The Real Picture of Human Rights in North Korea

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International Human Rights League of Korea

 
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Human Rights Conditions in North Korea - a special report
 

North Korean society can be depicted most vividly by quoting remarks made by Hans Meretzki, the last East German ambassador to Pyongyang. He said, "North Korea is an absolutist state decorated with socialism, or a dictatorial state which exercises an absolute right to command the people with Workers’ Party and Juche Ideology as its background." He explained that the North Korean leadership has made all residents subject to a collective slavery by depriving them of individuality, and forcing them to engage in hard labor. Under these conditions, public life in North Korea is nothing but a continuation of military training. Everyone has been deprived of human rights for a long time, and in this specific way, the regime has maintained total control.

Recently various international human rights organizations, including the Freedom House and the U.S. State Department, have issued reports expressing significant worries about human rights violations in North Korea. These reports point out that the North Korean ruling hierarchy, in its effort to keep the populace under control, has been restricting the supply of food and clothing, as well as the freedom of residence, occupation, travel, press and assembly.

All North Korean citizens are divided into three classes, namely, the "core class" (20%), the "unstable class" (45%), and the "hostile class" (27%). These classes are again divided into 51 sub-classes. Under this classification system, each citizen is given different food rations or medical service. One noteworthy fact is that the "hostile class" is under constant political surveillance. Members of this class are to be executed in an emergency case.

North Korea maintains no laws or regulations designed to protect human rights. The judicial authorities in North Korea are in fact tools of the Workers’ Party, and therefore, the Party’s policies or instructions are regarded more important than any laws. Kangaroo courts and public executions are held anywhere and at any time. Under these conditions, about 200,000 people have been confined in a dozen political prisoners’ camps scattered throughout the country. These prisoners are suffering from various forms of human rights violations with little hope of being released from the camps.

The 49th U.N. Human Rights Subcommittee session on August 27, 1997, adopted a resolution calling upon North Korea to improve human rights conditions in the country and to abide by its obligation to submit human rights reports to the U.N. as stipulated by U.N. human rights regulations. The resolution also urged North Korea to take the necessary measures to guarantee freedom of movement and residence. The human rights conditions in North Korea must no longer be regarded as minor problems in a specific country but as grave matters the international community must deal with.


Systematic Human Rights Violations Laws and Human Rights

In North Korea, the instructions of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il are regarded as the highest laws and even surpass the constitution or the decision of the Workers’ Party. The North Korean constitution, in Article II, stipulates, "the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea carries out all its activities under the leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party." But the Workers’ Party charter, in the preamble, stipulates, "the Worker’s Party is guided in its activities solely by the Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s Juche ideology."

The constitution is a tool used to implement the instructions of Kim Il-sung which are designed to realize the collectivist principle. The constitution, in Article 63, stipulates, "in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the rights and duties of citizens are based on the collectivist principle of one for all and all for one." Under these conditions, individual human rights can be ignored.

The North Korean penal code is also designed to solidify the father-to-son hereditary dictatorship because it stipulates, "this code is designed to safeguard the Leader and his revolutionary line, thus to dye the whole society only with Juche Ideology" (Article 4). The penal code carries various articles designed to impose death and pecuniary punishment on all counter-revolutionary crimes which include the acts of slandering the "Leader" or resisting government policies (Articles 44-55, 105). The penal code denies the principle of "nulla poena sine lege," and justifies retroactive punishment on the pretext that struggles against anti-social crimes must be escalated. The code also maintains clauses designed to punish not only criminals themselves but also their family members or relatives.

The Courts and prosecutor’s offices also function to implement the instructions of the Leader and the Party. All North Korean laws are designed to force the people to unconditionally obey orders of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as Party policies. The laws have nothing to do with human rights.
Political Human Rights Abuses

By constitution (1992), all North Korean citizens are permitted to enjoy the right to elect and be elected (Article 66), and the freedom of speech, publishing, and assembly (Article 67). However, the reality is that rights and freedom are restricted by the policies designed to strengthen the "proletarian dictatorship."

