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PoliticsNorth Korea

How North Korea's weapons overshadow human rights abuses

Shamil Shams in Strasbourg
March 20, 2023

Ten years ago, the UN formed a commission to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea. However, little has changed, and the West seems to be more concerned about Pyongyang's militaristic ambitions.

Armoured vehicles take part in a military parade to mark the 75th founding anniversary of North Korea's army
North Korean defectors contend that the international community is more concerned about the regime's military buildupImage: KCNA/REUTERS

"North Korea is a living hell," Jung Gwang-il, a North Korean defector and president of the No Chain rights organization, told DW on the sidelines of an EU Parliament event last week investigating the dire human rights situation in North Korea.

"It is difficult for people in the outside world to understand what the situation is like in North Korea," he said. "Prisoners are treated as sub-humans. There are several kinds of detention facilities in the country," Jung added.

Three North Korean defectors DW spoke to at the event in the French city of Strasbourg presented a disturbing account of the human rights situation in their country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime, they said, continues to detain citizens without charges, accusing them of having links with South Korean activists.

"Political prisoners are tortured, given electric shocks and beaten with a wooden stick, to get forced confessions. Then they are transferred to political prison camps, where they are subject to over 18 hours of forced labor a day," said Jung, who also gave his testimony to the EU Parliament session.

Another North Korean defector, who asked to remain anonymous, told DW that she fled the country in 2018. "The North Korean regime has declared all escapees who have come to the South as traitors. But we are not traitors. We left North Korea because life was hard there. We could not eat properly, and we were subject to political and economic repression," she added.

The defectors complained that the systematic human rights abuses in North Korea are not receiving adequate attention in the West. They contend that the international community is more concerned about the regime's military buildup. Last year, North Korea carried out an unprecedented number of weapons tests in defiance of international sanctions.

North Korean defector: 'We are not traitors'

Human rights first

These issues took center stage at the EU panel in Strasbourg, organized by The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a Washington-based think-tank working to raise awareness about right issues in North Korea.

"I have been studying North Korea for many years. The country remains one of the most isolated places, while continuing to threaten the security of the world. But we must not forget about the 25 million people that live there," Michiel Hoogeveen, a member of EU Parliament (MEP), told the panel.

Participants, however, agreed that Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs have taken precedence over the human suffering and plight of the North Korean people.

"The challenge before, during and after the [formation of] the UN Commission of Inquiry is that human rights are always outperformed by other issues: military, nuclear, missiles, security," said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK. He emphasized, however, that human rights should be a priority for the international community.

Pierre Rigoulot, historian and author of a book looking at life in the North titled "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," told the panel that since the UN commission was started 10 years ago, "systematic human rights violations" in North Korea have only become worse.

Lack of action

"It has been 10 years since the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea was established. Nothing has changed in these 10 years. Nothing at all," North Korean defector Jung lamented.

North Korea said to be on brink of food crisis

"In the next 10 years, I will keep working to indict Kim Jong Un at the International Criminal Court, like I have been doing for the past 10 years. I urge the international community to support our efforts," he added.

MEP Hoogeveen admitted that the international community needs to pay more attention to the North Korean regime's massive rights violations.

"Despite discussions and engagement by the UN, we are not talking enough about it," he said.

However, detailed information about human rights abuses in the isolated country is lacking. One of the main challenges for rights advocates is getting the attention of international policymakers.

Two-pronged strategy

Robert Collins, a Korea expert and a senior advisor at HRNK, said Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program and human rights abuses in the country are linked in several ways.

"For instance, Kim's regime wants to spend money on its nuclear and missile program and not on providing food to its people," Collins told DW, adding that the country is facing an unprecedented food crisis.

"The food crisis in the mid-1990s killed about 1.5 million people in North Korea. It is approaching the same level now," he added.

The North Korea expert believes the recent ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang carry a two-fold message. "The regime wants to tell the South Korea-US alliance that it is powerful and can strike them if they try to interfere with them," he said.

He added that the threats are intended to send a message to the North Korean people that they should take pride that the regime is powerful enough to attack South Korea.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

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