March 2023

Tightening the screws on Kim dictatorship

Richard Gregson examines how Washington and Seoul are stepping up measures to counter North Korea’s violent repression and rights abuses – but insists more must be done

International pressure is mounting against the North Korean regime. Both the US and the new dispensation in South Korea are enhancing military cooperation, alongside new diplomatic initiatives to push against human rights violations in that country, and building a media campaign to expose the Kim regime at home and abroad.

The South Korean and US air forces have recently conducted combined air drills. American B-1B strategic bombers and F-22 and F-35B stealth fighters conducted the exercises in coordination with South Korean F-35A fighter jets. During his visit to Seoul, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup and reassured them that the United States will be deploying strategic assets, including the fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, and would increase the frequency of combined military drills with South Korea.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden nominated Julie Turner as Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues. A seasoned diplomat and currently director of the Office of East Asia and the Pacific in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the Department of State, Turneris fluent in Korean and has worked as a special assistant to the US Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues. With her background, she is eminently fit for the job.

Julie Turner
Julie Turner, nominated as the US Dept of State’s Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues


The special envoy’s position has been vacant since Robert King completed his tenure in January 2017. Former President Donald Trump initiated talks with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and continued to pursue a soft policy towards North Korea, notwithstanding the failure of the Hanoi summit between him and Kim in February 2019. Human rights activists have been criticising the US administration for turning a blind eye to serious rights violations by the Kim regime.

Information on rights violations in North Korea is difficult to assess as the country is closed to the world

In Seoul, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s predecessor Moon Jae-in, known for his policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ towards the North, had also kept the post of ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights vacant as long as he was in office. Although the then President Park-Geun hye appointed Lee Jung-hoon as the first such envoy in September 2016, for one year, after taking office in 2017, Moon never appointed a new ambassador.

Just four months into office, Yoon sent a strong signal to the North by appointing Lee Shin-hwa as the new ambassador for international cooperation on North Korean human rights. Human rights violations by the North Korean dictatorship will now be taken up in earnest, with the two allies coordinating their inputs and actions. However Julie Turner’s job has to be ratified by the Senate before she takes charge.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

The US will also be putting in some $50 million over the next five years to boost the credentials of Americans and South Korean democracies as defenders of human rights and to ‘expose’ the violent North Korean regime. The US president signed into law the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korea Censorship and Surveillance Act as part of FY2023 NDAA. Besides mandating a campaign against human rights violations, it empowers the administration to take measures to counter North Korean surveillance, censorship, and repression.

Named after an American student, Otto Warmbier, who was arrested and tortured to death in prisonon charges of subversionin Pyongyang in 2016, the law also authorises the US Agency for Global Media to provide increased broadcasting and grants for the development of internet freedom tools to facilitate information sharing related to North Korea and the restoration of the agency’s broadcasting capacity to North Korea. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing a poster. He was brutalised so badly in prison that he was in a vegetative state when released in June 2017.The 22-year youth died six days later in an Ohiohospital.

North Korea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and there has been no end to the miseries suffered by the common North Koreans. Pyongyang, however, denies the accusations of human rights violations and accuses the West of imposing unilateral sanctions that have adversely affected the economy. It has also continued to test fire nuclear-capable ballistic missiles into international waters, and is considered a serious threat to peace and security in the region.

American student Otto Warmbier
VICTIM: Otto Warmbier, who died after being arrested and tortured on charges of subversion in Pyongyang

Information on human rights violations in North Korea is difficult to assess because the country is literally closed to the world. Yet various human right bodies and the United Nations Human Rights Council have systematically been gleaning information by interviewing expatriates and dissidents.

According to a two-year long extensive investigation conducted bythe International Bar Association’s (IBA) War Crimes Committee, Kim and his officials have been committing as many as ten of the eleven crimes against humanity enumerated in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The crimes include murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible transfer, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearances, apartheid, and other inhumane acts, says the IBA report, issued in June 2022.

The report, titled Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers, was based on testimonies of North Korean escapees and experts given at the hearings held by the committee. Arbitrary executions, infanticide and forced abortions were common in detention centres. Victims appearing at the hearings testified that the detainees in the camps were being intentionally deprived of food as a ‘weapon of punishment and control’, resulting in severe illnesses, malnutrition, and even death by starvation. One witness reported eating ‘mostly skin of corn or potatoes mixed in with stones and coal’. Others said that they ate rodents, frogsor snakes to survive.

One of the victims was ‘beaten so severely at an underground detention facility that all of his lower teeth were broken. He was also subjected to waterboarding and electric shocks,’ the IBAhearings revealed.

The North Korean government responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with deepened isolation and repression, increased ideological control, and by maintaining fearful obedience of the population by using threats of torture, extrajudicial executions, wrongful imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and forced hard labour, saysTirana Hassan, acting Executive Director at Human Rights Watch.

‘The government does not tolerate pluralism, bans independent media, civil society organisations, and trade unions, and systematically denies all basic liberties, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and freedom of religion and belief. North Korean authorities routinely send perceived opponents of the government to secretive political prison camps (kwanliso) in remote regions where they face torture and other ill-treatment, starvation rations, and forced labour. Collective punishment is also used to silence dissent,’HRW points out.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported receiving ‘consistent and credible accounts of the systematic infliction of severe physical and mental pain or suffering upon detainees, through the infliction of beatings, stress positions and starvation in places of detention’.

The OHCHR maintains that the crime against humanity of torture continues to take place in the North Korean prison system. Almost all of the persons interviewed by the OHCHRcommission of inquiry were beaten during interrogations and as punishment for minor infractions. One interviewee saw a woman kicked across a room and severely beaten by officers for hiding ‘a few peppers’ because the prison food tasted bad.

Beatings, stress positions, psychological abuse, forced labour, denial of medical care and sanitation and hygiene products, and starvation, all combining to create an atmosphere of severe mental and physical suffering in detention, exacerbated by extremely poor living conditions, were also reported by the intervieweesduring the OHCHR commission of inquiry hearings. One female interviewee, who had served a sentence in Kyo-hwa-soRe-education Camp in 2014 and was forced to work in a farm, described how she and other prisoners were used as beasts of burden: ‘There was no machine, so seven or eight of us dragged the cart that cows normally pull.’

Despite these horrendous violations and denial of minimum rights to the people of his country, which has been turned into a massive prison, the Kim dynasty has happily survived so far. How long will the people of North Korea continue to suffer? It is high time that the comity of nations wakes up to the grim reality and consignsdictators like Kim to the dustbin of history.

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada