12 Feb 2015

North Korea: who needs human rights when you’ve got slogans?

North Korea releases 310 slogans to mark the anniversary of its “liberation”, including “We serve the people” – ironic, perhaps, in a country where torture, starvation and executions are commonplace.

Whilst Kim Jong-un’s slogans will be aimed at further boosting his patriotic cult image – the reality of life in North Korea, what we know of it, is very different.

Grow vegetables!

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations 7.6 million people were suffering from malnutrition in North Korea, equivalent to 30 per cent of the population, and reports of deaths from starvation continue to be reported.

The World Food Programme says 28 per cent of children in the country suffer from stunting (according to a 2012 report), a lifelong condition that results when they are denied the vitamins and nutrients they need during the first two years of life.

The UN reports that the North Korean regime operates a system that disproportionately favours the capital Pyongyang over other parts of the country with regards food provision, adding “the state has used food as a means of control over the population”.

Though the country has been hit by disasters beyond its control – namely floods – the government is accused of consistently concealing the true nature of North Korea’s food crisis from its people.

North Korea is accused of prioritising military expenditure over food, of obstructing food aid from entering the country, and of spending money that should go on food on luxury goods and expanding the Supreme Leader’s cult of personality.

A UN report from last summer said: “The state and its leadership have caused the death of at the very least hundreds of thousands of human beings.”

Fierce tigers

Around 100,000 people, including children, are estimated to be held in political prison camps and other detention facilities in North Korea. These gulags are in a category of their own when it comes to human rights abuses.

Testimony from former prisoners and guards who have escaped the country reveals that prisoners are worked and starved to death, or executed. Whole families are sent to the kwan-li-so, or political prisons, under the presumption of guilt by association.

There are reports from the prisons of pregnant women being subjected to strenuous work in order to miscarry, of prisoners foraging through animal dung in order to find anything to eat, and prisoners being executed with a hammer. Torture and rape are regularly carried out by camp officials against prisoners, the UN has said.

Thousands of inmates die every year in North Korea’s prison system, the UN says, and hundreds of thousands have died over the period of the existence of the camp system.

Mass media

There are four television channels and a reported 480 newspapers in North Korea. However, all are state controlled and overseen by the Publication and Broadcasting Department of the regime. A witness who worked in the state media apparatus told the UN that all the newspapers in North Korea have essentially the same content.

In addition, when people buy a television they have to register it with the government – and spot checks take place to ensure people are not accessing television channels from outside the country. As radio transmissions are harder to control, normal citizens are not ordinarily permitted to own radios.

All content prepared by journalists goes through several layers of review. One journalist told a public hearing in South Korea in 2013 that he misspelt Kim Il-sung’s names in a report, and was sent to a training camp for six months as punishment.

Around two million North Korean citizens have access to a computer, but access to the internet is limited to a North Korean intranet that contains information filtered and determined by the government. Internet access is limited to a few universities and members of the elite.

Land of the arts

In April 2013 the state-run Korean Central News Agency report that “44.8 per cent of the total state budgetary expenditure (for the previous year) for the economic development and improvement of people’s living standards was used for funding the building of edifices to be presented to the 100th anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il-sung, the consolidation of the material and technological foundation of Juche-based, modern and self-supporting economy and the work for face-lifting the country.”

Put simply, a very large amount of money was spent on statue and other cult-of-personality items whilst 30 per cent of the population was suffering from malnutrition.

One report suggests the North Korean regime has spent the equivalent of $200m on 3,200 eternal life towers, 400 mosaic murals and 23-metre high statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Read more: A rare glimpse of North Korea's brushstroke diplomacy

In every household in the country it is reported that three framed pictures have to be on display, one of Kim Il-sung, one of Kim Jong-il and one of the two of them appearing to be in discussion.

Production and patriotism

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that refuses to join the International Labour organisation.

According to Human Rights Watch, workers are “systematically denied freedom of association and the right to organise and collectively bargain”.

The only authorised trade union is the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea… which is controlled by the government.

Education revolution

In addition to the usual subjects taught in schools, an “unusually large portion” of the school syllabus is devoted to studying the teachings of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. These teachings are based on two main themes – utmost loyalty to the Supreme leader, and hatred towards Japan, the United States and South Korea.