North Korea is one of the most mysterious countries in the world due to its relative reclusiveness from world affairs, but behind this veneer lies a history of horrifying and disgusting abuse of human rights. The country, formed in 1948 in the wake of the Korean War, is ruled by the communist Kim regime, which holds an iron grip on the country. As of now the country is headed by its third ruler, Kim Jong-un, since its creation. Although the country routinely denies any sort of involvement in human right abuses, thousands of testimonies and evidence say otherwise.
The Kim regime still rules the country today and may rule into the foreseeable future. North Korea’s creation and communist ideals stem from the Cold War, primarily the Proxy War between North and South Korea, backed by the USSR and USA respectively. The respective influences on the two countries during the temporary occupation after WWII created the radical split that would divide Korea at the 38th parallel, otherwise known as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).
As the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is mostly pro-communism due to its Soviet influence, the country has since developed a government that mimics the totalitarian control of the USSR. Although there were many human rights abuses following the Korean War, there is no definite date or time when the abuses started. What is known is that their constant abuses of human rights to further their own power and to keep themselves in power is nothing new.
In 1948, the North Korean Constitution was created, bearing striking resemblances to the Soviet Union’s constitution. It is the result of the occupation of North Korea after WWII and the liberation from Japan. Unfortunately, the ruling system of the USSR is to have a totalitarian ruler be in control of the nation. This led to North Korea to install the Kim il-Sung Constitution in 1998, which ensured Sung’s power and name him the “Eternal President”. The propaganda in North Korea is so entrenched that it praises itself in its own constitution. wikiwand. com, Constitution)
An additional constitution created recently in 2012, known as the Kim il-Sung Kim Jong-un constitution, further solidifies the Kim regime’s power and glorifies North Korea by declaring itself a nuclear-armed state. Similar to the aforementioned Kim il-Sung Constitution, its rhetoric serves as propaganda to raise the morale of North Korean denizens. Policies such as Juche and Songun are also effective measures that the government has employed to keep control.
The ideology of juche, the official religion of the DPRK, states that its constituents can control their own destinies, but must be guided by their deity, a member of the Kim regime. (patheos. com) Songun, the military-first policy of the state, glorifies the army and instills a sense of national pride at the expense of civilians. (“North Korea’s Military-First Policy”, Vorontsov) More recently, dictator Kim Jong-un has taken measures to eliminate his political enemies and maintain control of the state.
In 2013, Jang Sung-thaek, uncle of Kim Jong-un, was executed his vehement criticisms against the current North Korean government. (“North Korean Leader’s Uncle Executed”, BBC) Victims include any dissenters, defectors and Christians, who are the minority religion and are persecuted for their practices. Women are also affected as a byproduct of the One Child Policy, since there is a market for North Korean girls tricked into crossing the border by their guides and sold many times until they meet their new husband. (Kirkpatrick 79-80)
The execution of Sung-thaek is not an isolated coincidence; any political dissent is quashed by the totalitarian regime. Political enemies of the state face the risk of being arrested and sent to a reeducation camp, or executed as a warning to others. As a method of preventing resistance, the policy of collective punishment (“Liberty in North Korea”, The People’s Challenges) dictates that up to three generations of the family of a known enemy of the state can also be subjected to the same punishments unless one of the current leader of North Korea is one of them.
The same applies to defectors attempting to flee to another country. Although North Korea is largely secular, the minority of Christians in the country is heavily persecuted. For instance, any signs of religion can lead to immediate persecution. (Shim, Gale) (“Remembering”, Evans) Punishment includes being placed into one of the infamous re-education camps, where prisoners endure brutal punishment and even face execution. Prisoners face starving to death if they become injured and are unable to fulfill their production quotas. “Life in North Korea’s Yodok Prison Camp”, Kwang-il)
Furthermore, North Korea has faced heavy criticisms and judgement on the treatment of its people, although not from internal sources. There is absolutely next to no resistance in the country, mostly out of fear of being punished and similar factors. The only support system is an underground network of Christian communities that transports defectors out of North Korea. (Kirkpatrick 41) Any form of resistance is immediately crushed by the regime. This is a stark contrast compared to external responses, which are much greater.
