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People in North Korea trapped in vicious cycle of deprivation,corruption and repression – UN human rights report 

Editing Office - Geneva 

GENEVA (28 May 2019) – People in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea(DPRK) are trapped in a vicious cycle, in which the failure of the State to provide forlife’s basic necessities forces them to turn to rudimentary markets where they face ahost of human rights violations in an uncertain legal environment, according to a newUN human rights report.The report, published by the UN Human Rights Office on Tuesday, highlights how thepublic distribution system in the DPRK has been broken for over two decades and how,as people seek to eke out a living in a legally precarious parallel economy, they areexposed to arbitrary arrest, detention, and extortion.

Based on 214 first-hand accounts of escapees gathered by UN Human Rights staff inSouth Korea in 2017 and 2018, the report describes how the most fundamental rightsof ordinary people in the DPRK are widely violated because of economicmismanagement and endemic corruption.“The rights to food, health, shelter, work, freedom of movement and liberty areuniversal and inalienable, but in North Korea they depend primarily on the ability ofindividuals to bribe State officials,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,Michelle Bachelet.Since the economic collapse of the 1990s, people have been unable to survive througha State-led model of centralized economic planning and distribution, which includesState-assigned jobs and the dispensation of food, clothes and other rations. As a result,working in the informal sector has become an essential means of survival – or else, asone interviewee put it: “If you just follow instructions coming from the State, you starveto death.”However, when people try to engage in rudimentary market activity, they face arrestand detention, including for travelling within the country, for which a permit is required.This situation invariably leads to a series of further serious human rights violations, dueto absence of rule of law and due process guarantees. People often experienceinhumane and degrading treatment in detention, and are sometimes subjected totorture during interrogation and disciplinary procedures.The whole system is based on the informal but pervasive practice of bribing Stateofficials who are in a position to enable people to side-step State requirements andregulations in order to work in the private sector and avoid arrest.The constant threat of arrest and prosecution provides State officials with a powerfulmeans to extort money and other favours from people desperate to avoid detention ininhumane conditions, the report says. In addition, the living conditions and treatment ofdetainees can also depend on the payment of bribes.

As another escapee said to UN human rights officials: “I felt it unfair that one couldbribe one’s way out of [detention], when another suffers much more as a result of beingunable to bribe. Bribery is effective in North Korea. One cannot lead a life in NorthKorea if he or she does not bribe his or her way.”The report also details how women seeking ways to make ends meet are particularlyvulnerable to further abuse at the hands of third parties, including brokers andtraffickers.The UN Human Rights Chief called for far-reaching changes: “Our report is a starkillustration of how important it is that the Government tackles the country’s profoundhuman rights problems. Only then can the endemic system of corruption whichpervades all aspects of life be effectively dismantled,” she said.The report stresses how the State has not fulfilled its obligations under internationalhuman rights law to realize the right of its citizens to an adequate standard of living. Ithas neither sought to modify a failed public system, nor helped to establish a functionaland legal private sector to alleviate the economic destitution facing much of thepopulation.Meanwhile, huge resources continue to be directed towards military spending. Thecountry maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies, representing the world’shighest ratio of military personnel to the general population. This has also resulted inthe removal of over one million young men and women from the workplace and into thearmed forces. 

According to UN entities operating in the DPRK, in 2019 around 10.9 million people(over 43 per cent of the total population) are undernourished and suffer from foodinsecurity. Almost 10 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and 16percent of the population does not have access to basic sanitation facilities, increasingthe risk of disease and malnutrition. People living in northeastern and rural provincessuffer most from the lack of basic services, and the 2018 Global Hunger Indexclassified the level of hunger in the country as “serious” and “bordering on alarming.”“These are extraordinary and appalling figures,” said Bachelet. “You rarely find thislevel of deprivation even in countries wracked by conflict. I am concerned that theconstant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible stateof human rights for many millions of North Koreans. Not just civil and political rights, butalso social, cultural and economic rights which are just as important.”The full picture of the standard of living in the DPRK is far from clear due to the scarcityof data and the lack of access to the country by UN human rights staff, as well asexperienced NGOs. This is compounded by the oppressive domestic environment, inwhich there is no space for people to express their views, for independent civil societyorganizations to operate, or for journalists to report freely on the situation.The report recommends drastic reforms, including reviewing the criminal code andother relevant legislation to end prosecutions for engaging in legitimate marketactivities, and to respect the right to freedom of movement within the country andacross its borders. The report highlights that, underlying such legislative changes,there is an imperative to establish the rule of law, with due process and fair trial rightsguaranteed. “People must not be arrested, detained, prosecuted or subjected to extortion simply fortrying to acquire an adequate standard of living,” Bachelet concluded. “Addressingthese issues could open a path to tackling the wider range of human rights concernsthat exist in the DPRK today. A significant set of reforms would be in everybody’sinterests, including those of the Government and of the international community.” 


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