North Korea conducts general elections to elect members of the Supreme People’s Assembly (North Korean version of parliament), but the election is merely a formality to give the outside world the impression that the country maintains a democratic system. In fact, the election is designed to perpetuate the one-Party system because only one candidate is nominated by the Party for each electoral district, and voters are asked to cast only "aye" or "no" votes. As a result, elections always have 100% voter turn-out with 100% "aye" votes. The election on July 26 this year for example resulted in 99.87% voter turnout with 100% "ayes", according to a North Korean announcement. Voters have no choice but to cast an "aye" vote because Party officials are watching. If anyone abstains from voting, or votes "no", then he or she will be branded a counter-revolutionary and sent to one of the political prisoners camps.

The North Korean press performs the function of propagating the Party’s policies. The press never publishes any articles which may reflect negatively on the North Korean political system. All publications in North Korea are placed under the strict control and censorship of the Party. They praise the achievements of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and support the Party policies.

North Korea operates various organizations to conduct political surveillance. The Workers’ Party, the State Security Agency, and the Public Security Ministry (police) are the main organizations endowed with such functions. The State Security Agency is the secret police, and has agents planted in every workshop and village. Besides these organizations, North Korea operates the "5 household system," a political watch system comprising 5 households in every village. In this system, every member is used as an informant against every other member.


Economic Human Rights Abuses

The North Korean constitution stipulates, "the means of production are owned solely by the state and cooperative organizations" (Article 20), and "there is no limit to the properties that the state may own" (Article 21). As stipulated by the constitution, all public facilities as well as all factories, companies, banks, and all transportation means belong to the state. Private ownership is permitted only for some moveable property possessed by an individual for personal use.

North Korean propaganda says that the people in North Korea are exempt from paying taxes. But the reality is that the state, as the sole owner of all production means, owns all products, and supplies the people, or employees, with minimum allowance of food and clothing in the form of ration. In fact, the government is exploiting the people.

The food ration per person is decided in accordance with his or her social standing and job. Each ordinary citizen is to receive 700 grams of grain per day according to the official standard. But North Korea, due to aggravated economic conditions, has suspended the grain ration since 1995. Members of the elite group however still enjoy sufficient food. Currently most North Koreans are compelled to seek necessary food grains on the black market.

People in North Korea have been suffering from food shortages for several consecutive years. It is reported that more than a million people have died from starvation over the past 2 or 3 years. Starvation is one of the main reasons for a recent rise in the number of defectors from North Korea. Although the inefficient socialist economic system in North Korea is responsible for the current economic crisis, the ruling hierarchy in Pyongyang persist in sticking with the inefficient system. This act of driving the people into starvation must be regarded as the most significant form of human rights violation.


Personality Cult Worship of the Leader

The late Kim Il-sung, in his effort to consolidate his position as a dictatorial leader, concentrated on a personality cult. North Korean propagandists fabricated various stories to enhance Kim’s achievements. They constructed "revolutionary war sites" in 7 places, and "historical sites" in 34 places. The entire populace is mobilized by turns to participate in marches to these sites. In addition to these sites, they conduct "Classes to Study Kim Il-sung’s Revolutionary Ideology" throughout the country to indoctrinate the people with the greatness of Kim Il-sung.

Various monuments are scattered throughout the country. They include 70 bronze statues of Kim Il-sung, 40,000 half-length plaster figures of Kim Il-sung, 250 monuments in praise of Kim Il-sung’s achievements, 350 memorial halls, and 3,500 "towers of eternal life." In addition, all citizens are required to wear Kim Il-sung badges when they go out, and to hang pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on the wall of the main room in their houses.

North Korean propagandists in the late 1980s began to claim that they had discovered slogans praising Kim Il-sung that had been carved onto peeled trees on Mt. Peoktu during the 1930s. They now insist that they have discovered 12,000 such slogan-bearing trees throughout the country.

After the death of Kim Il-sung in July 1994, they began to construct the "towers of eternal life." Now they say they have constructed these towers in all villages in North Korea. The main "Tower of Eternal Life" was erected in 1997 in the precinct of Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum, namely the Kumsusan Palace in Pyongyang. The 92.52-meter-tall tower stands there overlooking the 17,000 sq. meter precinct. In 1994, to mark the 100-day memorial service for the deceased, North Korea erected a 11 meter-tall and 15 meter-wide monumental piece, namely "the Figure of the Sun," on a hill in Pyongyang.

Since the death of Kim Il-sung, North Korea has spent $94 million to stage various political events, $530 million to erect various monuments, $270 million to operate various propaganda facilities. North Korea watchers around the world estimate that North Korea has been spending at least $890 million annually to stage personality cult campaigns.

