The denial of human rights in North Korea is a terrible injustice that can no longer be ignored. For decades, the people of North Korea have lived under a totalitarian system so closed and rigidly controlled that virtually nothing about their circumstances was known to the outside world. Human rights organizations and the international media lacked access to the country. The bitter conflict between the two Koreas, divided from each other by an impenetrable wall of ideology and hair-trigger defenses, reinforced the isolation of the North and the silence of the international community, which concerned itself exclusively with the sensitive security issues that dominated the politics of the Korean peninsula.
Since 1995, more than one million North Koreans may have perished from famine and related disease, while hundreds of thousands more have fled across the border into China. Along with this human catastrophe have come the first cracks in the wall of silence that has separated North Korea from the world. Humanitarian relief workers, though restricted in their movements, have become witnesses to repressive practices in the North, while the testimony of refugees has painted a consistent picture of appalling human rights abuses. In addition, the government in Pyongyang, desperately seeking economic and food aid, has normalized diplomatic relations with many democratic countries, including Canada, Australia, and most members of the European Union. As the cracks in the wall grow wider, the North Korean regime is no longer able to conceal its system of repression but must increasingly submit to the scrutiny of human rights organizations and democratic governments.
The time has come, therefore, to speak out against this repression and to insist that the norms of human rights, as defined by the United Nations, apply as much to the people of North Korea as to the people of any other country. Significantly, North Korea has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It therefore owes its own citizens and the world community a commitment to comply with the provisions of these documents and must be held accountable for policies and actions that violate these norms. North Korea has consistently violated international agreements, but must no longer be permitted to flout its fundamental obligations to its citizens.
The information available about human rights in North Korea, though incomplete, is more than adequate to raise the most serious concerns. North Korea is a totalitarian state, arguably the most closed and oppressive system in the world. The denial of fundamental human rights in North Korea is not limited to particular individuals or groups but affects the entire population. The government detains and imprisons people at will, taking them from their homes and sending them directly to prison. Judicial review does not exist and the criminal justice system operates at the behest of the government. The population is subjected to a barrage of propaganda by government-controlled media, whose only purpose is to glorify the leadership. Radios available to most North Koreans receive only government broadcasts; loudspeakers in gathering places broadcast government programs. Indoctrination is supported by neighborhood associations and schools at all levels. The opinions of all North Koreans are monitored by government security organizations, and electronic surveillance is used in many private homes. Children are encouraged to inform on their parents. Independent public gatherings are not allowed, and all organizations are created and controlled by the government. The General Federation of Trade Unions is used to monitor the opinions of workers and enforce work requirements and rules. There is no religious freedom, and all art must promote the myth of the former and present rulers, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, respectively.
We wish to call special attention to three broad areas where fundamental rights are being systematically violated:
Though the information available about conditions inside North Korea is still incomplete, we know enough to conclude that human rights are being violated there to a degree that is perhaps unequaled in any other country in the world. A critical first step in responding to this tragedy is to break the information blockade so that the true picture of the conditions in North Korea can be revealed to the world. Toward that end, human rights and humanitarian relief organizations must be given the access to the country that they need in order to assess the full extent of the crisis. Other steps must also be taken, including:
Until now, concerns having to do with peace and nuclear disarmament have taken precedence over the defense of human rights in dealing with North Korea. These concerns are still central. But they cannot be satisfactorily addressed as long as North Korea remains a totalitarian country, isolated from the world and at war with its own people. An opportunity now exists to promote human rights in North Korea and to encourage its gradual opening to its neighbors and the world. Toward this end we have come together and pledge our common effort.
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