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A Tale of Two Koreas

How government structure, human rights and freedoms differ between North and South

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) In-Bum Chun/Republic of Korea Army

The United Nations defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.” According to the Oxford dictionary, “freedom” can be defined as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. Merriam-Webster extends the concept “to the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.”

Within the Indo-Pacific region, no nation is perfect, but there are two ways in which nations view human rights and freedom. One is to strive for the above-mentioned definitions and ideals of human rights and freedom, and the other is to define its own view of human rights and freedom that serves the interests of the ruler. As a Korean born in the 1950s, I have experienced both versions and lived next to a very dangerous neighbor: North Korea.

Evolution of South Korea

When I was a teenager, South Korea had a curfew from midnight to 4 a.m. Korean newspapers were monitored and censored. Magazines such as Newsweek and Time were often missing pages, and sentences were erased with black ink. Police regularly searched your bag, and you always looked over your shoulder if you made a critical comment about the government. Labor unions were oppressed, and political freedoms were limited to say the least. Some people prayed that the United States would come to Korea’s rescue, and some blamed the U.S. for not coming to Korea’s rescue.

In the 1980s and 1990s, something extraordinary happened. The South Korean junta loosened its grip on society. The curfew was gone, the economy grew and political changes occurred. After eight years of rule, President Chun Doo-Hwan transferred power to Rho Tae-Woo. Although Rho was a former career military general, a power transition occurred that eventually led to the election in 1993 of Kim Young-Sam, a career politician. Since the 1980s, Korea has become a free and often chaotic democracy that strives to reach the ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights. The political transformation has also brought economic development that has given Koreans wealth and prosperity, which contributes to regional development and prosperity. South Korea is trying to resolve the wealth gap and the inequalities of rapid social change. Although I am concerned about some of Korea’s choices, I have no doubt that the values of freedom and human rights can only be achieved through such a process. Freedom should have no limits beyond mutual respect for others. Based on this assumption, South Korea shows how a society can evolve rapidly into a free society, albeit with inherent dangers. It also shows how a secure and stable environment enabled such an evolution to be possible.

Currency traders watch monitors at a bank in Seoul in April 2021. South Korea’s economy ranks as the world’s 10th largest and dwarfs North Korea’s economy. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

North Korea in Contrast   

Meanwhile, just 64 kilometers north of Seoul is North Korea. The infamous Kim Il Sung, who led North Korea from its founding in 1948, started the Korean War. Despite defeat, Kim maneuvered his failure into a political coup during which he executed all political adversaries and their families. Kim created a cult following much like Mao and Stalin, but he was far better at it. Religious doctrine and Confucian values helped him perfect his ideology, and his dictatorship seemed to have an edge because the North’s economy was able to achieve a higher standard of living than South Korea’s economy in the 1960s and 1970s. A dictatorship can concentrate resources and manpower to achieve quick results, but it can never achieve the full potential of a society. This is evidenced on the Korean Peninsula in the contrast between North and South.

The first mistake Kim made was to identify the U.S. as a threat and to portray South Korea as a puppet of the Americans. Although it served his political objectives, it was at the price of future opportunities with the U.S. It also caused North Korea to invest in a military at the expense of its economy. Even to this day a military-first policy is at the core of North Korea.

Revealing Criteria

To have an objective view of North Korean human rights and freedom, consider the United Nations’ findings and the criteria the U.N. applies in its analysis.

The first criterion is public execution. To control its population, North Korea orders people to attend executions, including those by hanging, firing squad and burning, imposed for a range of offenses. Regarding firing squads, it seems the type of offense determines the size of the squad, from three to nine or more. Those who commit the ultimate crime of betraying the “great leader” are subjected to a volley from a large-caliber machine gun. This was the fate of Jang Sung-tak, the uncle of North Korea’s current dictator, Kim Jong Un. 

Second is the operation of concentration camps. Those committed to the camps, whether with or without trial, no longer are part of society and do not exist in official records. This leaves them subject to arbitrary execution. No outside contact is allowed. No food or medical care is provided, which means the inmates must fend for themselves. Twelve hours of forced labor a day is the norm, plus at least an hour of political education. North Korea denies the existence of these camps and therefore leaves no hope for their improvement. 

Third is the categorization of the population. All citizens are subject to a social system known as Sung-Bun, which divides North Koreans into three categories: core, basic and complex. After the Korean War, Kim Il Sung implemented the three classes. This caste system determines an individual’s prospects in almost every area of life, including education, occupation, military service, membership in the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, marriage and even food supply. The key factors determining class are: the socioeconomic background of an individual’s ancestors at the time of the Korean Peninsula’s liberation in 1945; the ancestors’ activities during the Korean War (1950-1953); and whether an individual had relatives in China or South Korea. Of course, being connected to the outside world is bad for an individual’s status. 

South Korea, including its capital, Seoul, has prospered and emerged as a major industrial nation since the Korean War, while North Korea still struggles to feed its people. REUTERS

Among these three classes, the most privileged is the core, which makes up 28% of the population. The core includes professional revolutionaries, descendants of “war heroes” who died working or fighting for the North, and peasants or those descended from peasant families. The largest group, which has little upward mobility, is the basic or wavering class. This class comprises about 45% of the population. It includes people who previously lived in China or South Korea, those with relatives who went to the South and families of small-scale merchants, among others. The complex (hostile) class is the most restricted, with little access to social benefits. This class is 27% of the population. It includes descendants of landlords, capitalists, religious people, political prisoners or anyone else judged to be anti-party. 

The fourth U.N. criterion is the absence of freedom of movement. In North Korea it is nearly impossible to move outside one’s birth province or city. Lack of transportation is one issue, but even if buses, trains and air travel were available, a North Korean can only travel outside his or her district with a permit, which is difficult to gain. 

Fifth is the absence of religious freedom. During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, Pyongyang, now the North Korean capital, had the most Christians on the peninsula. Although North Korea’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, in reality, there is only one god, Kim Jong Un. 

The sixth criterion is the right to survival. The regime does not have the ability to feed its people, who are left to fend for themselves. From the mid-to-late 1990s, nearly 1 million North Koreans starved to death, yet the regime did nothing to provide relief. It shows the cruelty and the resilience of the North Korean system. Because of its unique system that combines Sung-Bun, concentration camps and cruel public executions, North Korea can withstand such horror and survive.  

Finally, there is no freedom of choice for education or occupation. The Workers’ Party determines every citizen’s future by the Sung-Bun class into which he or she was born — or the size of a bribe. North Korean society does not provide an equal opportunity to its people. All it really achieves is to serve the Kim family.

Negative Consequences

North Korea has become a model for dictators and a handbook for dictatorships. This is the ultimate challenge for the Indo-Pacific, as well as for the world. If the North Korean leadership endures, then others might emulate its methods for controlling its population.

Although the North Korean leadership states that it must have nuclear weapons to defend itself from foreign threats, it is most probable that the regime needs weapons of mass destruction to control its own people and to protect itself from internal threats. That is why denuclearization is unlikely under the Kim regime. It also highlights the danger of nuclear weapons in the hands of such an absolute dictatorship.

North Korea’s absence of freedom and its horrific human rights record cannot be neglected. North Korea contends that it is a matter of culture and that North Korea has a different standard of freedom and human rights that is unique to its people’s needs. Sometimes visitors to North Korea witness happiness from ignorance and brainwashing and think that it might actually be true, but even those who believe this are seldom seen volunteering to live in North Korea.

Human rights and freedom define the very nature of free societies. That is why not only North Korea’s, but all nations’ human rights and freedom matter.  

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