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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > Remarks > 2002 > April - June

Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Remarks to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus
Washington, DC
April 17, 2002

Thank you for this opportunity to appear here today and add my voice to the many others expressing concern for the people of North Korea. President Bush said during his February 2002 visit to Seoul, "North Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed. No nation should be a prison for its own people."

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leadership appears willing to let the world feed its starving masses while it pursues its dangerous course of military build-up and the production of weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons pose a grave and growing danger to the U.S. and the world and threaten peace and the economic and political stability of the region. North Korea must take concrete steps to alleviate this threat and the continuing human tragedy inside the country.

President Bush has made clear that the U.S. is prepared to undertake serious discussions with the North Koreans anytime, anyplace, and without preconditions. In recent days, we have seen welcome signs that the DPRK is willing to take up our repeated offers to discuss issues of concern, including weapons of mass destruction, conventional military forces and humanitarian issues, including human rights.

It is imperative for the stability, freedom and economic progress of the region that North Korea begin discussions on all of these fronts and begin making tangible progress to resolve these issues of deep concern.

Human Rights in the DPRK
The DPRK is among the most repressive regimes in the world. The closed nature of the North Korean regime makes it difficult to obtain information on the conditions inside the country. But the reports that make it out paint a shocking, often horrifying, picture of brutality, oppression, injustice and deprivation. Some of these images, on display here today, were captured in pictures drawn by North Korean children.

In North Korea, individual rights are considered subversive to the goals of the State and Party. The regime cites the "juche" concept of self–reliance to justify its repression of individual people, stressing the superiority of the collective. In the regime’s interpretation, the State and the will of the people are manifested in the person of the supreme leader. There is no tolerance for criticism of the State or its leader and accordingly no freedom of expression, assembly or belief.

The regime uses extreme repression and a pervasive surveillance network to intimidate and instill fear in the population. It maintains control through terror, threat of severe punishment, and the manipulation of privileges, including the "privilege" of food allotments.

Social Structure
Society is divided into three major classes based on perceived loyalty to the regime: "core," "wavering," and "hostile." These three major classes are in turn subdivided into some 51 levels. The core class makes up less than a quarter of the population. It consists of those considered completely loyal and trustworthy who enjoy preferred status and the privileges of the elite. Virtually all the members of the core class live in Pyongyang or other urban areas, where services and amenities are concentrated.

The wavering class comprises over 55% of the population. These people have a background of suspect behavior that may go back three generations. This class fills the low-level cadre positions and is manipulated to serve the purposes of the regime. The hostile class is most vulnerable to intense deprivation and punishment. Demotion to the hostile class for any perceived misstep invariably means exile to one of the political prisoner or forced labor camps in the remote regions of the country.

Prison Camps
As prison camps are shrouded in secrecy, we cannot be certain about how many exist or how many people suffer and die within their confines. However, we estimate that one dozen political prisoner camps and approximately 30 forced labor camps are located in remote regions of North Korea and that between 150,000 and 200,000 political prisoners are held in these camps.

Reports from defectors and escapees describe the extremely harsh conditions in the prison camps where there is no electricity or heating. Many die of disease, starvation, and exposure. Others are summarily executed for such vaguely defined offenses as "ideological divergence," "opposing socialism," and "counterrevolutionary crimes." There is no fair judicial recourse for prisoners.

Mistreatment, torture and rape are common in the camps. Perhaps most shocking are the reports of authorities killing the newborn babies of women detained after being forcibly returned from China. We also have reports of public executions of political prisoners, religious practitioners, regime opponents, some repatriated defectors, and others.

Freedom of Religion
In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell designated North Korea a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for "particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

Religious activity is severely restricted and credible reports of executions of practicing Christians, particularly those in unauthorized Christian groups, continue to surface. In addition, there continue to be reports that Christians are singled out for particularly cruel treatment in the regime’s penal institutions. Some religious practices are punished as political crimes.

It is unclear from reports as to whether genuine religious activity occurs in Pyongyang’s few churches. Some reports indicate that the only religious services are staged for foreign visitors, with "congregations" composed of reliable cadres called in to perform. Catholic churches reportedly lack priests to conduct masses.

Additional Human Rights Issues
Freedom of assembly and expression are also strictly controlled. Non-governmental labor organizations do not exist. North Koreans have no right to organize, bargain collectively or strike. Forced labor is also common among prisoners and even the general population, which is frequently mobilized for construction projects. Military conscripts are also employed in this manner. School children may be detailed to work in factories or in the fields as needed.

Information from the outside world is tightly controlled. Domestic media censorship is strictly enforced. No one outside government has Internet access. Radios and televisions purchased within the country are set to receive only state-run programming. Visits by foreign journalists are carefully orchestrated by the State to ensure that only "authorized" information is released.

The Challenge
The lack of information available on the human rights situation in North Korea may explain some of the world’s hesitation in reacting to the current crisis there. 
However, we believe that the severity of abuses recounted in credible reports should be sufficient to galvanize the international community into action.

We should have no illusions that the situation will solve itself, and, consequently, we must be innovative in our approach. The State Department is providing support to South Korean nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in North Korea. In this manner, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor is directing its human rights programming funds toward the improvement of human rights in North Korea in the best, perhaps only, possible manner at this time.

We must speak out about the egregious human rights abuses committed against the people of North Korea and support efforts to bring freedom, human dignity, and peace to this ravaged country.  As President Bush has said "We have great sympathy and empathy for the North Korean people. We want them to have food. At the same time, we want them to have freedom. And we will work in a peaceful way to achieve that objective."

Released on April 26, 2002

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