“In the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], international crimes appear to be intrinsic to the fabric of the state. The system is pitiless, pervasive and with few equivalents in modern international affairs.”
So reads the main conclusion of the UN’s report into human rights in North Korea. The 372 page long report was compiled through months of research and interviews with North Korean defectors, and is a horrific insight into the nature of a state built on utter domination of its citizens. So what does the report say about North Korea? How can such a system survive? And what will happen next?
(For a simple and interesting overview of the Korean War, and why there are two Koreas, please see this video!)
While we often make fun of the delusions and eccentricities of North Korea’s leaders, reading this report makes it hard to keep laughing. It’s hard to sum up in any sort of way how monstrous the North Korean state is. It is the closest anyone has ever come to the Big Brother state of Orwell’s 1984. From birth children are raised in complete loyalty to the state, and near worship of the Supreme Leader. Every single aspect of education has to show the wisdom of the system. Children and students are taught that their life is to serve. This extends to taking part in the “Mass Games”. Foreigners watching don’t realise the people forced to take part are work 10 hours a day for 6 months, and mistakes are ruthlessly punished.
No sources of knowledge are allowed except what comes from the state. Religion, especially Christianity, is punished with torture and death. Even watching a South Korean soap opera can be punished with 5 years in a labour camp; anyone caught selling foreign DVDs is shot. North Korea has created a bubble where people are told they are living in a workers’ paradise. For the majority of people who don’t have access to an illegal radio, mobile or TV, truth becomes whatever the state says it is.
This system of lies and brainwashing is forced on the North Korean people by almost unbelievable brutality. Trying to flee the country, being Christian, or any manner of tiny mistakes such as “accidently breaking the glass on a portrait of Kim Il-sung” can get someone dragged into the massive prison system. There mistreatment is the norm. Prisoners are forced to work as slaves, as well as being starved, beaten, and subjected to obscene torture. Women are especially brutalised. Pregnant women are subjected to forced abortions; one was even forced to drown her newborn baby. Children, some of whom were born and grew up in the camps, are also forced to work. One man described dropping a sewing machine in a prison factory when he was 14, and having his middle finger cut off by a guard as punishment. He was grateful at the time it wasn’t his hand he lost. This callousness shows the complete disregard the government has towards its citizens.
This mistreatment of citizens by the government extends beyond prison camps. In the 90s North Korea suffered terrible famines due to flooding and mismanagement of agriculture. The government took no real steps to help victims of the famine. Food rations were cut, and people were reduced to eating grass. Most likely somewhere between 500 000 and 3 million people starved to death. As this was going on the government was taking food away from the peasants to feed the military, their guarantee against foreign invasion. North Korea even accepted food aid from its enemies, the US and South Korea. They then relabelled the aid so that no one would know it was from outside Korea. To disguise what was going on, the state called this famine the “Arduous March”, and said that even the Supreme Leader was suffering lack of food. The only ‘lack’ he was suffering was that some of his imported whiskey was confiscated by Italian customs.
The conclusion the report draws is that North Korea is a country unlike any other. It has committed almost every crime against humanity there is, and its entire system is based around committing these crimes. The world has known about what is going on for many years, but this is still an important report. The BBC called it the “most detailed and devastating ever published by the United Nations”. It is very unusual for the UN to criticise one country in such a way.
The recommendations of the report are also interesting. Obviously they call for North Korea to stop its abuses, but acknowledge that this is unlikely. They recommend that the situation be sent to the International Criminal Court for investigation, or that a separate tribunal be set up to try anyone accused of crimes against humanity, including the leaders of the country. They also say that the international community is responsible for seeing this take place.
The question now is what will the international community do? And what can we really do? On Sunday in Part 2 of my post about North Korea I will discuss different actions the world could take, as well as the problems involved. Hint: China is one of them.
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