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Terror From Within: North Korea’s Atrocious Crimes Against Humanity

Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr. 

Between the bright lights of South Korea and the glittering nation of China, a dark area blends almost seamlessly with its surrounding seas. This black expanse is North Korea by evening satellite, revealing only Pyongyang as a singular speck.

The image demonstrates the country’s lack of electrical infrastructure, but it can also be seen as representative of a greater darkness in the form of “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights,” as detailed in a recent report by the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The severe crimes against humanity perpetrated by and for the government have gone largely unpunished and unnoticed.

The U.N. concluded that North Korea’s gross violations depict a government that “seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.”

On November 18, 2014, the General Assembly endorsed the report, recommending that the Security Council refer it to the International Criminals Court (ICC).

Here are the crimes their investigation uncovered.

1. Violations of freedoms of thought, expression, religion

From childhood, citizens of North Korea are indoctrinated into what the report refers to as an “official personality cult,” for which people are taught absolute obedience to the Supreme leader (currently, Kim Jong-un).

This forced ideology denies citizens independent opinion and activity, and incites a hatred for countries like the U.S. and Japan.

All activities are controlled by the Workers’ Party of Korea, all telephone calls are monitored, and access to the Internet, television, and radio is severely restricted, limited mostly to State propaganda.

Any behavior that expresses dissent or criticism is a crime, the reporting of which carries reward, and the perpetration meriting harsh punishment.

2. State-sponsored discrimination

Discrimination is deeply instilled in the way in which society operates in North Korea. The report notes that this discrimination is pervasive, albeit shifting, rooted in what is called the songbun system: a ranking of persons based on class, gender, and beliefs that determines residence, schooling, occupation, marriage, and even food allowance.

Victims of this discrimination are all too often women. The male-driven State preys upon both economically advancing women and already marginalized women, violence against whom is prevalent and unprotected by the State or justice system.

3. Violations of freedom of movement and residence

Citizens are isolated from movement or communication outside of their residence, unable to contact each other or the outside world. As part of the songbun system, citizens are assigned where to work and live, with location decided based on loyalty.

Citizens aren’t allowed to travel beyond their province without official authorization, so as to limit information flow and maintain segregation, and are virtually banned from traveling abroad.

Still, when nationals attempt to flee – mostly to China – they are often apprehended and repatriated, subject then to torture, detention, and in the case of women, sexual violence and forced abortions. Women are also frequently vulnerable to sex-trafficking.

4. Violations of the right to food and life

According to the U.N., North Korea has used food as a means of control over the population, prioritizing favored citizens in loyal cities like Pyongyang over those considered “expendable,” from which food is confiscated and given to the privileged, subjecting vulnerable groups to starvation.

The population as a whole has not been provided with adequate food since the 1980’s, and despite appeals for national aid in times of famine, humanitarian aid was denied to the most affected people – including groups of homeless children.

The report finds that decisions by the state regarding food control resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths as well as permanent physical and psychological damage to survivors.

5. Arbitrary detention, torture, execution, and prison camps

In North Korea, persons accused of political crimes are frequently subject to arbitrary arrest and detention for prolonged periods of time, and without warnings to their families about their fates.

The report calls these arrests “enforced disappearances,” one feature the State uses to instill fear.

Perpetrators of major political crimes are even “disappeared” without trial to political prison camps (kwanliso), where they are subjected starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, and rape, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the past 50 years.

Though the State denied these camps still operate, witnesses and satellite imagery prove this statement false, with estimates of 80,000 to 120,000 still detained.

Executions are also often carried out, regularly in public, with or without trials.

6. Abductions and enforced disappearances of people from other countries

But it’s not just the citizens of North Korea subject to these heinous crimes, though they certainly are condemned to the worst of it. The State has also been known to systematically abduct persons from other countries since 1950.

Abductees are estimated to be well over 200,000 persons, including children and families. A vast majority, the report says, were forcibly disappeared to gain labor or other skills for North Korea’s benefit.

Once in the nation, these abductees are denied education and employment, placed under strict surveillance preventing their exit. Often, women are abducted simply to marry non-Korean abductees to discourage the possibility of interracial children.

Due to the prevalence and extremity of these crimes against humanity, The U.N. panel wrote to leader Kim Jong-un that the case would be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), noting that he himself could be held accountable.

But, as the NY Times reports, it’s unlikely that the case will ever get there.

Article updated. Originally published on 3/11/2014.

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Jennifer Markert