On March 28, 2023 South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol stated that “the reality of the horrific human rights violations against the North Korean people must be fully revealed to the international community.”
On March 31, 2023 the Ministry of Reunification of the Republic of Korea (ROK) published the 2023 Human Rights Report of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for the first time in seven years. Under the North Korean Human Rights Act passed in 2016, the Unification Minister is required to submit an annual report to the National Assembly on the human rights situation in North Korea. But the previous Moon Jae-in administration classified the reports as confidential, citing privacy concerns of North Korean defectors who gave interviews. In addition, South Korea was careful not to initiate discussions about human rights in the DPRK and not to co-sponsor relevant resolutions. According to conservatives, the Moon government did not release the report in the interest of appeasing the regime in Pyongyang for the purpose of inter-Korean dialogue, being duplicitous with human rights and indulging Kim Jong-un.
The 450-page document was compiled based on some 1,600 cases of human rights violations attested to by 508 North Korean defectors between 2017 and 2022. The ministry noted that through the publication of this report, it expects to reveal to the world the real human rights situation in the DPRK in order to improve it.
In the conservative media, the content of the report was presented as “there is no other place in the world where human rights are more brutally suppressed than here,” but is it all right? After all, the issue of “human rights,” as we well know, is quite often used to accuse North Korea of all possible sins, although we addressed the problems associated with collecting evidence back in 2014-2015, when the UN published a heartbreaking report that presented North Korea as a country “worse than Nazi Germany” in some respects. However, most of the “stories” were based on the testimony of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was later exposed as a liar and disappeared from big politics.
Since the new president of the ROK is clearly paying great attention to “human rights,” Seoul could not avoid touching on this topic. Alas, the submitted text has similar issues to the 2014 UN report. It is based on the accounts of defectors, most of whom appeared to be either retelling rumors or saying what interviewers wanted to hear. And while the list of the report’s main theses should theoretically horrify the untrained reader, it raises questions from more experienced ones. There are counterarguments to nearly every crucial point or sound bite.
Drug trafficking, dissemination of South Korean goods and content, religious practices and superstitions (such as keeping the Bible, and spreading Christianity), homosexuality, and prostitution all carry the death penalty (including execution in public). The regime also carried out the secret execution of a homosexual man in 2014 and a woman “who was accused of prostitution in 2013“.
The DPRK Criminal Code is available for public review. And from its text it is clear that, except for political crimes, the death penalty is imposed for premeditated murder or drug-related crimes with serious aggravating circumstances. There is no article for homosexuality in the DPRK Penal Code at all, and the punishment for prostitution or distribution of South Korean content is much more lenient.
Information about shootings for other crimes is taken from invalid sources, because as a rule, defectors retell rumors or adjust to the interviewer, understanding what he or she would like to hear. Sometimes anti-Pyongyang propaganda publishes supposed quotations from secret orders, but they are not copies of documents, so we “have to take their word for it.”
In addition, one can note that a single incident becomes mainstream. Data about a single incident (say, the execution of a gay man) are presented as “the regime executes homosexuals,” and this wording gives the impression that it happens systematically.
“In 2020, the North enacted a ‘rejection of reactionary ideology and culture’ law, with penalties of up to 10 years’ hard labor for people who bring and spread other people’s culture and information in an attempt to tighten state control over people’s ideology. The punishment is known to be more severe for those who watch and distribute South Korean dramas, movies, and music.”
As the author repeatedly noted, the problem with this law is that no one has seen its official text. Its description is given only by propaganda resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which had previously published falsehoods of this kind on more than one occasion. The problem is that, according to Western experts, if such data have no refutation, they are taken into account.
“The report states that a pregnant woman was publicly executed because of the 2017 distribution of a video in which she dances while pointing her finger at a portrait of the country’s late founder, Kim Il-sung. In 2015, six teenagers aged between 16 and 17 were executed in Wŏnsan for watching South Korean videos and using opium”.
The examples mentioned in the media show the breadth of interpretations and are reminiscent of the very famous case of the two teenagers from Iran who were hanged. It is alleged that they loved each other and were executed for homosexuality, but it later turned out that the reason for the trial and execution was the kidnapping of a 13-year-old boy, whom they had long tortured and raped.
