Hypocrisy is commonplace at the United Nations. Delegates routinely stand at UN podiums and blame everyone and everything but their own governments for their countries’ problems. North Korea took this practice to new level on Tuesday at a High Level Political Forum on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
North Korea is “a people centered socialist state” that provides free housing and universal health care and is meeting UN development goals, according to its presentation. The forum’s process allows for states to decide on the format for their presentations, so no questions were asked about the North Korean government’s systemic use of forced labor, pervasive poverty, or UN reporting on the country’s atrocious human rights record. North Korean officials allowed only a single country to pose questions: Cuba.
The reality is that the North Koreans who build the country’s supposedly “free” housing are not paid. Many are forced to work temporarily on construction projects, unless they pay a bribe. Other workers include detainees or people forced to work on paramilitary hard labor brigades for up to 10 years without pay. Construction materials are often obtained by government demands from citizens in the form of “portrayals of loyalty” or are paid by future owners.
As for the “universal healthcare system,” several former North Korean health workers and patients have reported that most doctors, nurses, and other health workers receive no salaries from the government: patients pay them directly for their services and buy their own medicines and medical supplies.
The government did acknowledge the country’s increasingly poor economic situation but blamed it entirely on “continued sanctions” and “natural disaster and a world health crisis,” as well as last year’s typhoons and floods. But reported new shortages of agricultural supplies like fertilizer or farming machinery, not to mention food and household supplies, appear to be due mainly to the government’s stringent border closure in 2020, which went well beyond Covid-19-related restrictions.
Whatever the impact of other factors, the government is ultimately responsible for the country’s dire economic situation. If Pyongyang were genuinely concerned with advancing its development goals, it could begin by engaging with the UN and other governments about an economic reform agenda that was grounded in respect for basic human rights. It would not only adopt core UN human rights treaties, but also take them seriously. Hoping North Korea’s leadership would take such a path is admittedly utopian, but it is a more hopeful utopia than the one the North Korean government believes it has already achieved.