UN: North Korea Commits “Unspeakable Atrocities”

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February 17, 2014

The North Korean government abuses its people for even the smallest criticism of the state, according to a new United Nations report released on Monday.

The report, based on survivor and witness testimony gathered by a human-rights commission over the past year, said the atrocities arise from policies set “at the highest level of state.”

Rape, torture, forced abortions, starvation, enslavement and murder are part of the North Korean government’s effort to control its people and crush dissent, the commission found. It said it planned to refer the allegations to the International Criminal Court.

“The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent,” the report said.

But as FRONTLINE reported in last month’s Secret State of North Korea, maintaining control in the isolated country has become more difficult as new technology, like cellphones and illicit flash drives with Western television shows, give ordinary North Koreans a glimpse into another world. People have begun to fight back against the regime in small but determined ways.

In response, Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, has continued his father Kim Jong-il’s brutal policies, punishing political offenders by sending generations of their families to prison camps, and kidnapping and torturing defectors.

As many as 200,000 people are believed to languish in North Korean prison camps, accused of betraying the regime. Many were caught trying to defect or were overheard criticizing the current leadership. Others were imprisoned just for being related to someone the state considered a threat. The U.N. commission found that while many abuses happen in these camps, “gross violations” also happened in the ordinary prison system.

Jeong Kwang Il was a prison-camp survivor who testified before the commission. A former North Korean businessman, Jeong held a position of some prominence in North Korea, even traveling abroad for work. For years, he never thought about defecting. Then, in 1999, he says a former schoolmate turned against him and reported him to officials for being a spy. In August 2013, he told FRONTLINE about how he was arrested, tortured, and ultimately — perhaps inexplicably — released.

After years of imprisonment, an official from North Korea’s state security office visited Jeong at the camp, he said. For some reason, the regime had decided he wasn’t a spy after all. “He said to me, ‘If you go out into society now you can live well without getting into trouble, right?’ So I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do well.'”

Almost immediately upon his release, Jeong defected. Now, he works against the regime, smuggling in Western and South Korean television shows and radios. In the clip below, Jeong plans another trip across the border. Follow his journey, and then watch the full film anytime here.


Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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