Here we have the story of a group of students where it is not so much about watching soap operas as it is about opium. Given the past, the attitude toward opium in the DPRK is no less harsh than in China, and regularly watching movies while drugged is quite in line with the establishment of an opium den and the involvement of minors in drug addiction.
Most residents earn their living through private economic activity because the food supply system is not working properly.
The non-working food supply system actually works, but there are two comments: on the one hand, the rations are small and it is very hard to live on them. On the other hand, it is not planned. Against the backdrop of Kim Jong-un’s economic transformation, most rations are bought with wages and not obtained with ration cards – these remain only a symbol that the distribution system works.
There is discrimination against women who are subjected to various types of violence in the family, in educational institutions, in the army, and in places of detention.
There is discrimination against women victims of violence, but at the level of society, not the state. A mother whose daughter was raped by Shin Dong-hyuk complained that now no one would marry her daughter. But this problem is characteristic of the traditional society with its corresponding attitude toward premarital sex. Also, it is not up to South Korea to criticize someone for domestic violence or school bullying.
Students are often involved in extracurricular activities.
Involving students in extracurricular activities could be a feature of the mobilization economy or part of the learning process. But the authors of the report found this to be a violation of children’s rights.
The freedom of residence of persons with disabilities is restricted.
The author has seen disabled people in Pyongyang, and it is likely that “restricted freedom of residence” actually means that disabled people stay in boarding houses where there are comfortable conditions for them.
Prisoners in political prison camps, prisoners of war, abductees, and separated families face serious human rights violations such as executions, forced labor, surveillance, and discrimination.
Actually, the correctional system is built on surveillance and forced labor. Living conditions in DPRK prisons are indeed difficult, the problem is the verifiability of the information. Also, the author wonders, where have the prisoners of war come from since 2017?
The system of free medical care does not function adequately, and patients have to “thank” doctors in other ways (money, goods, etc.).
Just because doctors have been “thanked” since the Arduous March and there is corruption in the medical system, this does not mean that the healthcare system has collapsed. Otherwise, the country would not have coped with the coronavirus outbreak last year.
There are cases of “summary“ execution: for attempts to cross the border, unauthorized stay in the border area during the tightening of security in 2020-2022, in cases of prisoners caught trying to escape, etc.
As can be seen, “summary executions” in fact refer to the “sentry on duty shot a man who tried to cross the prohibited area” type of situation. The garrison regulations of any army give a sentry such an authorization. In this case, if all the procedures were complied with, he would not even be the subject of an investigation.
The DPRK has a total of 11 “camps” where political prisoners are held, of which five are currently operating.
In essence, there is a decrease in the number of camps, but the authors of the report chose not to publicize this point, although it is a very important indicator that the repressive burden on the masses is actually decreasing.
Meetings and public hearings are held once a week to address various life circumstances.
Interestingly, “self-criticism sessions” or party meetings in which certain elements of private life are discussed have been recorded as violations of human rights. Internet analogies with similar practices within the “culture of abolition” in the West or South Korean audiences are suggested on their own.
There are searches and inspections of homes, search and seizure, and wiretapping of phones.
This fact is hard to deny: even the leader of the people’s group (the neighboring communities) has such rights, but the authors of the report have remained silent about how often this is done and to what extent it is accompanied by abuse.
Discrimination based on “songbun” (social origin) in terms of education, employment and choice of place of residence.
All attempts to verify the use of “songbun” in the 21st century rest on the materials of the right-wing conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo. According to the author’s personal data, today’s songbun is more reminiscent of Soviet questionnaires of the 1980s, where questions about relatives abroad and presence in the occupied territories were still present. The author’s respondents also emphasized that personal qualities were placed above origin.
Forced mobilization for participation in major public events and rallies.
As far as the author knows, student meetings in the ROK, as well as participation in rallies by members of trade unions or Protestant sects are also held under the “attendance of all those who want is strictly mandatory” system, but like party meetings or homeroom periods at school, this is considered a violation of human rights.
