The current situation in North Korea has been labelled by Care International as a “forgotten crisis,” meaning it is rarely covered by media outlets. This may be confusing, as the North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is often in the news — especially when there is speculation surrounding his looming nuclear missile program. In reality, “forgotten” refers to North Korean citizens who are suffering severe human rights abuses at the hands of their government. An estimated 11 million North Koreans — 43% of the population — currently suffer from malnutrition. Additional human rights violations include gender-based abuses against women, forced labour, and arbitrary detention, all issues which need to be addressed further in the media and in international peace talks.
According to Ashley Ng, President of Liberty in North Korea’s UCLA chapter, an important aspect of reporting on the North Korean crisis is that while it may be “easy to see North Korea as an evil country,” most North Koreans “are just human like us and had the unfortunate circumstance of being born in North Korea where they [face] human rights violations.” As such, in acknowledging the hardships of covering North Korean stories – including misinformation from government officials – it is all the more important to spread awareness for the sake of millions suffering in the country.
The human rights conditions in North Korea are not actively improving; rather they are at risk of deteriorating much further. Now more than ever, media outlets and international peace treaties cannot forget about those who are suffering in North Korea.
Why are human rights abuses being ignored?
One possible explanation as to why there are less media reports on the humanitarian crisis is the lack of access to reliable data from the country itself. The North Korean government is notorious for releasing false data regarding population health. For example, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the country regularly claimed to have zero cases, which is incredibly unlikely considering the proximity to the pandemic’s epicentre. This makes it difficult to fully comprehend the severity of the crisis in North Korea. Despite the information barrier, data collected by the United Nations, as well as first-hand accounts from individuals who were able to leave the country — also known as defectors — give us a glimpse into the current human abuses happening inside its borders.
There is also an alarming lack of discussion in peace talks about the human rights abuses in North Korea. This underrepresentation contributes to the lack of global awareness of the atrocious experiences of its citizens. According to Jung-hyun Cho and Min-Jung Paik, “It is possible that either the issue of North Korea’s human rights is not regarded as important, and thus forgotten; or its importance is recognized, yet it is deliberately delayed in the peace talks for tactical reasons.” Cho and Paik are referring to countries, such as South Korea, who avoid mentioning human rights conditions in peace talks for fear that it would interfere with attempts to denuclearize North Korea.
Before World War II, North Korea, known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was a part of the Korean Empire along with South Korea. As per the Japan-Korea treaty of 1910, Korea was occupied by the Empire of Japan. During this time period, Koreans experienced cruel and inhumane treatment at the hands of the Japanese military.
Following the end of World War II and the Allied victory against Japan in 1945, the U.S and the Soviet Union divided the Korean peninsula with a border called the 38th parallel. The Soviets took control of the North and the U.S. took the South, forming the political boundaries we recognize today. Five years later, North Korea attempted to invade the South with assistance from the Soviet Union. What followed was a conflict which resulted in the deaths of 2.5 million people. Ultimately, the Korean war ended in July 1953, resulting in unproductive negotiations and a 250km boundary between the North and South known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Today, the DPRK is under the control of Kim Jong-un, who inherited the position of Supreme Leader from his father Kim Jong-il. Under the rule of the North Korean leader, “all basic civil, political, social and economic rights are severely restricted.” With this in mind, it is necessary to further examine human rights violations which are currently being committed by the North Korean government.
Forced Labour and Arbitrary Detention
As per the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, no individual should face arbitrary imprisonment or detention. In North Korea, it is common to be arrested for unassuming behaviour, from owning international goods to engaging in private business. Often those who commit these ‘crimes’ are simply seeking to achieve an “adequate standard of living” and in turn are punished severely. Some individuals are able to bribe their way out of an arrest, while others do not have the means to do so and face dire conditions in pre-trial detention centres. These centres are designed to obtain confessions from detainees through interrogation tactics, mainly for individuals who have escaped the DPRK and subsequently have been captured.
Lim Ok Kyung, a 40 year old woman from the South Hwanghae province of North Korea, recounted her experiences after being arrested for smuggling home appliances from China. Kyung was released after only 10 days, as her husband held good connections within the North Korean government. Despite her higher social status, she was brutally beaten in her cell and sleep deprived; forced to stand for long hours without rest.
While Kyung was not sentenced, many North Koreans face punishments after a period of interrogation: from short-term sentences of unpaid labour at detention centers, to life sentences of hard labour at prison camps across the country.
While human rights atrocities committed by the government impact all North Koreans, women in particular experience a disproportionate amount of sexual and gender-based abuses, specifically in labour camps and when forcibly repatriated after escaping the country. Women who faced trial in pre-trial detention centers following escape attempts recounted inhumane and unhygienic conditions – notably a lack of access to sanitary products and water for washing. Additionally, very little protection of privacy and safety of female detainees means sexual violence within detention centres is very common.
Severe Food Insecurity
Currently, many North Koreans are suffering from severe food insecurity. This year, several factors have contributed to the widespread malnutrition impacting roughly 10 million North Koreans. As reported by the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the border closure between China and North Korea due to the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly worsened food supply, putting more and more North Koreans at risk of starvation.
This added strain has combined with other factors, such as severe weather conditions including drought and flooding in 2019 which resulted in “the worst harvest in a decade.” Furthermore, international sanctions which have been put in place to deter Kim Jong-un from continuing the North Korean nuclear missile program have put a stop to the import of fuel and fertilisers, which aid in increasing agricultural output.
What can be done?
First, the findings mentioned demonstrate the importance for global awareness of the human rights crisis in the DPRK. The victims of the North Korean regime are largely suffering behind closed doors – without media coverage. Second, many academics and members of the international community such as Quintana suggest a lessening of international sanctions as an attempt to aid North Koreans in crisis. This comes with the risk of indirectly encouraging the North Korean missile program which the sanctions aim to dissuade.
Overall, the best option for improving the predicament in the DPRK seems to be a mixture of pressure and dialogue. This means encouraging coordination between states including North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United States, while also maintaining public criticism of human rights abuses in the media, during international peace talks and in conferences amongst world leaders.