The government continued to systematically violate the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of millions of North Koreans. Food shortages gripped much of the country and there were fears of increased food insecurity due to poor economic management and reduced international aid. Thousands crossed the border into China, mostly in a desperate search for food. The Chinese authorities arrested and forcibly repatriated thousands of North Koreans who faced detention, interrogation and torture. Some were subjected to enforced disappearance, which the government failed to acknowledge. Politically motivated and arbitrary detentions continued. Severe restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of movement persisted. At least seven people were executed. Independent human rights monitors continued to be denied access.
In April, North Korea expelled international nuclear inspectors. In May, North Korea announced that it had conducted a second nuclear test, after increasing tensions with the international community. In June, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to tighten sanctions targeting North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programmes, and encouraged UN members to inspect cargo vessels and airplanes suspected of carrying weapons and other military material.
The second half of the year was characterized by reconciliatory measures towards the international community. In August, the authorities released two US journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, following a visit by former US President Bill Clinton. The two journalists had been sentenced to 12 years’ hard labour in June for illegally entering North Korean territory.
In August, a North Korean delegation attended the funeral of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. The authorities released four South Korean fishermen who had been detained for illegally entering its waters. In September, North Korea resumed meetings to reunite families separated during the Korean War – the first to take place for nearly two years. In October, North Korea indicated that it was willing to resume bilateral and multilateral talks on its nuclear programmes.
On 30 November, the government implemented a currency reform, exchanging old for new at a rate of 100:1.The maximum amount of money that could be converted was 300,000 won per person (approximately 150 euros). The authorities were reportedly forced to increase the exchange rate slightly following protests in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.
Nearly 9 million people, more than one third of the population, suffered severe food shortages. However, international aid fell drastically following the May nuclear test and donor fatigue. Consequently, the World Food Program scaled back its emergency operation to reach only 2.4 million out of an originally planned 6 million people. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that North Korea’s humanitarian problems – including food shortages, a crumbling health system and lack of access to safe drinking water – seriously hampered fulfilment of the population’s human rights.
Arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment
Thousands of North Koreans who crossed into China mostly in search of food were apprehended by Chinese authorities and forcibly returned to North Korea. Upon return, North Korean security officials held them in detention facilities near the border for several days during which they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Most were sentenced to periods not exceeding three years in labour training camps where they were subjected to forced labour for ten to twelve hours a day with no rest days. There were reports of several deaths in these detention facilities as a consequence of hard labour, inadequate food and insufficient access to medicines and medical treatment.
- In August, following the visit of Hyundai Group chairperson Hyun Jeong-eun to North Korea, the authorities released South Korean national and Hyundai Asan employee, Yu Seong-jin. Yu had been arrested in March at the Kaeseong Industrial Complex, where he was working. The North Korean government detained Yu for criticizing the government and for trying to persuade a woman to leave and go to South Korea.
The authorities failed to acknowledge the use of enforced disappearances. Since the 1950s, the authorities have subjected North Koreans and nationals of other countries such as South Korea and Japan to enforced disappearances. North Korean family members of suspected dissidents disappeared under the principle of “guilt by association”, a form of collective punishment for those associated with someone deemed hostile to the regime. Thousands of North Koreans forcibly returned from China during the year were unaccounted for.
The government continued to execute people by hanging or firing squad. Public executions appeared to be carried out for crimes such as murder, human trafficking, smuggling, circulating “harmful” information, disseminating religious material and espionage. According to foreign media reports, at least seven people were executed.
- In June, Ri Hyun-ok, 33 years old, was publicly executed in the north-western city of Ryongchon (near the border with China) on charges of distributing Bibles and espionage. Ri Hyun-ok’s parents, husband and three children were sent to a political prison camp in the north-eastern city of Hoeryong.
Freedom of expression and association
The government continued to impose severe restrictions on the media and to punish any form of association and expression that it deemed hostile, including religious practice. There were no known independent opposition political parties or NGOs. Local authorities continued to arrest individuals who owned unauthorized Chinese mobile phones, or sold South Korean videos.
An amended Constitution came into effect in April, making the chairman of the National Defence Commission, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s “supreme leader”. Article 8 of the amended Constitution stipulated that the state should “respect and protect human rights”.
North Korea’s human rights record was assessed under the UN Universal Periodic Review in December. The government continued to deny access to independent human rights monitors including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.