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(Seoul) – North Korea remains one of the most repressive states in the world, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. Under its leader Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean government exerted control over the population by using arbitrary arrest and torture, detention, and forced labor in a range of prison camps, and public executions for a variety of ‘crimes.’ During 2016, the government sought to deepen its control, tightening travel restrictions and severely punishing those having unauthorized contact with the outside world.

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

“Kim Jong-Un’s power is built on fear and terrible rights abuses,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “With its gulags, forced labor, and public executions, the North Korean government presents a throwback to the worst abuses of the 20th century. Kim Jong-Un needs to be held accountable for his crimes.”

A rally celebrating the success of a recent nuclear test is held in Kim Il Sung square in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 13, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

In 2016, the North Korean government expanded its efforts to prevent North Koreans from leaving the country without authorization and seeking refuge overseas, most often by fleeing through China. Those caught trying to cross the border, or forcibly returned by China, faced interrogation and torture, and imprisonment in camps to perform forced labor in dangerous and sometimes life-threatening conditions. At the border, the government built wire fences and took other security measures to prevent unauthorized departures, and punished border guards for allowing people to escape the country. North Korea also sought to restrict its citizens’ access to unauthorized information from outside the country by severely persecuting those found with Chinese mobile phones, SD cards, or USBs containing news and information, movies, TV shows, and other materials from China, South Korea, or elsewhere.

North Korea discriminates against people and their families on political grounds, and systematically represses basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of association, assembly, and expression, and targets those involved in any sort of religious activities. The government also uses forced labor from ordinary citizens and prisoners to control the people and sustain its economy. In preparation for the 7th Congress of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea held in May 2016, the government compelled its people to undergo a 70-day ‘battle’ of forced labor to complete work targets.

The North Korean government presents a throwback to the worst abuses of the 20th century. Kim Jong-Un needs to be held accountable for his crimes.
Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea stated that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the government included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence, constituting crimes against humanity. North Korea’s rights record has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and the Security Council.

“The human rights situation in North Korea is so bad it should compel governments around the world to put human rights at the center of all their dealings with Pyongyang,” said Robertson. “These horrific abuses will go on indefinitely, unless the international community puts effective pressure on the government by building the case for criminal responsibility against the leadership.” 

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