Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Democratic People's Republic of Korea

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has repeatedly claimed that international concern about its human rights has the sole aim of undermining the regime, and that it has its own, adequate system for the protection of human rights. However, information from a variety of sources, much of it from North Korean defectors, paints a picture of serious and widespread abuse. This includes political prisons and labour "rehabilitation" camps; regular use of the death penalty, including extrajudicial and public executions; routine use of torture and inhumane treatment; and severe restrictions on freedom of speech, movement, assembly, and information. Human rights, as understood by the rest of the world, do not exist in the DPRK.

In March, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the "systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights" in the DPRK. Similar UN Human Rights Council resolutions have been passed annually since 2003 and are likely to continue unless there is evidence of improvement. In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing "very serious concern" at the "persistence of continuing reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations" of human rights in the DPRK. We worked alongside EU Partners to ensure the success of the initiative. The UN adopted the resolution with more support than in previous years. We remain greatly concerned at the DPRK's continued refusal to grant access to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the DPRK. We take every appropriate opportunity to urge the DPRK to allow the UN special rapporteur access to conduct a full assessment of the human rights situation. This was raised most recently during the EU delegation's visit to Pyongyang in November.

In October, we discussed the human rights situation in the DPRK with the newly appointed UN special rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman, at his first presentation to the UN General Assembly. We expressed deep concern at the DPRK's refusal to engage constructively on serious human rights issues, and were disappointed that once again the DPRK used the opportunity to state that it did not recognise the mandate of the special rapporteur. Until the DPRK begins to engage with UN human rights mechanisms and allows the special rapporteur unrestricted access, it will remain difficult to verify reports about human rights conditions in the country.

In November, an EU delegation visiting Pyongyang raised human rights issues and called on the authorities to respect all human rights and freedoms, and to agree to restart the human rights dialogue with the EU that was terminated by the DPRK in 2003. We hope that the DPRK will follow through on the positive signals given to the delegation of its willingness to re-engage with the EU on these issues.

Throughout 2010, our Embassy pursued bilateral confidence building measures that could have a practical impact. These included providing support for projects involving children, food security and the disabled. Our Embassy also encouraged activities that exposed the people of the DPRK to British values and our way of life.

Seoul is a major centre of information about human rights in the DPRK and activism on the issue. Our Embassy in Seoul has a long history of capacity building with groups who work on DPRK human rights issues. In 2010, it hosted an event on Human Rights Day to celebrate the work of groups which assist North Korean settlers, and in particular those who help settlers adjust to life in South Korea. It piloted an English language programme designed to build leadership capacity amongst the defector community. Our Ambassador also hosted a guest blog for a student who had defected from North Korea.

Throughout 2011, our Embassy in Pyongyang will explore further alternative areas of engagement with the DPRK through small projects where we might find common ground. We will also seek opportunities for DPRK officials to participate in human rights programmes in the UK.

Access to justice

The legal system in the DPRK is completely opaque. These institutions are subservient to the state and do not uphold the principles of the rule of law. Senior DPRK officials appear to enjoy a degree of impunity and there is a lack of a developed juvenile justice system. Ordinary citizens are not able to get legal advice from defence lawyers, and many endure public trials.

Death penalty

Executions, including public executions and extra-judicial killings, continue to be reported. Some testimonies indicate that the frequency of public executions has increased again, although the DPRK does not make any public announcements, perhaps in an attempt to hide the number of executions from international attention.

Prisons and detention issues

According to accounts by defectors, torture and beatings are still widely practised in the DPRK's correctional centres, labour-training camps, collection points and detention centres. Most inmates in these camps endure inadequate meals, hard labour and lack of medical care. Some 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners are reported currently to be serving terms in DPRK camps.

A lack of transparency and independent verification mean that we are unable to assess the situation in the DPRK's prisons.

Human rights defenders

We are not aware of any human rights defenders operating within the DPRK, and ordinary citizens have little understanding of human rights.

Freedom of expression

The DPRK authorities enforce strict bans on listening to radio or watching TV programmes broadcast from outside the country. The use of mobile telephones in the border regions is restricted, and circulating or watching foreign DVDs, particularly those from South Korea, is forbidden. These restrictions have been enforced more strictly in recent years, and include fines, forced relocation or imprisonment. Access to information from outside the DPRK remains limited.

In December, at the request of our Embassy, the DPRK authorities showed the British film "Bend it Like Beckham" on national TV. It exposed the DPRK population to the British way of life and values, as well as such themes as multiculturalism, equality and tolerance.

Freedom of religion and belief

There is no freedom of religion in the DPRK. We believe that the Protestant and Catholic churches in Pyongyang are show churches, aimed at foreign visitors. The Russian Orthodox Church has a regular foreign congregation from within the Russian community. The state ignores the "freedom of religion" provision in the constitution, and persecutes all illegally held religious services and bans missionary activities.

Women's rights

The rights of women are enshrined in the DPRK constitution. However, sexual harassment and violence, both domestic and in detention, against women are widespread. There have also been reports of forced abortions in prisons and infanticide. Human trafficking remains one of the gravest crimes against North Korean women and we understand that the victims are not helped, but treated as criminals within the DPRK system.

Children's rights

Children in the DPRK are not guaranteed the right to food and health. Due to economic hardship, children below the age of 16 are routinely used as cheap labour in the workforce.

Other issues: Right to food

A severe famine in the 1990s is estimated to have caused up to 2 million deaths. There is no evidence of such levels of starvation now. However, the DPRK continues to deny the population access to sufficient food, directing its scarce resources instead to missile, nuclear and other military programmes. A Crop and Food Security Assessment carried out by the World Food Programme/Food and Agriculture Organization in 2010 estimated that the DPRK would face a shortfall of more than 1 million tons of grain in 2011.

The World Food Programme remains concerned about high rates of chronic malnutrition within the DPRK, particularly amongst the aged, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children.


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