The Associated Press
North Korea is increasing its repression of human rights and people are becoming more desperate and reportedly starving in parts of the country as the economic situation worsens, the United Nations human rights chief said in August 2023.
North Koreans have endured periods of severe economic difficulty and repression before, but “currently they appear to be suffering both,” Volker Türk told the U.N. Security Council in its first open meeting since 2017 on North Korean human rights.
“According to our information, people are becoming increasingly desperate as informal markets and other coping mechanisms are dismantled, while their fear of state surveillance, arrest, interrogation and detention has increased,” he said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un closed the nation’s borders to contain COVID-19. As the pandemic has waned, Türk said, the government’s restrictions have grown more extensive, with guards ordered to shoot any unauthorized person approaching the border and with almost all foreigners, including U.N. staff, still barred from the country.
Meanwhile, he said, anyone found viewing “reactionary ideology and culture” — which means information from abroad, especially from South Korea — faces up to 15 years in prison. Those who distribute such material face life imprisonment or the death penalty.
The regime has largely shut down markets and other private means of generating income and increasingly criminalized such activity.
“This sharply constrains people’s ability to provide for themselves and their families,” Türk said. “Given the limits of state-run economic institutions, many people appear to be facing extreme hunger as well as acute shortages of medication.”
Many human rights violations stem directly from, or support, the militarization of the country.
“For example, the widespread use of forced labor — including labor in political prison camps, forced use of school children to collect harvests, the requirement for families to undertake labor and provide a quota of goods to the government, and confiscation of wages from overseas workers — all support the military apparatus of the state and its ability to build weapons,” he said.
Pyongyang’s “Military First” policy reduces resources for the people, said Elizabeth Salmón, the U.N. special investigator on human rights in North Korea, and the country’s leaders demand that citizens spend less so the money can be used for the regime’s illegal nuclear and missile programs.
In a statement read on behalf of 52 countries, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the North Korean regime commits “acts of cruelty and repression” at home and abroad, which are “inextricably linked with the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile advancements in violation of Security Council resolutions.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the nation’s official name.
The countries called on all 193 U.N. member nations to raise awareness of the links between human rights in North Korea and international peace and security, “and to hold the DPRK government accountable.”
The People’s Republic of China and Russia, both allies of North Korea, opposed the meeting, saying the human rights situation isn’t an international threat.
Thomas-Greenfield countered that Pyongyang’s “war machine,” which is “powered by repression and cruelty,” is undeniably a matter of international peace and security.