Despite diplomatic talks civic space remains closed in North Korea

North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive states and civic space is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The government restricts all civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and religion. It prohibits all organised political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions. 

Over the last few months global attention has focused on the summit between North and South Korea in May 2018 as well as US-North Korea talks in Singapore on 12th June 2018 to discuss denuclearisation. The United Nations as well as many civil society organisations raised serious concerns that human rights were being sidelined at these meetings.

In the lead up to the summit between North and South Korea, 40 organisations representing over 200 non-governmental organisations from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and North America, sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in April 2018, asking him to urge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to implement the United Nations human rights recommendations; engage on inter-Korean human rights issues, including human rights dialogues and information exchanges; push for regular reunion meetings of separated families; and increase inter-Korean people-to-people contact.

On 25th April, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People`s Republic of Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, warned all countries involved in any denuclearisation negotiations that avoiding the topic of human rights in North Korea could jeopardise sustainable agreements in the future. He said ‘a denuclearisation deal will remain fragile if it sidelines the rights and needs of the DPRK population. Peace and security cannot be achieved only in the form of intergovernmental agreements but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the shape of domestic policies that guarantee the full enjoyment of human rights without discrimination.'

In May 2018, civil society organisations pressed US President Donald Trump for human rights issues to be included in the Singapore summit while in June 2018, 52 nongovernmental organisations and coalitions sent a letter to the North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong Un calling on him to undertake reforms to end serious rights abuses in the repressive, autocratic nation.

Despite the pressure and mobilization of civil society and other stakeholders, neither the Panmunjom Declaration signed by Kim and Moon or the joint statement issued by Trump and Kim in Singapore, mentioned the issue of human rights and there has been no shift in the dire human rights situation in the country. 


New North Korea arrivals display fear of expressing opinions

In July 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People`s Republic of Korea, Ojea Quintana, conducted an eight-day visit to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, where he conducted interviews with people who have recently left North Korea.

The Special Rapporteur said that :

"While the difficulties that the recent arrivals from the DPRK alluded to were mostly economic and social, they all displayed a fear of expressing any opinion that could be considered as political, or a criticism of the Government or the leader."

He said, that North Korea has so far refused to engage with him and that the worsening humanitarian crisis underlined the importance of putting the lives of all North Koreans on the agenda, expressing concern that human rights terminology had failed to appear in any documents following talks between the two Koreas and the US-North Korea summit in Singapore. He said it was not the first time that human rights concerns had been ‘seen as an inconvenience at a delicate moment. However, our experience as the UN has shown that there can be no genuine, peaceful and sustainable transition without it.’

Crackdown on ‘Antisocialist’ Entertainment Centers 

Authorities in North Korean provinces near the country’s border with China are cracking down on so-called “antisocialist activities,” forcing the owners of popular entertainment establishments that feature foreign content to operate underground. According to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report, on 9th July 2018, propaganda had recently been issued calling on residents to ‘reject any inflow of imperialistic cultural ideology.’

Although North Koreans have been expecting big changes after the recent diplomatic talks and the state-run media had been crowing about a “new future” for the country, the authorities are pushing a campaign of ‘struggle’ against antisocialism.”

Many state-run karaoke rooms have allegedly been shut down recently leading to secret karaoke rooms operating underground and the government is also shuttering many state-run restaurants, leaving residents with few places for entertainment.

Pyongyang Audiences Limited to Elites

According to an RFA report, concerts given by South Korean performers in April 2018 in the North Korean capital were opened only to top government officials and the country’s privileged class in a move aimed at blocking wider exposure to ‘capitalist culture.’

The shows were attended only by carefully selected audiences, though, with members of the general public kept away. Residents of the area near the theater were inconvenienced and blocked in their movements by security arrangements put in place the day before the concert.

North Korean media meanwhile carefully controlled coverage of the concerts, passing over many of the South Koreans’ songs and highlighting only those songs sung by both groups voicing hopes for a unified Korea, sources said.


Three US prisoners released

In May 2018, ahead of the US-North Korea summit the government released three US prisoners of Korean descent - Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk (Tony Kim) and Kim Hak-song - who were held in North Korea and had been accused of committing espionage or “hostile acts” against the state.

Of the three US citizens released, Kim Dong-chul had been held the longest, after being sentenced in April 2016 to ten years in prison and hard labor for “espionage.” Reports suggest Kim Dong-chul ran a trading firm in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea bordering Russia.

Neither Tony Kim nor Kim Hak-song had been tried since their detentions in April and May 2017, respectively. Both were associated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only privately funded college in the North that was founded in 2010 with donations from Christian groups. Tony Kim had been accused of committing unspecified criminal acts with an aim to topple North Korea’s government, while Kim Hak-song was charged with alleged anti-state activities.