How could life in North Korea get even worse? Meet the Covid-19 Communism variant

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By John J. Metzler

The ongoing global COVID pandemic combined with a shroud of secrecy and indifference has hidden the fast-deteriorating human rights situation in North Korea.

Now yet another report by the UN’s Rapporteur on Human Rights in the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), underscores a grim reality in the communist country.

“Prolonged and strict COVID-19 measures have resulted in severe economic hardship and increased vulnerability to human rights violations amongst the general population. Over 40 per cent of people were already food insecure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic… many of them  suffering malnutrition and stunted growth,” the report warns.  Food insecurity throughout North Korea has increased.

A satellite image of the northern part of North Korea’s Camp 16 (Kwanliso) taken in 2011. / Amnesty International / Digital Globe

While the North Korean government has exhibited virtually nil transparency about the true state and COVID situation throughout the self-styled socialist country, the facts suggest massive lockdowns and increased restrictions on peoples’ freedom of movement.  Indeed, the report adds, “The authorities continue to enforce other public health measures such as mandatory mask-wearing, disinfection activities, lockdown of cities and regions, increased surveillance and severe restrictions on domestic travel.”

Moreover the DPRK continues to use its traditionally totalitarian methods to control the population through a vast network of political prison camps called Kwanliso.

According to the UN report, “Kwanliso do not look like penitentiaries but more like villages…  kwanliso No.18,21 located just south of the Taedong River, it was a large village that stretched up to 40 km and consisted of accommodation, schools for the officers’ children and the  detainees’ children, hospitals, farms and detention facilities.”

Camp No. 16 is reportedly the largest kwanliso with a capacity of 50,000 people.

Such facilities have similarities with the old Soviet Gulag system of prison regions rather than actual jails.

The UN Rapporteur noted, “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea denies the existence of political prison camps while acknowledging the presence of ‘reform institutions.’ During the state’s Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in May 2019, the Government delegation stated: “There is no such thing as ‘political prisoner’ or ‘political prison camp’.”

People can easily fall afoul of the system; any jokes or veiled criticism of the ruler Kim Jong-Un can bring political retribution.

North Korea strictly prohibits religious freedoms.  The Report stresses, “Christians are categorized as a ‘hostile class’ under the songbun system of social classification and continue to be particularly targeted as a “serious threat to loyalty to the state.”

The document adds, “Owing to COVID-19 travel restrictions, only 229 escapees arrived in the Republic of Korea in 2020, a significant drop from 1,047 in 2019.  Only 36 escapees arrived in the first half of 2021.”

Significantly, the Report called on South Korea, the successful and democratic portion of the divided Korean Peninsula, to “Integrate human rights into negotiations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” as well as to resume reunions of separated families.  South Korea’s role as a free beacon to the North becomes more significant than ever. It’s incumbent on the Seoul government to care more for their suffering ethnic cousins in the North and to press for political and economic concessions in inter-Korean negotiations.

The UN Report concludes, “The COVID-19 restrictions have worsened their ordeal due to further isolation, wider and harsher state command over people’s lives, the further stifling of economic activity, and the exodus of humanitarian agencies from the country.”

In other words, making the “hermit kingdom” even more isolated in a world of indifference.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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