A new United Nations report says that North Koreans who now work in an emerging market economy following the collapse of a state-sponsored system for the distribution of basic goods are now at the mercy of authorities who can extort practically any citizen for engaging in “illegal activities.”
The report, from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says that North Korea’s shift to a market economy has exposed citizens to rights violation on top of economic uncertainty.
“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 for life’s basic necessities forces them to turn to rudimentary markets where they face a host of human rights violations in an uncertain legal environment,” the U.N. office said in a news release.
The report, titled “The Price is Rights: The violation of the right to an adequate standard of living in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” presents 214 first-hand accounts of people who have escaped North Korea and are currently living in South Korea. The accounts describe rights violations as being extremely commonplace, due to corruption and mismanagement in the economy.
“The rights to food, health, shelter, work, freedom of movement and liberty are universal and inalienable, but in North Korea they depend primarily on the ability of individuals to bribe State officials,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
Following a years-long famine and economic collapse in the 1990s, centralized planning and economic distribution--which rations out food, clothes and assigns jobs--has completely failed, meaning the average North Korean must now find other ways to make a living.
“If you just follow instructions coming from the State, you starve to death,” said one of the interviewees in the report.
But once they engage in market activities, they must bribe officials. If they don’t pay bribes, they could face detention, which they can only get out of by bribing officials. The report says that the current economy is set up in a way so that the officials can extract bribes at every turn, and bribery has become a way of life in North Korea.
“I felt it unfair that one could bribe one’s way out of [detention], when another suffers much more as a result of being unable to bribe. Bribery is effective in North Korea. One cannot lead a life in North Korea if he or she does not bribe his or her way,” said another interviewee in the report.
The report also highlighted how women are especially vulnerable under this system, as they run the risk of further abuse or trafficking by third parties.
The report paints a dire picture of living conditions within the country, saying that in 2019 10.9 million people (more than 43 percent of the population) do not have access to enough food. In addition 10 million have no access to clean water. Sanitation is also a problem in the country, so disease and malnutrition spread easily.
“These are extraordinary and appalling figures,” said Bachelet. “You rarely find this level of deprivation even in countries wracked by conflict.”
“I am concerned that the constant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible state of human rights for many millions of North Koreans. Not just civil and political rights, but also social, cultural and economic rights which are just as important,” she said.
The report recommends that North Korea undergo comprehensive reforms, such as a review of the criminal codes and other laws so that North Koreans can participate in lawful market activities. In addition the report said that North Koreans should be allowed to travel anywhere in the country and even across the country’s borders, a right that is restricted to only the privileged.
To accomplish this, the report says, the country must establish rule of law with due process and fair trial rights.
“People must not be arrested, detained, prosecuted or subjected to extortion simply for trying to acquire an adequate standard of living,” Bachelet said.
“Addressing these issues could open a path to tackling the wider range of human rights concerns that exist in the DPRK today. A significant set of reforms would be in everybody’s interests, including those of the Government and of the international community.”
At a press conference in Seoul where the report was released, Daniel Collinge of the OHCHR’s local office said the report shows how North Korea maintains a so-called legal gray area where it can arbitrarily arrest, detain, execute and imprison its citizens associated with business activities, rather than guarantee them to do business in a safe and stable environment.
North Korean defector Lee Han Byeol, the director of Improving North Korean Human Rights Center (INKHR) said, “Since the North Korean famine (in the mid-1990s), North Korean residents can only survive by committing illegal acts.”
“As an increasing number of people commit crimes for a living, the nation as a whole, including police and soldiers, is beginning to see an increase in corruption that exploits people who are less powerful than themselves. Every class of society is involved in corruption, and everyone living in North Korean society can only survive by doing illegal activities,” said Lee.
Additional reporting by Jaeduk Seo for RFA’s Korean Service.