08.01.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“The Struggle for Human Rights in the DPRK“ in 2020


The year 2020 was formally rich in events related to exposing the DPRK from the perspective of human rights. As early as January 15, 2020. Human Rights Watch has called on the ROK government to assess the human rights situation in North Korea: although “North Korea remains one of the most repressive countries in the world,” President Moon Jae-in’s administration has yet to present its policy on the issue.

On March 11, the US State Department released a report on human rights in the world in 2019. Just as the year before, the document did not directly assess the responsibility of the DPRK political regime for the human rights situation in the North, nor did it describe the violations as “egregious.”  Nevertheless, the DPRK has traditionally been described as an authoritarian state where torture, corruption, forced abortions, human trafficking, and the use of forced or compulsory child labor reign supreme.

Highlighted as the “story of the year“ was another duck story from the Chosun Ilbo and Daily NK about the execution of an army lieutenant in June 2018: a certain Hyun Joo Song was accused of abuse of power and anti-party activities, even though all he really ordered was to distribute extra food and fuel to his troops, asking not to sacrifice the well-being of the army in order to make missiles and nuclear weapons. For this, Hyun was publicly executed.

Prison conditions allegedly remain harsh and dangerous for human life, there is a lack of judicial independence, and there are restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, religion, movement, etc. It is also noted that the North has not provided any explanation for the incident with the American student Otto Warmbier, who died after 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea.

On April 2, the US State Department urged North Korea and other countries to release religious prisoners in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, stated that “…they also let their prisoners be kept in very cramped, unsanitary conditions, they die there, and it’s just allowed by the government, not at all concerned about the health and safety of their citizens,” especially when it comes to victims of faith.

In May 2020. The Korean National Unification Institute published its annual White Paper outlining some of the human rights violations in the north, such as public executions and camps.

On May 28, 2020, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) asked Pyongyang for information on a total of 34 cases of “enforced disappearances,” including 27 people who were allegedly taken to the North against their will during the 1950-1953 war.

On June 10, the State Department’s 2019 Religious Freedom Report again berated the North Korean government for “continuing to deny its people the right to religious freedom and committing violations that constitute crimes against humanity.” DPRK was once again ranked among the countries where the issue of religious freedom is particularly acute.

On June 22, during its 43rd session in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution prepared by the European Union denouncing human rights violations in North Korea. This is the 18th year in a row that such a document has been adopted. The document stresses that the human rights situation could “further deteriorate due to the current COVID-19 pandemic,” making it imperative that North Koreans receive timely assistance.  South Korea participated in the adoption of the resolution, but did not take part in its composition.

On June 24, in the State Department’s 2019 Report on Terrorism in the World, the US left North Korea on the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. Less than one page was assigned to the DPRK in the 303-page document:  Pyongyang is not taking measures to combat terrorism and to resolve problems related to the country’s past involvement in terrorist acts.

On June 25, the US State Department described North Korea one of the worst offenders in human trafficking for the 18th consecutive year: “During the reporting period there was a government policy or model of forced labor in mass mobilizations of adults and children, in prisoner of war camps within the established system of political repression, in labor training centers, and by imposing forced labor conditions.” Particularly noted was that the North Korean government’s “blatant human rights violations“ fueled human trafficking in neighboring China, where many North Korean refugees live illegally, as North Korean women were sexually exploited by human traffickers or sold to Chinese men into forced marriages.

On June 26, the US State Department accused the North Korean regime of allegedly torturing defectors and other detainees: “The North Korean regime also continues to use torture as a standard practice in its detention facilities, especially against defectors including children forcibly returned from abroad.”

September 2, 2020. The Seoul office of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the DPRK to clarify the fate of the 316 people who went missing. Among them are 11 passengers and crew members of a Korean Air plane hijacked in 1969 and 12 Japanese citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. The call was posted on Twitter on the International Day of the Disappeared, established by the United Nations to raise public awareness about people who have gone missing, including those who have been kidnapped. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Thomas Ojea Quintana, made a similar demand a day earlier.

On September 4, Thomas Ojea Quintana called on Pyongyang to follow the example of other countries and release all political prisoners. The Special Rapporteur published this call on his Twitter account after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro pardoned more than a hundred political prisoners and activists earlier this week.  Quintana urged the DPRK government to release the elderly, sick, disabled, children, pregnant and nursing mothers first.

