Despite fractional openings in North Korea, such as the reopening of the Kaesong industrial zone on Monday, there is little chance of any improvement in the "catastrophic human rights situation" under the head of state, Kim Jong-un, according to scholarly valuation. "Unnoticed by the regime, information from abroad contradicting the state propaganda is in fact presently leaking into the country via mobile phones, radios and DVDs, and the joint North and South Korean industrial park at Kaesong will also mean more outside contact. But this will not improve the human rights situation. The state's elaborate control and terror system prevents any opposition from forming", explains the Bonn-based Koreanist Dr. Sang-Yi O-Rauch, who will present research results on the situation in North Korea at the 32nd German Oriental Studies Conference (Deutscher Orientalistentag, DOT). On this occasion, 1,000 specialists in Oriental studies from all over the world are expected as of 23rd September in Münster.
According to Dr. O-Rauch, as yet it can only be guessed as to whether the reopening of North and South Korea's joint industrial zone in the border region of Kaesong might have more positive effects in the medium term. "At any rate, the tentative convergence of the two countries in Kaesong will lead to greater exchange between North and South Koreans, which will bring further new information into the country. It will also lead to economic stabilisation and might contribute to reducing military crises."
Since Kim Jong-un came into power, the human rights situation has deteriorated and state control has increased. The scholar emphasises that this is also proven by the drastic drop in the number of refugees fleeing abroad. "The regime in North Korea needs to brutally oppress its people in order to stay in power."
Hunger, forced labour and public executions
The Koreanist analyses regularly and systematically new reports by North Korean refugees, which allow rare glimpses into the isolated country. Among these are many interviews with former inmates and guards of camps as well as with staff of the state security service and the intelligence apparatus. "Not all the information can be verified individually. However, it yields a consistent overall image, and it can in part be proven by satellite photos." The statements have been documented and published by the South Korean non-governmental organisation "Database Center for North Korean Human Rights" since 2003. In addition, O-Rauch investigates ideological writings and state-controlled North Korean media that are accessible abroad.
According to what the scholar says, the violation of human rights ranges from torture and forced labour to executions. "Countless refugees' reports illustrate the haphazard manner in which force is applied. Many people die of starvation and receive little medical care. Others are arbitrarily spied on, arrested and tortured." In the case of the vaguely defined offence of "political crime", the accused are deported to camps together with their relatives, including children. There they are exposed to forced labour, cruelty and public executions. "Up to 200,000 people are being detained in the camps – most of them for life", says the Koreanist.
The entire population is at risk, according to Rauch. "Even those 28 per cent of North Koreans whom the regime considers to be the 'loyal core group' elite are not safe from the state's despotism." Those who do not exhibit loyalty to the leader and who call the totalitarian ideology into question are imminently at risk. "This does not require a political statement. It is even sufficient that pictures of the leader at one's home are not kept clean." Christians are persecuted since their religion is a rival of the state ideology. "They are put in camps for political prisoners."
"North Korea has its own 'human rights' concept"
The scholar does not expect any outside political help in improving the "catastrophic situation". The founding of the "UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea", which the Human Rights Council passed unanimously in spring, is an important sign, but the commission cannot take effective measures. Topics concerning the security policy, such as the nuclear and missile programmes, are given priority in North Korea's negotiations with the U.S., Japan or South Korea. "China is influential, but its human rights situation is critical itself."
"From a North Korean point of view, in spite of everything, there are no human rights issues in their own country", says Dr. O-Rauch. The "nation's right to home rule" is considered to be the greatest human right. On the other hand, the country rejects the validity of universal human rights, even if it signed the universal declaration of human rights by joining the United Nations in 1991. "North Korea claims that its 'human rights' concept should be equal to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and that it should be accepted internationally."
North Korea legitimizes the violation of human rights with a comprehensive leader cult, as the scholar has analysed on the basis of her sources. The cult extends into everyday life and extorts unconditional loyalty – also by force. A three-class system serves to implement the state terror. "It permits social control, the isolation of people who are categorised as 'hostile elements', and the allotting of privileges to the political and military elites."
At the German Oriental Studies Conference (Deutscher Orientalistentag, DOT) in Münster, the largest of its kind so far, Dr. O-Rauch will give a lecture in the "Korean Studies" section under the title of "Ideology and human rights in North Korea". Overall, some 900 lectures and 80 panels are scheduled, in which several hundred researchers from all over the world will address current, historical and linguistic developments in countries in Asia, Africa and the Arab regions. The South Korea-born Dr. O-Rauch is assistant lecturer at the Department of Japanese and Korean Studies at the University of Bonn, her research focussing on North Korea. In her current research project, she investigates "The linguistic construction of the self-image and of the concept of the enemy in the North Korean press".
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