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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un participates in the opening of the 5th Conference of Cell Chairpersons of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on December 22, 2017. © 2017 KCNA

(Seoul) – Kim Jong-Un intensified repressive measures against his own people even while grabbing world attention through aggressive weapons testing throughout the year. The government tightened travel restrictions, hunted down fleeing refugees with the help of China, punished its citizens for contact with the outside world, and continued to deny human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2018. North Korea remains one of the most repressive states in the world.

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

“Kim Jong-Un sits at the helm of a state built on horrific rights abuses and complete intimidation of its population,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Since the North Korean people are silenced, it falls to the international community to step up and press the country’s leaders on human rights, and to ensure that protecting human rights remains at the center of all international dealings with Pyongyang.”

Kim Jong-un sits at the helm of a state built on horrific rights abuses and complete intimidation of its population.
Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

North Korea restricts all basic civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, religion and conscience, assembly, and association. It prohibits any organized political opposition, independent media, independent civil society, or free trade unions. The judicial system is totally controlled by the ruling Workers Party of Korea and the government.

The government uses collective punishment, including torture in custody, forced labor in detention facilities that are essentially gulags, as well as public executions to maintain fear and control over the populace. North Korea is continually bolstering its efforts to prevent people from leaving North Korea without permission by increasing the number of border guards, CCTV cameras and monitoring systems, and barbed wire fences. China also increased checkpoints on roads leading from the border. During the summer and autumn of 2017, Chinese authorities also intensified crackdowns on both North Koreans fleeing through China and the networks guiding them.

In 2017, North Korea refused to cooperate with the United Nations Seoul field office and the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana. The government also continually denied the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that North Korea committed crimes against humanity. However, in 2017, the DPRK engaged with two UN human rights treaty bodies, the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and invited the UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, who visited the country in May 2017, making her the first-ever UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur allowed into the country. Yet despite this uptick in engagement, North Korea still regularly refuses to acknowledge its own rights violations.

In March 2017, the Human Rights Council adopted without a vote a resolution that authorizes the hiring of “experts in legal accountability” to assess cases and develop plans for the eventual prosecution of North Korean leaders and officials responsible for crimes against humanity. On December 11, 2017, for the fourth consecutive year, the UN Security Council discussed North Korea’s egregious human rights violations as part of its formal agenda, addressing the widespread and systematic rights violations as a threat to international peace and security.

“The sad reality is North Korea’s countless human rights victims have few options: either take their fate into their own hands by running the gauntlet in North Korea and China to get to a third country, or suffer in silence and hope governments around the world will step up to demand justice for them,” said Robertson. “It is crucial the international community not let the North Korean people down, and ensure accountability by building the case for criminal responsibility against the leadership.”

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