North Korea has been, for a long time, a one-party state led by the regimes that have engaged in grave human rights abuses. Kim Jong-un’s father had been leading the country since his father’s death in 1994. And after his death, son Kim Jong-un became the country's supreme leader in 2011. Since then Kim Jong-un has been in power. Do the North Korean people enjoy the civil liberties under his regime?
Before jumping to the civil liberties of the North Korean people, I would like to share with you a brief idea about the country.
According to the report (Freedom in the world 2023, North Korea) of Freedom House, “North Korea is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship that regularly engages in grave human rights abuses. Surveillance is pervasive, arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and punishments for political offences are severe. The state maintains a system of camps for political prisoners where torture, forced labour, starvation, and other atrocities take place”.
It should be noted that North Korea has ratified some international instruments including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Civil liberties are guaranteed under the provisions of ICCPR. State parties to this instrument have legal obligations to implement these rights domestically. The report of the Freedom House informs us of the status of the civil liberties that are being enjoyed by the North Korean people.
Let me share with you the relevant information from the said report and the relevant provisions from the relevant instruments. On the ‘free and independent media’ the said report stated that “The state runs all domestic media outlets. Televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels. All publications and broadcasts are strictly supervised and censored. The regime rarely allows a small number of foreign books, films, and television programs to be distributed and aired in the country”. North Korea scored 0 out of 4 for the free and independent media.
On the ‘freedom of religion’ the said report stated that “Although freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed, it does not exist in practice. State-sanctioned churches maintain a token presence in Pyongyang, and some North Koreans are known to practice their faith furtively. However, intense state indoctrination and repression preclude free and open exercise of religion. Crackdowns are common, and those caught—including foreigners—are arrested and subjected to harsh punishments, including imprisonment in labour camps. In 2021, nongovernmental organization Open Doors US reported that 50,000 to 70,000 Christians were held in prison camps”. North Korea scored 0 out of 4 for the freedom of religion.
On “academic freedom” the report mentioned that “There is no academic freedom. The state must approve all curriculums, including those of educational programs led by foreigners. Although some North Koreans are permitted to study abroad at both universities and short-term educational training programs, they are subject to monitoring and reprisals for perceived disloyalty”. North Korea scored 0 out of 4 for academic freedom.
On the ‘freedom to express personal views’ the report described, inter alia, that nearly all forms of private communication are monitored by a huge network of informants. Ordinary mobile users can connect to a state-run intranet but not the global internet. Mobile phones operating on this network function as state surveillance tools, which can review individuals’ application usage and browsing history and take screenshots of activity. North Korea scored, according to the said report, 0 out of 4 for the freedom to express personal views.
It is pertinent to mention here the relevant provisions from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and ICCPR. Article 19 of UDHR provides that ”Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. These rights had subsequently been incorporated into article 19 of the ICCPR.
Article 19(3) of ICCPR provides that “The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals”.
North Korea scored 0 out of 4 for freedom of assembly; because, according to the said report, freedom of assembly is not recognized, and participants in unauthorized gatherings are subject to severe punishment, including imprisonment. There are clear provisions on this very right in article 20 of the UDHR and article 21 of the ICCPR.
On the ‘independent judiciary’ the said report stated that “North Korea’s judiciary is subordinate to the political leadership in law and in practice. According to the constitution, the Central Court, the country’s highest court, is accountable to the SPA, and its duties include protecting “state power and the socialist system.” North Korea scored 0 out of 4 on this issue.
On the basis of the scorings, ratings and findings reflected in the report mentioned above it can be said that North Korean regime has no attention to the civil liberties guaranteed under the international instruments. North Korea is ignorant of the commitments that come from the international legal instrument. Rights activists do not like the ignorant trends of North Korean regime; they would ridicule this practice or tendency with the following words: glory for regime, agony for people.
The writer is a Barrister-at-Law, a Human Rights Activist and an Advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh