This should really be a very short piece, because the bottom line is that citizens in North Korea have virtually no human rights at all. The North Korean junta is heartless and totalitarian, run by a bunch of psychopaths and misfits whose only objective is the survival of the régime.
North Korea, which was level-pegging with the South in economic terms immediately after the Korean War, and into the sixties, today has a per capita GDP only 5% of the South’s figure. It’s dramatic proof of the superiority of a capitalist system. In rural areas the scene is comparable to Europe in Mediaeval times, with peasants carrying crops on their backs, or in hand-carts, and motorised vehicles few and far between.
North Korea is dirt-poor, and despite their leadership’s philosophy of “Juche” (self-reliance), they are a mendicant state, wholly dependent on foreign aid from South Korea, China, the EU and the UN. And of course the North Korean military gets first turn at the resources. We are feeding the hand that bites us.
In this economic wasteland, water and electricity are often available only a few hours a day. Pity the elderly North Korean housewife who has to toil up many flights of stairs with her shopping, because the lifts are not working.
Hunger stalks the land, and an incipient market-based food supply chain outside the state system was recently cut off at the knees by the régime’s cack-handed attempt at currency reform. In the late nineties, something like two million North Koreans starved to death, and today malnutrition is rife, despite the aid. It impacts particularly on the welfare of infants and nursing mothers. On my visit to North Korea in 2005, I noticed that North Korean air-hostesses were typically around four inches shorter than their southern counterparts – all down to nutrition.
There are credible estimates from respected human rights organisations that nearly one percent of the population are held in concentration camps, where many die from malnutrition, overwork and physical abuse. If any citizen speaks against the régime, they can expect the knock on the door at 3 a.m., and they disappear, never to be seen again. In a way this is worse than the old Soviet days, because, based on a dictum of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, they take not only the accused, but up to two generations of the family – children and grandchildren. There is no justice, no trial, no appeal, so often the “offence” is no more than a malicious allegation. If a North Korean finds he has a personal enemy, he has a clear incentive to denounce the enemy before the enemy denounces him.
I say that 1% of North Koreans are in the gulags, but in a very real sense the whole country is one vast, miserable, hopeless concentration camp. Media are strictly controlled. Radios are pre-tuned to the government channel, and citizens are punished if they attempt to listen to other channels.
Fierce reprisals are taken against the families of refugees who flee the North, and worse against those refugees returned by neighbouring countries (China has a very bad record of returning refugees to the North). Infanticide is widely practiced. If the returned refugee happens to be pregnant, it is assumed that she is carrying a Chinese baby, and to preserve the purity of the North Korean race she may be forced to abort, or to see her new-born deliberately strangled before her eyes moments after the birth. Public executions are commonplace, and capital punishment is applied to a wide range of crimes, including political “crimes”.
Korea is known to have abducted citizens from Japan and South Korea. At the end of the Korean War, the NKs moved some 80,000 South Korean intellectuals and others to the North, in forced marches. No one knows what became of them. Some may be alive still, and the families of the abductees would like to know. Check Korean War Abductees Family Union at www.kwafu.org (although sadly it’s mostly in Korean).
The most frustrating aspect of the situation is that so little can be done to address it. I have met NK officials, and put these points to them, and their typical response is “That’s just CIA propaganda”, or “I don’t recognise the picture you are painting of North Korea” (although the gulags are perfectly visible on Google World). Stalemate. While serious sanctions could bring down the régime in months, China in particular is reluctant to do so. It fears instability on its borders, a flood of starving refugees, and (perhaps worst of all) a resurgent South, backed by the USA, on its border at the Yalu River.
So all we can do is to keep publicising the problem. The European parliament is planning a substantial report on the issue. It won’t change the world, but it may keep the problem on the front burner amongst the international community. Meantime, 24 million North Koreans continue to suffer in one of the World’s last Stalinist throw-backs.