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People watch a TV broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that landed close to Japan, in Seoul, South Korea, November 29, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

The head of a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin city was proud when his son finished his engineering degree at a prestigious university in Pyongyang. But in North Korea, pride and fear go hand-in-hand where the government is involved, the father explained: they selected his son to work at a nuclear technology facility.

His family had one day to celebrate graduation with his son before he reported to work. “We all smiled and repeated over and over how proud we were of him, and the greatness he would bring to the [North Korean] leadership,” the father explained. “What we kept to ourselves was we knew in reality it was a dangerous job; he was becoming a slave without a choice, and we worried we would never see him alive again.” They were right. “We never heard anything back from him, and we didn’t dare ask.”

Yesterday the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced it successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that it claimed can reach the US mainland. This accomplishment, an official statement said, “meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system,” needed to make North Korea a nuclear power.

North Korea’s ability to divert tremendous resources into its nuclear weapons program is based in part on imposing onerous forced labor upon many people. The government demands unpaid labor from ordinary citizens, including students, workers at state-owned enterprises, soldiers, prisoners, and members of the dolgyeokdae, a paramilitary forced labor brigade. Failure to provide such labor (or alternatively, bribes to the appropriate officials), can result in imprisonment, beatings or torture, being labeled an enemy, losing access to information and economic opportunities, and other punishments.

Governments should remember that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s strategy to maintain power is built on brutalization and abuse of his citizens. In September, the UN Security Council condemned North Korea for, “diverting resources to the pursuit of ballistic missiles while Democratic People’s Republic of Korea citizens have great unmet needs.” Demanding protection for the North Korean people and justice for the victims of rights abuses hits at the heart of North Korea’s ability to terrorize its people and the world. That’s why it’s critical to keep North Korea’s human rights abuses at the center of dealings with Pyongyang.

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