09/21/2004, 00.00
NORTH KOREA

Pyongyang admits human rights not a priority

Pyongyang (AsiaNews/AFP) – North Korean authorities admitted that "human rights were not one of their top priority as they are in the West," this according to Bill Rammell, British Foreign Office Under-Secretary.

In his recent visit to the Communist state, the British Minister asked his hosts to explain the human rights situation in the country and its nuclear programme.

Mr Rammell showed his North Korean counterparts satellite images of prison camps and raised the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the regime to be trained as intelligence agents. He also told them about cases involving chemical weapons experiments on entire families.

"There is a long, long way to go before the country can be dragged out its self-imposed isolation," Mr Rammell said, "but we did get some progress on human rights to the extent that they were actually prepared to discuss the concerns that we were putting forward."

Pyongyang had hitherto denied human rights were being violated inside its borders even though documentary evidence and eye witness accounts spoke of abuse, torture and the total absence of freedom of expression.

North Korea tops the latest 'World Watch List' published by Open Doors, an agency that keeps track of human rights violations.

Repression and violence have become instruments of social regulation and take different forms:

Prison camps: The Communist regime uses collective punishment against real or imagined political dissidents. Offenders and their entire family are sent to forced labour camps where some can spend the rest of their lives. Currently, 100,000 people are said to be in such camps.

Prison and capital punishment: Leaving the country without an exit permit is considered an act of treason and is treated as a capital crime. Many repatriated refugees have been executed and executions are often public with children in the audience.

For this reason, many countries have been urging China to grant asylum to North Korean refugees instead of arresting and sending them home.

For those who are not condemned to death prison is not much better. All sorts of torture is said to take place in North Korea's overcrowded prisons. And female detainees made pregnant by Chinese men are forced to have abortions.

Religious freedom: On paper, North Korea's constitution guarantees religious freedom, but in reality the government persecutes and represses all religious activities. Only the cult of Kim Jong-Il and his dead father Kim Il-Sung is admitted. Buddhists and Christians are the most affected by the repression. According to the 2004 report of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic pastoral aid organization, just in Prison N. 15 in the northern part of the country some 6,000 Christians are imprisoned.

Food crisis: People are starving to death in North Korea. Following Pyongyang's decision to restart its nuclear programme last year many donor countries stopped shipping food aid worried that it would go to the military and not the population.

The World Food Programme warns that about 4 million North Koreans (17 per cent of the population) are at risk for malnutrition as a result of less international aid.

Altogether, about 6.5 million people or one third of the population is vulnerable as a result of famine and bad economic management.

Most poor live in Pyongyang suburbs and depend on rations from the Public Distribution System set at 300 grams per person per day. (MA)

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