Many outside groups, such as Liberty in North Korea (LNK), opposes the regime and assists refugees from the country through the smuggling contraband items and sending of American currency. (libertyinnorthkorea. org) The UN has repeatedly placed sanctions on the country and has condemned many of their human right violations, though it has not undertaken significant action outside of this. (Shim, Gale) China opposes North Korean refugees, however, it has supported a few, mostly high ranking North Korean defectors such as Hwang Jang-yop. Kirkpatrick 66-72)
The incidents occurring in North Korea are reminiscent of other themes seen in other countries throughout history. North Korea displays many tactics and ideologies similar to that of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Like other totalitarian governments, it is reliant on terror, media censorship, heavy indoctrination, and other authoritarian practices. The DPRK also seeks to instill nationalism in its citizens, a trait shared by fascist regimes such as Nazi Germany.
In addition, North Korea has an abysmal human rights record; nearly all of the rights laid out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been withheld or violated in North Korea. (Human Right Watch) Some of these rights include the right of opinion and expression, freedom of the press, and natural rights amongst others. The media is so tightly controlled by the North Korean regime to the point that at least forty North Korean journalists have been sent to prison for misspelling a senior officer’s name or questioning the official version of North Korean history. Kirkpatrick 276)
Unfortunately, there is no aftermath that can be defined in the context of North Korea. Although the country shows increasing instability with many high ranking officials defecting (“North Korea”, CNN), it’s clear that the Kim regime will continue their reign of power for years to come. Although, as stated before, in absence of an aftermath, the North Korean people still suffer under the oppressive government. Basic needs are cast aside to further expand North Korea’s Nuclear Missile program. “How North Korea Starved Its People”, Francis) Many people still live in poverty, and even if they do not, their actions are still heavily restricted.
The documentary The Secret State showed the struggle that many North Koreans face in their day to day lives. Poverty runs rampant in the country, with over 75% of people in the country unable to get food. Everyday activities in America, such as filming, can be considered treason in North Korea. The documentary also shows many rights that have been violated, which goes to show no matter what class one may be.
Citizens could potentially be punished if they didn’t show enough emotion during important events, like Kim Jong-il’s funeral. It was a struggle to show the most emotion to avoid execution. The documentary even details the dangerous operation of smuggling, a dangerous practice that could result in severe punishment or execution if caught. To demonstrate prosperity and wealth, the North Korean government constructs fake department stores filled to the brim with food and living necessities imported from foreign nations.
The aim of these department stores is to show off the wealth and surplus of the North Korean government on North Korean national TV. However, there is no functional use for them, as none of the items are on sale for the citizens. The group’s final thoughts are that the lives of North Korean citizens are deeply indoctrinated and brainwashed, and it would be very difficult and chaotic to uproot this and reconstrue new principles that would fit better with Western ideals.
Opposition must be both external and internal if the people can successfully overthrow the government. The current state of North Korean society illustrates how the UN has failed to make peace and promote human rights. It also shows the extent of the power of international awareness and its limits. Actions against the North Korean government seem ineffective (like the sanctions), but it has been having a negative effect on the economy. However, the economic downturn has ironically caused widespread poverty and made more North Koreans suffer.
The regime of the DPRK and its human rights violations is important to know because it is an incredibly longstanding legacy of the Cold War and how many of the brutalities during that time period still manifest themselves in the North Korean regime, especially with North Korea’s numerous human rights violations. It is also vital to learn about it so that the atrocities committed by the North Korean State are not repeated in other countries. Even more so, it is important to learn from the actions of North Korea, as a brighter future must be ensured and preventive actions must be undertaken so that a regime like this one shall never rise again.