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North Koreans ‘show signs of disaffection’, but human-rights abuses continue to rise

09 February 2018


Members of the North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, which begin today

Members of the North Korean cheering squad arrive at a hotel in Inje, South Korea, for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games, which begin today

A REPORT on human-rights abuses in North Korea suggests that, despite the popular image of a “brainwashed” population, the people of the country are changing, even if the regime is not, thanks to the infiltration of foreign media and the illegal smuggling of goods.

Although there have been some “very small positive changes” in human rights in the country, however, religion remains taboo, and anyone found to be a Christian is immediately shot, evidence collected by the human-rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) suggests.

CSW has published an update on human-rights abuses in North Korea, ten years after its 2007 report on violations in the country, which sparked a United Nations inquiry. The inquiry found evidence of crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”.

The UN said that the abuses in the country “reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

CSW said that it had found some evidence of “limited improvements” over the past decade, but that “unspeakable abuses of human rights have not stopped”.

It gathered statements from former prisoners who said that beatings and torture had been reduced, owing to criticism of North Korea’s human-rights record from the international community.

Other evidence, however, from interviews with more than 100 people, including escapees from the country, the UN office in Seoul, South Korea, and South Korean organisations, suggests that the number of people sent to prison camps has increased in the past decade.

The study examined changes in economy and trade, the information flow into North Korea from outside, freedom of expression and belief, and human rights.

It concludes that some very limited improvements have come about through a shift to private trading — often illegal smuggling — which has provided some North Koreans with a financial lifeline, and through increased access to foreign media.

CSW’s East Asia team leader, Benedict Rogers, said: “Over the past decade, North Koreans have had unprecedented access to knowledge of the outside world through external radio broadcasts, smuggled USB sticks, and DVDs.

“‘When we watched dramas [from South Korea], we envied the people . . . and then we wished we could go outside,’ one escapee said. ‘Then we might complain: why were we born here?’

“As a result, the motivation for defection has changed. As one escapee told us, ‘In the beginning, people defected because they were starving. They went to China to find food. ‘But it is different now. For example, I was doing OK in North Korea. I could live. But more and more people want freedom, opportunities and hope.’”

When asked about religious freedom, nearly a quarter of respondents thought there was less freedom than a decade ago. One said: “When it comes to religion, North Korean people just shudder because punishment is very severe.” Another interviewee said: “If someone was found to be a Christian, they would be immediately shot.”

Mr Rogers said that any divergence from utter loyalty to the ruling Kim dynasty was published severely and the only way to ensure continued improvements was to work with the North Korean people, both outside and inside the country.

He said: “We must learn from the changes in the country, and work together with the people — inside and in exile — to change this barbaric regime.”

The report recommends that the international community support the “change-makers”, particularly younger people, by supplying information to them, to force the regime to change.

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