, and as people went hungry, they didn’t have the energy to work and so output plunged even further.”[8] A defector living in North Korea during the time stated:

I think I lost my mind from dizziness, sleep deprivation, and hunger. My grandmother and my neighbors died of starvation. When you went into the cities, train stations, markets, and alleyways, you found lots of dead bodies. I do not know the exact number, but countless people died. Countless.[9]

Famine Characteristics

The North Korean State controls the amount of food that its people receive. People who grow crops must give most of it to the state, which then distributes food in a top-down approach. During the years of the Arduous March, however, there was not enough food to go around. This famine is believed to have occurred from 1994 to 1998 in North Korea. The estimated number of North Koreans who perished as a result of the famine varies widely, since the Kim regime controlled the access of information and reporting in the country. However, estimates of deaths due to hunger appear to range from 600,000 to 3 million people during this period.[10] Among deaths and hunger-related illnesses, estimates are anywhere from 240,000 to 3.5 million people out of a total population of 22 million.[11]

Unfortunately, the 1990s famine was not a single occurrence, since hunger has been a persistent problem for North Koreans for years. Every decade or so there is another famine. In 2009, a ROK Ministry of Unification survey found that of the North Korean refugees surveyed, 29.6% identified the greatest abuse of human rights in North Korean society as the famine.[12]

A study in 2011 by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were 5 inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45% of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition. Most people eat meat only on public holidays, namely Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays. One report by the Tokyo Shimbun in April 2012 claimed that since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, around 20,000 people had starved to death in South Hwanghae Province. Another report by the Japanese Asia Press agency in January 2013 claimed that in North and South Hwanghae provinces more than 10,000 people had died of famine. Other international news agencies have begun circulating stories of cannibalism.[13] Currently, there are many North Koreans who are malnourished and starving.

Famine Causes

Most shockingly, however, is the probability that many people died during the 1990s famine because it was man-made. As Sung-Yoon Lee notes, North Korea sought international food aid for the first time in history in 1994, and a disastrous flood in the summer of 1995 exacerbated the hunger situation.[14] Based on the definitive book by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland,[15] although the regime had adequate food supplies due to international aid, it willfully denied its population available sustenance. Food was prioritized for soldiers, illustrating the reality of the regime’s “Military First” policies. Haggard and Noland argue that this willful denial of food by Kim Jong Il elevates to crimes against humanity.[16]

Stephan Haggard & Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2009)

Of course, North Korea’s official position has always been that this famine was a result of U.S.-led sanctions for the last 60 years.[17] Nevertheless, Haggard and Noland point out that North Korea received billions of dollars in international aid that would have been enough to feed its starving population. The regime instead used aid to buy weapons and not food, and it even turned away international aid workers. Based on this information, North Korea has to be culpable for failing to prevent the starvation of its people; as a state, it should be obligated to ensure its people do not die of hunger if it is capable of preventing such a tragedy.

Prospects for Resolution

Interestingly, there are black market food stalls that have appeared throughout the famine years and onward due to the state’s inability (and unwillingness) to provide enough food. “Since the 1990s famine, the regime has tolerated informal food markets and small, private farm plots. When the official, state-run food market fails, which it inevitably does, the secondary market can keep people fed.”[18] Although these markets are technically illegal, enforcement is selective and the markets are only periodically regulated.

Thus far, Kim Jong Un has not shut down these secondary food sources, and for now he is allowing citizens to buy and sell goods in illegal markets. A “market” may only consist of an elderly woman with a small amount of food for sale, but it is better than nothing for hungry people, even though it’s illegal.

Since there have been food shortages in the past, it is likely there will be more in the future for North Korea since there are no signs of any substantial changes that might alter the economy. In fact, just last year the World Food Program “reported that food would be sent to North Korea as soon as possible. The food would be processed by a local processor and delivered directly to North Korean citizens.”[19] This indicates there are many North Koreans in dire need of sustenance in order to survive.

While the future of North Korea is unknown, a famine is surely not unrealistic. It could be triggered by severe drought, another flood, or even a desire by the Kim regime to divert more funds toward weapons instead of food production and distribution. However, the more famine that North Koreans experience, the harder it will be for the regime to ‘feed’ its citizens with lies that the American “imperialists” are to blame. Perhaps, even, a food shortage in North Korea will eventually lead to enough civil unrest that there will be a glimmer of hope and change in the Hermit Kingdom.


[1] Joseph, “My Life in North Korea:” A Testimony by Joseph, a North Korean Defector, The Fletcher School, March 28, 2013.

[2] Id.

[3] Sung-Yoon Lee, class discussion, April 16, 2013.

[4] Max Fisher, The Cannibals of North Korea, The Washington Post, February 5, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/02/05/the-cannibals-of-north-korea/.

[5] Dae-Kyu Yoon, The Constitution of North Korea: Its Changes and Implications, 27 Fordham Int’l L.J. 1289, 1291 (2004).

[6] BARBARA DEMICK, NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA 67 (Spiegel & Grau 2009).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Unidentified defector’s statement, North Korea Undercover, BBC Panorama, April 15, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAG9kvep67E.

[10] Fisher, supra note 24.

[11] Wikipedia, North Korean Famine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine.

[12] Songbun, supra note 2, 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.

[13] Wikipedia, North Korean Famine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine.

[14] Sung-Yoon Lee, class discussion, April 16, 2013.

[15] Stephan Haggard & Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2009).

[16] Haggard & Noland, supra note 35, at 209.

[17] Sung-Yoon Lee, class discussion, April 16, 2013.

[18] Fisher, supra note 24.

[19] Wikipedia, North Korean Famine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_famine.