Workers sent abroad work up to 17 hours a day for very little compensation.
North Korean workers’ living conditions abroad are, in fact, quite well known. And the author has repeatedly written in the pages of the IEE that the remaining portions of North Korean workers’ wages are enough to return home a respectable and well-off person. And talk of a 17-hour workday is more about the plight of defectors working illegally in China or Southeast Asia.
Torture, forced labor, sexual violence, and hunger in correctional institutions.
When it comes to the detention of prisoners, there are plenty of problems, but the authors of previous reports were compelled to note an improvement in the overall state of affairs.
Thus, the indication of practices typical of most authoritarian regimes is interspersed with outright lies, and will be another aggravating factor in inter-Korean relations.
It should be noted that this activity of the South is taking place against the backdrop of Seoul’s intense attempts to fit into the “universal” agenda in general. South Korea is in every way expressing its approval and support for the UN reports of the group. On March 28, the South Korean government welcomed a new UN human rights report condemning abductions and human rights violations in North Korea. In the report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the economic, social, and emotional suffering of victims of enforced disappearances. It also criticized North Korea’s systematic abductions and enforced disappearances as “crimes against humanity.“
The report is based on 80 in-depth interviews conducted between 2016 and 2022 with 38 men and 42 women victims of enforced disappearances. These included relatives of the enforced disappeared, North Koreans who fled their country, and foreigners who fled the North after being abducted. Unfortunately, there are not many details, which already leads to questions.
For example, it is not very clear to the author where “abductions and enforced disappearances” come from in North Korea. Regimes of this kind try to act according to the law, even when it comes to reprisals in the extrajudicial system. Enforced disappearances without trial are typical of other types of regimes, be they Latin American juntas or Lee Seung-Man-era South Korea, because even under Park Chung-Hee they tried to arrest and charge people.
A separate story concerns the kidnapping of ROK citizens. We’ve also written about it before, so let me remind you briefly: up to a certain time, persons with relatives in the North were subjected to reprisals because they were believed to have gone north with the Communists. But a loophole was found in the laws, and suddenly it turned out that if relatives were taken away by force, they were victims who deserved compensation. Of course, all those who wished to upgrade their official status changed their versions.
As for the foreigners who were kidnapped and managed to escape, it is assumed that we are talking about kidnapped Japanese citizens – this fact was recognized in 2002, after which those who survived did not escape, but were released.
On March 4, 2023, the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution condemning the gross human rights violations in North Korea. The UNHRC has been passing resolutions condemning human rights violations in North Korea since 2003, but importantly, the document was again co-sponsored by the ROK for the first time in five years. The ROK did not co-sponsor such resolutions between 2019 and 2022, seeking to avoid tensions in inter-Korean relations and to resume dialogue with the North.
The document criticized “widespread and systematic” human rights violations in the north of the Korean peninsula. It calls on the North Korean authorities to ensure freedom of speech, allow the creation of independent media outlets, and revise the law on blocking foreign cultural content. In addition, the resolution requires Pyongyang to disclose information about the whereabouts of foreigners who have been detained or abducted by North Korean secret services.
The resolution also calls on Pyongyang to disclose all relevant information, including the whereabouts of foreigners detained or abducted in the North, to the families of the victims. This appears to reflect a demand to clarify the circumstances surrounding the death of a South Korean fisheries official who was shot and killed by North Korean border guards during the “Yellow Sea incident” in 2020.
Pyongyang categorically rejected the resolution, calling it “the product of a political conspiracy”. As Han Tae-song, permanent representative of the DPRK to the UN office in Geneva, said in his address to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), “This document was written for the sole purpose of embarrassing the DPRK. It is aimed at realizing a pipe dream of overthrowing our society.” “The DPRK will never tolerate any hostile action by the US and the forces following it that infringe on our sovereignty and dignity, and will make every effort to protect the genuine people’s system and their rights.“
Thus, the topic of human rights in the DPRK is used by Seoul rather as an element of the general agenda, despite the controversial evidence base and the risks that playing on these strings will provoke an understandable reaction from the DPRK that is not conducive to easing regional tensions.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”