North Korea still holds events to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s birthday anniversary (April 15) every year. For example, they stage mass games participated in by 50,000-100,000 students, and hold mass rallies and night soirees. North Korea is reportedly spending$23 million every year to invite 500-600 art troupe members from abroad to attend these occasions.

It is estimated that North Korea has spent about $300 million, or 6% of the GNP ($5.215 billion), only to glorify the body of Kim Il-sung -- $0.5 million to embalm the body, $2,27 million annually to maintain the body, $230 million to beautify and extend the Kumsusan Palace.

Kim Jong-il, son of and successor to Kim Il-sung, has been steering all these personality cult projects. He has been trying to justify the hereditary succession of power by insisting, "revolutionary tasks must be carried out generation after generation." He has embalmed the body of his father, and has been trying to implant in the minds of the people the belief that Kim Il-sung is an eternal being. North Korea, in terminating a three year mourning period for Kim Il-sung in July 1997, declared that it had decided to use "Juche" as its calendar, instead of the current A.D. It designated 1912, the year of Kim Il-song’s birth, as the "first year of Juche," and April 15, the day of Kim Il-sung’s birth, as the "Day of the Sun." This means that North Korea decided to worship Kim Il-sung as "God," or the "Sun," and as the "founder of the Juche Dynasty." Kim Jong-il now has luxurious villas in 32 places throughout the country. He has spent $2.5 billion to construct them. Kim Jong-il’s birthday is also observed as a national holiday in North Korea.


Contempt for Human Life

North Korean school education concentrates on implanting in the minds of the students the belief that they must not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The North Korean constitution stipulates, "the state implements the principle of socialist pedagogy and brings up the rising generation to become steadfast revolutionaries who fight for society and the people, and to become new communist men who are knowledgeable, virtuous and healthy." (Article 43)

In this way, the North Korean ruling hierarchy endeavors to tame all citizens to safeguard both father and son Kim. As evidence of its success, the Workers’ Party newspaper, Rodong shinmum, on June 17 this year reported that 17 members of the "Li In-su Unit" sacrificed their lives while trying to control a forest fire in a "revolutionary site." The report depicted the heroic deeds of the soldiers: "some soldiers did not escape from the fire because they tried to cover slogan-bearing trees" with wet mud in order to protect them from burning…they continued to protect the trees with their arms even though their clothes and flesh were burning." The paper said that the 17 soldiers were given the titles of "hero" for their sacrificial deeds, and that government authorities erected a monument to the memory of these brave soldiers. North Korean soldiers have been trained to hold their lives as nothing.

Nine crew members of a submarine, which was captured by the Republic of Korea Navy June 22, 1998, after being caught in a fishing net off the east coast of Korea, were found dead from gun shots. After detailed investigation of the bodies, the South Korean authorities said that 4 members of the crew, who were thought to be well-trained soldiers on a combat mission, killed the 5 others who were thought to be sub-crew members. The four then shot themselves. There was a similar incident in September, 1996. At that time, a North Korean submarine ran aground off Kangnung on the east coast. Crew members abandoned the sub and landed. During manhunt operations, the Republic of Korea army troops found that 11 of the crew members had been shot to death by their colleagues.

North Korea is still teaching youngsters to give away their lives at any time. In various mass rallies, these youngsters shout, "Let us become bombs and bullets to safeguard Comrade Kim Jong-il."


Pleasure-Offering Groups

North Korea maintains "Pleasure Groups," which are composed of women dancers and singers, who reside in special villas. They are art troupes organized for the sole purpose of staging merry-making affairs for Kim Jong-il. In the 1980s, North Korea even abducted a number of foreign women from Hong Kong and the Middle East to serve as members of these groups. Each "Pleasure Group" is composed of three teams: a "satisfaction team" which performs sexual service; a "happiness team" which provides massage service; and a "dancing and singing team," which stages dancing and musical performances.

Kim Jong-il’s Body Guard Bureau is responsible for recruiting these "Pleasure Groups." Under the supervision of the Body Guard Bureau, provincial and city chapters of the Workers’ Party sort out prospective candidates from among girls’ senior high school students throughout the country. According to defectors from North Korea, Kim Myong-chul (a former member of a guard unit in a special villa), the Body Guard currently maintains about 2,000 women in the "Pleasure Groups."