On September 30, Mike Pompeo called on religious leaders to stand up for basic human rights and religious freedom for those oppressed in many countries, including North Korea.In a speech at the Vatican, the senior US diplomat stressed the importance of religious freedom as a litmus test for all human rights.

On October 19, 2020, the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch released a special report with the controversial title “Worth Less Than an Animal: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea.” The report was built on interviews with victims and witnesses, including 22 North Koreans who were detained and interrogated after 2011 and eight former North Korean officials who fled the country. The content follows as expected and boils down to an account of North Koreans in pre-trial detention facing extreme human rights abuses at the hands of corrupt law enforcement, from being held in filthy and overcrowded cells to being forced to confess and suffer sexual abuse.  The report calls on South Korea, the United States, and other UN member states to “publicly and privately apply pressure on the North Korean government.” In this context, Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, urged the South Korean government to play a more active role in the UN Human Rights Committee and to co-sponsor UN resolutions on human rights abuses in North Korea.

On November 18, 2020 The Third Committee of the UN General Assembly on Humanitarian Affairs adopted yet another resolution denouncing human rights violations in the DPRK.  Fifty-eight countries, including the United States and Japan, co-sponsored the resolution; Seoul refused to join them for the second year in a row. The content of the resolution is mostly similar to previous similar documents (condemning torture, sexual violence, detention of political prisoners in camps, recommending referral to the International Criminal Court), but this time new clauses were added in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN is concerned that North Korea’s precarious humanitarian conditions could rapidly deteriorate due to the public health crisis and the North’s limited ability to cope with natural disasters. In this context, they called on North Korea to allow international humanitarian organizations to operate.

On November 25, the US State Department offered up to $3 million in grants to organizations working on human rights and democratic reform in North Korea. As noted in a message on the website of the Department of State, the grants will be awarded to between 2 and 15 organizations ranging in size in the amount of 50 thousand to 3 million dollars. Projects should aim to have an impact that “leads to democratic reforms and should have a high potential for sustainability.”

On December 7, the US State Department published its annual list of countries “of particular concern“ for violations of religious freedom. The DPRK has been on this list since 2001 for the 19th consecutive year.   As Mike Pompeo stated along these lines, “The United States will continue to work tirelessly to end religiously motivated abuse and persecution around the world and to help ensure that everyone, everywhere and at all times, has the right to live in accordance with the tenets of conscience.”

On November 26, 2020, “Chosun Ilbo,” citing data from the UN Center for Human Rights in North Korea, reported that around 7,000 inmates of labor camps have been released amid the threat of coronavirus in North Korea. Of course, it was because “the regime had no choice but to release them as it had become difficult to control severely emaciated prisoners under epidemic conditions.”  However, Thomas Ojea Quintana also confirmed the release.

On December 11, in honor of International Human Rights Day, the US government expressed concern about the human rights situation in North Korea. A statement from the State Department, broadcast by Radio Free Asia, indicated that Washington intends to continue to cooperate with the international community to protect the rights of North Koreans, including in the matter of increasing access to information.

On December 12, in a private video conference at the UN Security Council hosted by Germany, eight countries, including Germany and the United States, said that the North is using the global pandemic to further suppress the human rights of its own people. In a joint statement of the G8, read by German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, it was stated that the human rights situation in the DPRK is terrible and getting worse by the day. The parties were “deeply troubled by reports of a sharp increase in COVID-19-related executions as well as strict movement controls in and around the capital,” and considered these measures “a step to tighten the discipline of the North Korean elite, which is experiencing economic difficulties due to the sharp decline in trade between the North and China amid the pandemic.” Naturally, it was stressed that “the dire, if not tragic, situation of the North Korean population is solely due to the cynical policy of the regime, which puts nuclear weapons first and food for its people last.”

On December 16, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning human rights violations in the DPRK. Such resolutions have been passed every year for 16 years since 2005. The latest resolution added new clauses in connection with the pandemic: the UN expresses concern about the possible negative impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the human rights situation in the country and urges the DPRK to allow international humanitarian organizations to operate.

And at the very end of the year, the US Senate and House of Representatives approved the federal government’s budget. It provides $9 million in funds to promote democracy ($4 million) and human rights ($5 million) in the DPRK. This is the same amount as the year before. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have also set budgets of $257 million and $47.6 million, respectively.

Thus, despite the abundance of events, we can see that overall the tensions went no higher. Most of the accusatory resolutions are made “just like the last time“ and rehash their usual things with some minor adjustments for the pandemic. Engaged NGOs and media are ahead of government agencies, but even they have nothing fundamentally new.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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