Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Section IX: Human Rights in Countries of Concern - Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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The human rights situation in the DPRK still appeared to be amongst the worst, if not the worst, in the world in 2011. There were consistent reports of serious and systematic abuses, which suggest that there was little change and definitely no improvement.  Equally, there continues to be large-scale and chronic malnutrition in the DPRK, especially among vulnerable groups. The regime indirectly admitted its inability to feed its population by appealing to the international community for humanitarian assistance. It is, however, devoting considerable resources to show-case projects to celebrate the 100th anniversary of late President Kim Il Sung in April 2012, which suggests that the welfare of its own people is not a priority of the regime. Reports suggested that political prison camps are expanding, public extrajudicial executions continue, as do clamp-downs on the possession of unauthorised information and on freedom of movement.  The year ended with the regime acclaiming Kim Jong Un as the new supreme leader, without any reference to public opinion or any democratic vote.  

The DPRK continues to assert that it has its own system for protecting human rights violations and that any transgressions are adequately dealt with. It claims that reports on abuses produced outside the country are no more than inventions of opponents of the regime. However, it also makes it impossible to get an accurate picture of the full extent of human rights abuses in the DPRK. It heavily controls access of those who work in and visit the country and refuses to accept visits by independent human rights observers, such as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Because of this, much of the information on the human rights situation in the DPRK comes from defectors who have limited access to up-to-date information on developments in country. 

The DPRK continues to reject any formal dialogue on human rights with the UK or EU because of the annual human rights resolutions that we support at the Human Rights Council and in the UN General Assembly. The DPRK also continues to fail to provide the international community with details of how it is implementing recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review of the DPRK.

During the year, our Embassy in Pyongyang held regular discussions on human rights with DPRK officials, including the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the Foreign Minister.  The UK contributed to and supported the DPRK human rights resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and in the UN General Assembly – which were both passed by even larger majorities than in previous years. The former expressed “serious concern at ongoing grave, widespread and systematic human rights violations” in the DPRK and its lack of will to cooperate fully with the UN special rapporteur.  Obtaining access for the special rapporteur remains a key focus for the FCO, which we continue to pursue through bilateral and multilateral channels. 

Human rights were a key component of all British Embassy-sponsored officials’ trips overseas – including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Workers’ Party of Korea, and the speaker of the Supreme People’s Assembly. During these trips, we aimed to increase understanding of UK policy and the importance of dialogue through, for example, meetings at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and visits to Parliament.

The Embassy implemented humanitarian projects with the goal of having a direct impact on the human rights of vulnerable groups.  These included one aimed at helping to improve the nutritional status and health of children at kindergartens, nurseries and hospitals in three counties and a second focused on breaking down barriers for deaf people in the DPRK through the provision and promotion of sign-language training.  A further project, to support training in the treatment of spinal injuries, will take place in early 2012.  With the Embassy in Seoul, the Embassy in Pyongyang assisted in human rights work focused on the defector community in the Republic of Korea (ROK), including English-language training and the first Chevening scholarship for a North Korean defector.  The British Embassy in Seoul also hosted an event to launch reports on violence against women in the DPRK and to encourage the integration of DPRK defectors in South Korea.

The DPRK has shown no sign of changing its human rights policy, and the FCO will therefore maintain its existing strategy of critical engagement – with the aim of encouraging change in the long term.  We will continue to highlight DPRK human rights problems internationally, pushing for access for UN and other agencies and a formal dialogue with both the UN and EU.  We aim to expose DPRK officials to UK thinking, by explaining our policy and raising concerns about reported abuses, and taking practical action at a local level.

On 18 December, the DPRK regime announced that Kim Jong Un was the “great successor, an outstanding leader of our party, army and people”.  He took over as leader without any elections or reference to public opinion.  Among the leading organs of the state, only the Supreme People’s Assembly is directly elected, although it seems that only one candidate stands in each constituency and voting is not secret. But the assembly’s meetings seem to be a mere formality as they last for only a few days every year and rubber stamp decisions made elsewhere rather than being a forum for public discussion of the wishes of the people.

Freedom of expression and assembly
The regime maintained tight control of information flows, even within the country, by restricting travel, with many check points manned by armed military at district boundaries and on bridges. The local media is all government-controlled with access to foreign broadcasts and print media severely limited.  Reports suggested that citizens found in possession of unauthorised information, especially from the Republic of Korea, were subjected to punishment including imprisonment, and that whole families, rather than the individuals involved, can be punished.

There is little evidence of freedom of association or assembly.  Reports suggested that small-scale public protests occasionally took place, mainly in response to controls being imposed on market activity, but that these were quickly broken up. The population seems to spend much of its spare time in activities arranged by the regime, from cleaning kerb stones to practising for mass displays. This not only limits the amount of time that individuals have to do what they want to do, but also shows the priority given to group unity, rather than individual freedom.

Human rights defenders
There were no human rights defenders within DPRK due to the pervasive presence of the security apparatus.  Some North Korean refugees, including some who have settled in the Republic of Korea, were involved with NGOs in pushing on human rights and provided many of the reports on abuses.

Access to justice and the rule of law
Corruption seemed to be rife, with many reports of payments made to those in authority in order to get around the regulatory system, and even officials in prisons reportedly taking bribes.  The judicial system is not independent, it being constitutionally bound to protect the existing socialist system. Reports suggest that the defence counsel provided to defendants focuses more on obtaining admissions of guilt rather than providing a legal defence.

Death penalty
The DPRK explained that public executions took place as a penalty against the most violent of crimes.  There are 22 crimes which are officially punishable by death, which are ambiguously defined in law. The DPRK does not provide official statistics but reports suggest that executions continued to take place in 2011, with some being extrajudicial public executions.

As FCO Minister of State Jeremy Browne heard during his meeting with defector Shin Dong Hyuk in October, torture and other abuses including public executions and sexual exploitation were rampant in political prison camps in the DPRK.  MPs who heard Mr Shin’s story were appalled at his treatment, and several raised this with a visiting delegation from the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in December.  According to a recent Amnesty International report, the political prisons have been expanding and hold an estimated 200,000 people.

Freedom of religion or belief
Believers are given access only to a small number of state-controlled places of worship, with those involved in proselytising being subject to imprisonment and other punishments, including execution.

Women’s rights
Despite formal equality, the traditional subservient role of women is common in Korean society.  Domestic abuse and sexual violence seem to be common with few, if any, practical measures taken to stop them.

Minority rights
There are no LGBT rights in the DPRK.  The authorities deny that LGBT people exist and consider their behaviour “unnatural”.

Children’s rights
Some of the most basic rights, including access to food and education, were not adequately fulfilled.  Relatively young children were subjected to military drills, and consistent reports suggested that children had to undertake work and provide goods and services if they were to receive the free education to which they were formally entitled.

Other issues
The DPRK refuses to reform its food production and distribution system although this means that it is unable to feed its own people and has led to chronic malnutrition.  The UK has been involved, with international partners, in undertaking an independent assessment of the food situation in the DPRK, to ensure that any international food assistance provided is carefully targeted at the most vulnerable and that there is a monitoring regime in place that minimises the potential for diversion or stockpiling. Lobbying for this has helped international aid organisations to gain better access to the country than ever before and implement more effective checks.