The 5th Section of the Organization Department in the Workers Party decides the number of candidates each local chapter must recommend based on the rule of securing 100 candidates for one seat. Local chapters recommend the required number of candidates. The 5th section in the Party headquarters one-tenth of the candidates, and sends them to Namsan Clinic in Daedonggang Kuyok, Pyongyang for physical examination. After the physical examination, 50 women are chosen as potential new members of the groups every year. The name list, with photos, is submitted to Kim Jong-il via the Secretariat Department of the Party for final approval.

New members undergo a 6-month training course before they are assigned to villas. The training for the last 15 days is in the form of overseas tours. Upon completion of the training, each member is given the rank of first lieutenant in the Body Guard, and ordered to work at the assigned villa until she reaches the age of 25.

The North Korean Workers’ Party has published a classified document entitled, "the Project to Guarantee Longevity of the Great Leader (Kim Il-sung) and the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il) is the Sacred Duty of all Party Members and Party Committees," and distributed it to cadre members of local chapters instructing them to keep it as a guideline for deciding the qualifications for members of the "Pleasure Groups." Each cadre official above the rank of responsible secretary in the primary local chapter is obliged to recommend at least one candidate every year. Each official usually visits senior girls’ high schools in his area at the beginning of the school term and selects a prospective candidate and tells the school authority to take care of the candidate he has chosen.


Political Prisoners’ Camps

The political prisoners’ camps in North Korea are typically places where the worst human rights violations occur. The North Korean authorities officially call these camps "Management Centers." The people in the North use, "place of exile," "special dictatorship target area," or "political prisoners’ concentration camps" when referring to these prisons.

According to a North Korean document captured by the U.S. Army during the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea began to operate the political prisoners’ camps in 1947. In August, 1956, the North Korean hierarchy began to expand these camps when a mass political purge took place.

Through a residents registration program from 1967 to 1970, the North Korean authorities divided the populace into three classes: the "core class", the "unstable class", and the "hostile class." Upon completing this program, the North Korean ruling hierarchy, based on the Cabinet Decision No. 149, conducted a large-scale purge of the "hostile class," 6,000 people were executed and a further 70,000 were imprisoned in the "No. 149 Target Area." Among the 70,000 prisoners, those who were branded anti-Party and anti-Kim Il-sung elements were relocated to the "special dictatorship target area," or political prisoners’ camp.

Following the 6th Party Congress in 1980, when Kim Jong-il was officially nominated the successor to Kim Il-sung, about 15,000 persons, who were opposed to the hereditary succession plan, were arrested and sent to political prisoners’ camps. Currently North Korea maintains a dozen camps of this kind in such areas as Kaechon (South Pyongan Province), Yodok (South Hamgyong Province), Hoeryong (North Hamgyong Province) and Chongjin. About 200,000 prisoners of conscience are detained in these camps.

Inmates of these political prisoners camps are denied their basic rights, and routinely suffer from all forms of human rights violations including 12 hours of hard labor every day. The miserable conditions in these camps can be compared to those in the gulag operated by the Stalinist Soviet Union.

The miserable conditions in these camps began to be revealed to the world in 1988 by such human rights organizations as Asia Watch and the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee. The actual conditions in these camps were revealed most vividly by Kang Chol-hwan and Ahn Hyok, former inmates who defected from the North in August 1992 and took asylum in Seoul.


Public Executions

It is now an open secret that public executions are held frequently in North Korea, though the North Korean authorities try to deny the fact. Most defectors from North Korea say that they had witnessed or heard of public executions. So far 23 cases of such executions have been confirmed to have taken place in North Korea since the 1970s.

An A1 report (February 5, 1997) reveals that the North Korean authorities publicly executed not only murderers, but also petty criminals, such as those who stole grain. The public executions are conducted after summary trials or kangaroo courts at which judges or lawyers are not present. Usually local police officers conduct the summary trials and sentence the criminals to death.

The police authorities usually put up a public notice informing the residents of the time and place of the executions together with the names of criminals to be executed. The executions are held in open areas where the masses can watch the process of execution. In Hamhung, the executions are usually held on the sands near a bridge in the Sapo Kuyok. In Wonsan on a public playground, and in Pyongyang in open areas near Mt. Obong and Samadong Village. The executions are usually conducted by a firing squad under the orders of police officers.

