When Kim Jong Un came into power after his father’s death in 2011, very little was known about the young man. The unknown led to speculation that maybe he would be a reformer, after all he as a basketball fan and was educated in Switzerland. Unfortunately, the human rights situation has not improved and in many cases deteriorated.
North Korea is a highly secretive country and little is known about even its highest ranking member. In theory, the country has agreed to a number of human rights treaties and even gives rights to its citizens through a constitution. But there is little to no freedom in the country.
International human rights and other civil society organizations are not allowed in the country to keep the regime accountable. From within the country there is only one political party, one source for news and opposition to the status quo can be deadly.
All publications, television and radio are controlled by the state and even possession of outside broadcasts is illegal. Citizens aren’t even allowed to have cell phones to speak with friends and family outside of the country.
One of the only ways we are able to get information about North Korea is from defectors. Their stories are abhorrent not only for their brutality but also for their regularity. Prisoners are tortured through beatings, rape, sleep deprivation, and forcing prisoners to remain standing. Another common practice is to send prisoners to prison camps where they are forced to work for inhumane hours without pay.
These camps, that government officials deny exist, are replete with prisoners of conscience and their families. North Korea practices collective punishment. The immediate family of these prisoners are sent to prison camps, and in some cases even the grandchildren. Children working in horribly unsafe conditions is a regular sight in these camps according to defectors. Prisoners have very little clothing, are regularly executed and die from starvation.
The government’s repressive actions are meant to deter opposition. Threats of forced labor and the sight of public executions are commonplace. Defectors often leave their family behind to certain imprisonment. Travel outside of the country is illegal and border guards have the right to shoot escapees on sight. China does not recognize defectors as refugees and sends them back to North Korea. Any defector that is returned by China faces torture and forced labor.
The death penalty has become simply a formality in the country and can effectively be enforced for any crime because the laws around it are so vague. Kim Jong Un himself has employed the death penalty for a number of political foes and even an ex-girlfriend.
Even ordinary workers in North Korea are treated poorly and barely earn enough money to provide for their family. Workers are not allowed to organize and must accept horrendous working conditions.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) strategy to keep its stranglehold on the people’s mind is ineffective. Despite the threat of forced labor camps, and execution there is a vibrant black market and South Korean television is popular. The military at the border happily accept bribes to smuggle people out of the country and entertainment from flash drives and DVD’s. Defectors are constantly looking at ways to undermine the oppressive government with information.
In April of 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council opened an investigation into DPRK for “crimes against humanity”. North Korea has not cooperated with the UN and has denied all requests for visits from UN representatives. Though it will be difficult to hold the country accountable because they are constantly on the defensive with their military and are unresponsive to sanctions.