Earlier this year, a commission of inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council issued a devastating report on human rights in North Korea. In addition to estimating that between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are currently being held in prison camps, the commission found credible evidence of a host of abuses, including:
“extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
It concluded that these violations of human rights in North Korea were so grave, widespread, and systematic that they amounted to crimes against humanity. This is important for two reasons. First, it confirms what most of us suspected: North Koreans are living a nightmare of surveillance, starvation, and brutal repression. And second, the violations of their rights constitute international crimes that can be prosecuted.
Unsurprisingly, the North Korean government views things a little differently. In a lengthy report released last week on the Korean Central News Agency’s website, the “DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies” laid out its views on “the Government’s efforts for protecting and promoting human rights, realities, obstacles to its efforts in ensuring human rights, and status of implementation of its international obligations”.
Both the report and the KCNA site are nearly impenetrable, but I’ve taken one for the team and waded through them so you don’t have to. Here’s what I learned:
- “Korea has four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter.”
- “[I]ts area should be measured by cubic meters, not square meters.” (?)
- “[T]he DPRK maintains that human rights is state sovereignty.”
- “The law and decision on abolishing the taxation system turned DPRK into a tax-free country for the first time in history and firmly guaranteed the realization of the historic cause of completely freeing the Korean people from tax burdens.”
- “As far as the annual ‘Report on Human Rights’ by the U.S. State Department is concerned, it is a document of vicious political provocation, aimed at slandering and insulting the sovereign states with the ‘human rights standards’ based on the American value.”
- “Members of the ‘COI’ are despicable human rights abusers bribed by the U.S. and its allies to distort the facts and deliberately tarnish the image of a sovereign state.”
There’s quite a bit more on how horrible the Japanese, South Koreans, and Americans all are, including some impressively shameless attacks on the U.S.’s incarceration rates and wire-tapping policies. I really don’t recommend reading it. But I do recommend reflecting on what it means that the North Koreans bothered to write it in the first place.
Because amidst the vitriol and over-use of scare quotes, there’s a careful catalogue of the human rights ostensibly guaranteed by North Korean law, and the institutions established to provide and enforce them. There’s also repeated reference to the requirements of international human rights law, and the importance of upholding them. We could dismiss this as lip service. After all, it’s clearly disingenuous and doesn’t correspond to improvement in human rights conditions on the ground. But the North Koreans know that a resolution on their human rights situation will likely come before the UN General Assembly this fall and have already made an unprecedented statement that they will consider the recent recommendations of the Human Rights Council. This report, despite its absurdity, is another baby step towards engagement.