Sometimes the condemned are hanged. The crowds watch while the condemned criminals are gagged and their eyes covered. After the executions people watching are told by police officers to throw stones at the dead bodies as a token of their hatred of the criminals.

It is reported that Suh Kwan-hi, former North Korean Workers’ Party secretary in charge of agricultural affairs, was executed publicly on a hill near Tong-il Street in Pyongyang in September 1997, after a kangaroo trial. 20,000 or 30,000 people reportedly watched. The Japanese Kyodo News Agency reported that Suh Kwan-hi was executed on a charge of failure to follow agricultural policy, but he was really a political scapegoat executed to soothe public rage over the aggravated food shortages. Right after the execution, Kim Jong-il was officially named the general secretary of the Workers’ Party. North Korea used public executions as a means of intimidating people who may harbor counter-revolutionary ideas.


The Status of Handicapped Persons

Foreigners will never see any handicapped people in Pyongyang or other big cities. This is because the North Korean authorities have removed them from public sight and resettled them in remote areas. Li Soon-ok, a woman who once had been an inmate in a North Korean prison and defected to the Republic of Korea in December 1995, revealed that the North launched the program to confine the handicapped in remote areas in the 1980s.

Other defectors from the North also say that in the 1980s the Pyongyang authorities ordered all handicapped persons, such as blind and deaf persons, hunchbacks, and mental patients to move, with their families from Pyongyang to remote places. Pyongyang in July 1989, prior to the holding of the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, again took strict action to remove all handicapped persons from the city. It is said that they were confined on an isolated island off the west coast, or in such areas as Uchon in South Hamgyong Province, or Uiju in North Pyongan Province.

In the 1990s the North began to enforce the programs to remove handicapped persons who were in other cities, such as Nampo, Kaesong, and Chongjin, which were open to foreigners. North Korea has built special villages in remote areas in Uhrang County in Yanggan Province, and Chongsong County in North Hamgyong Province, to confine only dwarfs. They are forbidden to contact ordinary people in the outside world. They are also forbidden to marry or to give birth to a child.


Defectors from the North

The number of defectors from the North began to rise in the 1990s when the socialist camp began to collapse. The number of defectors continues to increase due to the terrible food shortage. Most North Koreans cross the northern border to reach China or Russia, but the defectors must elude the pursuit of North Korean agents. Only a few of them are successful in reaching the Republic of Korea.
It is reported that Kim Jong-il has ordered the arrest of all those who attempt to flee the country, saying, "to prevent a person from defecting is more important than capturing an espionage agent." On the orders of Kim Jong-il, North Korea newly organized a border guard unit under the name of the 10th Corps, and reinforced the border control capabilities by building mine fields along vulnerable points. The North Korean authorities also organized task force teams and dispatched them to China and Russia to arrest the successful defectors.

The defectors, once caught by these task force teams, are branded anti-state criminals, and dragged back to North Korea gagged and with a wire leash through their noses, to be publicly executed or to be confined in one of the political prisoners’ camps in the North. The Russian security authority in the Far East in May 1996 confirmed that one defector from North Korea whom the authority had handed over to the North Korean side was executed as soon as he reached the North.


Conclusion

Human rights are the universal values that all human beings, regardless of their nationality, race, religion, or ideological differences, must enjoy. Unfortunately, such things as human rights are totally lacking in North Korea. Only revolutionary tasks and norms spurring the people to offer absolute loyalty to their leader exists in North Korea. Under these norms, many innocent people have been confined in political prisoners’ camps after being branded counter-revolutionaries. Moreover, most North Koreans have been suffering from starvation for several consecutive years.

The North Korean ruling hierarchy denies the values of liberal democracy and individualism, branding them evils. Instead, it urges the people to abide by the principles of collectivism and the North Korean form of socialism which are designed to prolong the existing dictatorship descending from father Kim to son Kim.

The human rights conditions in North Korea can only be improved when all the governments of the world, international human rights organizations, and NGOs join together in vigorous efforts to press the North Korean authorities to suspend their anti-human activities. North Korea insists that it has its own style of human rights, but the international community must consider the North’s human rights violations as a most significant issue to be solved. The urgent task of the international community is to continue to press Pyongyang to accept universal values regarding human rights and open its doors to international human rights monitors.

 

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