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II. Background

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states. Virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life is controlled by the government. Basic services, such as access to health care and education, are parceled out according to a classification scheme that divides people into three groups—“core,” “wavering,” and “hostile”—based on the government’s assessment of their and their family’s political loyalty. The classification scheme determines how much access an individual or family has to basic necessities and services, including food, medicine, higher education, and good jobs. The elite—high-ranking Workers Party officials, and military, intelligence, and police officers—enjoy access to the best of everything available in North Korea. Those labeled members of the “hostile” class, such as former landowners, collaborators during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, and families of defectors and escapees who made their way to South Korea, are at the bottom of the state’s priorities.4

There is no freedom of expression, association, or religion. The judiciary is neither impartial nor independent. There is no organized political opposition, no labor activism, and no independent civil society. There is no freedom of the press in North Korea. All media are either run or controlled by the state. All TVs and radios are wired so that they can receive only state channels. All publications are subject to supervision and censorship by the state.

According to U.S. and South Korean officials, up to 200,000 political prisoners are believed to be toiling in prisons. Collective punishment is reportedly common, as the families of those accused of disloyalty to the government and party are often imprisoned themselves, or sent to remote mountainous areas. Non-political prisoners, the number of which is unknown, are also mistreated and endure at times appalling prison conditions.

North Korea’s present totalitarian state was formed in 1948, three years after the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japan at the end of World War II. With Soviet support, Kim Il Sung, with his credentials as a guerrilla fighter against Japanese forces, emerged as the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Korean War began in June 1950 when North Korea attacked South Korea in an attempt to forcibly unify the peninsula. The war lasted three years, cost millions of lives, and––after interventions by a U.S.-led United Nations force on behalf of South Korea, which fought against North Korean forces supported by Chinese forces—ended with more or less the same border as had existed before the war.

When the war ended in 1953, both North and South Korea were among the world’s poorest nations, but the two countries went in drastically different directions. North Korea adopted the ideology of juche, or self-reliance, and a cult of personality that deified Kim Il Sung, called the “Great Leader,” and later his entire family, including his son and eventual successor Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader.” North Korea increasingly isolated itself from the world, except for its interactions with its communist allies. South Korea pursued more market-based economic development under successive dictatorships. In the 1980s, South Korea’s military leaders agreed to allow direct presidential elections under public pressure and the country gradually developed the liberal political system it has at present.

For almost half a century after the Korean War ended––with a ceasefire, not a peace agreement––the two Koreas engaged in a propaganda war and remained hostile towards each other. Kim Il Sung died in 1994. Kim Jong Il, who had reportedly assumed day-to-day power in the waning years of his father’s life, has since ruled with an iron fist and a similarly strong cult of personality. Since he came to power, most international attention has been on negotiations over the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. “Six-Party” talks involving North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia, and Japan have dragged on for years without resolution. Fears of a nuclear or conventional war on the Korean peninsula form the backdrop to these discussions and have often pushed human rights concerns to the margins. North Korea’s brinksmanship diplomacy has left South Korea’s leaders wary of raising human rights issues too aggressively for fear that North Korea will withdraw from the “Six Party” talks and other, bilateral channels of dialogue. U.S. rhetoric about North Korea forming part of an “axis of evil” and willful blindness among some in South Korea about the human rights situation in North Korea have contributed to a deep and unhelpful politicization of the discussion of human rights in the country.

[4] There have been anecdotal South Korean press reports indicating, after a decade of private trades, there is a growing class of the newly rich, who don’t always belong to the elite class, but nevertheless have much better access to food and other necessities than the rest of the population. Because of lack of access to North Korea, however, it is difficult to confirm exactly who make up this new “class,” and how widespread such phenomena are. Park Dae-han, “Economic Polarization in North Korea,” Yonhap News, February 23, 2006.

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