On Tuesday, 28 May, the United Nations (UN) released their latest report on the troubled state of North Korea. The report focused on the governmental corruption that the general populous faces, under which those performing informal labor are threatened with jail time in order to extort money. This corruption appears to be rife throughout the country, as the report cites interviews with 214 escapees from North Korea, per Reuters. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a statement: “I am concerned that the constant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible state of human rights for many millions of North Koreans.” Indeed, while the external news cycle continues to focus on the stratosphere of diplomatic relations and military threats, the plight of the citizens on the ground is often left unaddressed.
Bachelet went on to describe the report’s findings, stating, “The rights to food, health, shelter, work, freedom of movement and liberty are universal and inalienable, but in North Korea they depend primarily on the ability of individuals to bribe State officials.” In fact, the UN reports that 10.9 million people, approximately 43% of the population, are “facing appalling levels of hunger.” Meanwhile, though the report was provided to Pyongyang before its publication, no official comment had been made at the time of writing.
Much of the blame for the humanitarian situation is being aimed at the economic management of the North Korean government. The state-based rations program collapsed in 1994. Many of those interviewed in the report escaped from the northeastern regions of Ryanggang and North Hamgyong, among the first areas to be cut from this system. The diversion of the state’s resources into military operations has been largely thought to have caused the current state of affairs. Now, citizens are forced to do what they can to survive. One of the interviewees was quoted as simply saying: “If you just follow instructions coming from the State, you starve to death.”
The report has offered several solutions to alleviate the pressure on the North Korean people. Most importantly, it argues that the source of exploitation has been the informal private sector, which employs three-quarters of North Koreans, according to Reuters. This has been described as a “legal grey area” by the UN report. This uncertainty leaves the system open to abuse, as threats of imprisonment from corrupt officials result in the extortion of citizens. By formalizing this sector, the rights of North Koreans in relation to their work would be clear, and opportunities for corruption would be reduced. While North Korea has historically blamed UN sanctions for the poor economy and standards of living, it continues to be evident that state priorities do not lie with the people. Instead, money is poured into nuclear weapons, which have generated major international interest and concern. It is important to remember that while this remains an important issue, the treatment of the North Korean citizens appears to be equally egregious and just as deserving of action.