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The Founding Document of HRNK

The denial of human rights in North Korea is a terrible injustice that can no longer be ignored. For decades, the people of North Korea have lived under a totalitarian system so closed and rigidly controlled that virtually nothing about their circumstances was known to the outside world. Human rights organizations and the international media lacked access to the country. The bitter conflict between the two Koreas, divided from each other by an impenetrable wall of ideology and hair-trigger defenses, reinforced the isolation of the North and the silence of the international community, which concerned itself exclusively with the sensitive security issues that dominated the politics of the Korean peninsula.

Since 1995, more than one million North Koreans may have perished from famine and related disease, while hundreds of thousands more have fled across the border into China. Along with this human catastrophe have come the first cracks in the wall of silence that has separated North Korea from the world. Humanitarian relief workers, though restricted in their movements, have become witnesses to repressive practices in the North, while the testimony of refugees has painted a consistent picture of appalling human rights abuses. In addition, the government in Pyongyang, desperately seeking economic and food aid, has normalized diplomatic relations with many democratic countries, including Canada, Australia, and most members of the European Union. As the cracks in the wall grow wider, the North Korean regime is no longer able to conceal its system of repression but must increasingly submit to the scrutiny of human rights organizations and democratic governments.

The time has come, therefore, to speak out against this repression and to insist that the norms of human rights, as defined by the United Nations, apply as much to the people of North Korea as to the people of any other country. Significantly, North Korea has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It therefore owes its own citizens and the world community a commitment to comply with the provisions of these documents and must be held accountable for policies and actions that violate these norms. North Korea has consistently violated international agreements, but must no longer be permitted to flout its fundamental obligations to its citizens.

The information available about human rights in North Korea, though incomplete, is more than adequate to raise the most serious concerns. North Korea is a totalitarian state, arguably the most closed and oppressive system in the world. The denial of fundamental human rights in North Korea is not limited to particular individuals or groups but affects the entire population. The government detains and imprisons people at will, taking them from their homes and sending them directly to prison. Judicial review does not exist and the criminal justice system operates at the behest of the government. The population is subjected to a barrage of propaganda by government-controlled media, whose only purpose is to glorify the leadership. Radios available to most North Koreans receive only government broadcasts; loudspeakers in gathering places broadcast government programs. Indoctrination is supported by neighborhood associations and schools at all levels. The opinions of all North Koreans are monitored by government security organizations, and electronic surveillance is used in many private homes. Children are encouraged to inform on their parents. Independent public gatherings are not allowed, and all organizations are created and controlled by the government. The General Federation of Trade Unions is used to monitor the opinions of workers and enforce work requirements and rules. There is no religious freedom, and all art must promote the myth of the former and present rulers, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, respectively.

We wish to call special attention to three broad areas where fundamental rights are being systematically violated:

  1. The system of political prisons and labor camps: North Korea maintains a system of political prisons and labor camps that holds an estimated 200,000 people at any one time. Often entire families are detained, including children, because of the supposed political deviation of one member. Prisoners are subjected to forced labor under brutal conditions, and torture is common. Many prisoners have died from starvation and disease, and many others have been executed, often in public in front of large crowds which include young children. It is estimated that some 400,000 prisoners have died in these camps over the last three decades.
  2. The problem of hunger and the denial of equal access to food and other basic necessities: The terrible toll that the famine in North Korea has taken on human life has not affected all segments of society equally. The North Korean government classifies the population according to loyalty, and the suffering has been most acute among those classified as “hostile” or “wavering” (categories that comprise nearly three quarters of the population). People in these unfavored categories, including children, are denied equal access not just to food but also to housing, medical care, employment, and education. This explains the complaint of humanitarian relief organizations that food is being distributed on the basis of loyalty to the state, not according to need. Some relief organizations have actually withdrawn from North Korea in protest against government interference in the distribution of food (and the possible diversion of food aid to the North Korean military) and the denial to their physicians of access to children and others in need of medical attention.
  3. The plight of refugees fleeing to China: With the onset of the famine in the early 1990s, tens of thousands of North Koreans (many of them under-nourished women, elderly people, and children) have fled their country, most crossing the border into China’s northeastern provinces of Jilin and Liaoning. Leaving the country without permission is considered a crime in North Korea, punishable by a minimum of seven years in a reform institution, the euphemism for a prison camp, or even by death. China, though a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refuses to grant refugee status to these escapees. On the contrary, it has imposed fines equal to a year’s income on people found harboring or helping North Koreans, and it has joined with officials from the North Korean Ministry of People’s Security in apprehending escapees and returning them to North Korea. According to a recent report of Amnesty International, 5,000 North Koreans were forcibly returned across the Tumen Bridge in Jilin Province in just one month (March 2000), with similar numbers being sent back at other crossings. According to the same report, anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000 refugees remain in China (with smaller numbers having fled to Russia and Mongolia), all of them living in fear, with many women forced into prostitution in order to survive.

Though the information available about conditions inside North Korea is still incomplete, we know enough to conclude that human rights are being violated there to a degree that is perhaps unequaled in any other country in the world. A critical first step in responding to this tragedy is to break the information blockade so that the true picture of the conditions in North Korea can be revealed to the world. Toward that end, human rights and humanitarian relief organizations must be given the access to the country that they need in order to assess the full extent of the crisis. Other steps must also be taken, including:

  • Pressuring North Korea to allow independent assistance organizations to provide famine relief to the people most in need and to verify that this relief is reaching those whom it is intended to help;
  • Demanding that other economic assistance to North Korea be conditioned on meaningful improvements in addressing the three critical problems of human rights, refugee protection, and famine relief;
  • Pressuring the government in Pyongyang to cease criminalizing the act of leaving the country without permission and severely punishing those who are forcibly repatriated; and also insisting that China recognize the escapees as political refugees who must not be forcibly returned;
  • Finding new ways to provide information to the people of North Korea, thus ending their enforced isolation;
  • Developing multiple channels of exchange and contact with the North Korean people; and
  • Encouraging companies investing in North Korea to develop a code of conduct, similar to the Sullivan principles that were applied in South Africa to protect workers and other citizens.

Until now, concerns having to do with peace and nuclear disarmament have taken precedence over the defense of human rights in dealing with North Korea. These concerns are still central. But they cannot be satisfactorily addressed as long as North Korea remains a totalitarian country, isolated from the world and at war with its own people. An opportunity now exists to promote human rights in North Korea and to encourage its gradual opening to its neighbors and the world. Toward this end we have come together and pledge our common effort.

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