N. Korean Rights Record Still Dire Despite Constitutional Change
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- Human rights abuses continue in North Korea despite new constitutional language apparently intended to quell international criticism, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Jan. 20.
"Despite lip service to human rights in the constitution, human rights conditions in North Korea remain dire," the group said in its annual report. "There is no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention and torture and ill-treatment of detainees and lack of due process remain serious issues."
The 612-page report, summarizing major human rights trends in more than 90 nations, also mentioned North Korea among the governments that "have over the past year intensified attacks against human rights defenders and organizations that document abuse."
"Human Rights Watch noted that some governments are so abusive against individuals and organizations that no domestic human rights movement can function, citing Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan," the report said.
The group said North Korea operates "political prison camps where hundreds of thousands of its citizens, including children, are enslaved in deplorable conditions for various anti-state offenses."
Earlier in the day in Seoul, South Korea's National Human Rights Commission issued a similar report, based on a recent survey of 350 North Korean defectors, including 17 former prisoners, that said North Korea has six prison camps accommodating about 200,000 inmates who face public executions, sexual assault and torture.
The HRW report denounced China for returning defectors to North Korea without acknowledging their refugee status, saying that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have fled to China since the 1990s, when the North suffered a famine due to a series of floods and policy failures.
"Despite its obligation to offer protection to refugees, Beijing categorically labels North Koreans in China illegal economic migrants and routinely repatriates them," the report said. "Border crossers face grave punishments upon repatriation such as torture, lengthy terms in horrendous detention facilities, and even execution, depending on what they did and who they met while abroad."
Most North Korean defectors go to South Korea via China, the report said.
There are about 17,000 North Korean defectors in the South, the report said, adding that there about 200 in Japan, close to 100 in the United States, and more than 500 in the United Kingdom, Germany and a other European countries.
North Korea has recovered from the famine in the 1990s "that killed millions," but is still short some 1.8 million metric tons of food annually, leaving "a third of North Korean women and children malnourished," the report said.
Clinton Points to North Korea as Example of Internet Censorship
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Jan. 21 singled out North Korea as an example of a country that practices Internet censorship.
"In North Korea, for example, the government has tried to completely isolate its citizens from outside opinions," Clinton said in a speech to a forum at the Newseum journalism museum in Washington.
She also called on China to look into the recent cyber attacks on Google.
The U.S. Internet giant said last week that it will no longer abide Chinese censorship of its search engine, at the risk of losing business in the country.
China has said it will cooperate closely with Google to resolve any problems so the issue does not undermine overall Sino-U.S. ties, but insisted on its right to Internet censorship.
North Korea strictly controls its citizens' Internet access while maintaining a cyber-warfare unit that apparently launched attacks on South Korean and U.S. government Web sites last summer, briefly paralyzing them.
South Korea recently announced plans to launch a 200-man strong cyber-warfare unit to counter any such assaults from the North.
Clinton called on governments to cooperate to promote the free flow of information, which she says should reduce causes for global conflicts.
"We do not block your attempts to communicate with the people in the United States. But citizens and societies that practice censorship lack exposure to outside views," she said. "This lopsided access to information increases both the likelihood of conflict and the probability that small disagreements could escalate. So I hope that responsible governments with an interest in global stability will work with us to address such imbalances."
Clinton said, "Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress."
"Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of inter-state conflict," she said.
U.S. Urges N.K. to Return to Six-way Talks to Discuss Lifting Sanctions
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- The United States on Jan. 22 reiterated that it will discuss the removal of sanctions or any other issues with North Korea only after the reclusive socialist state returns to the six-nation talks on its denuclearization.
"Our focus with our partners in the six-party talks is denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and, once that happens, we can start looking at other things," Mike Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a news briefing at the Foreign Press Center here to mark the first anniversary of U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration.
Before it resumes negotiations, North Korea has called for the removal of U.N. sanctions imposed after its nuclear and missile tests last year and also a peace treaty to replace the fragile armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said earlier in the day he expects North Korea to come back to the nuclear talks in mid-February, a couple of months before a nuclear summit is to be held in Washington to follow up on Obama's pledge last April in Prague to seek non-proliferation and eventual global disarmament.
Otherwise, Yu said, the North will face continued sanctions and deteriorating relations with China, its biggest benefactor, and other countries.
Hammer praised international efforts to curb the spread of North Korean nuclear technology.
"I won't outline all the events that have taken place that have put a stop to North Korea's efforts to proliferate," he said.
Hammer was referring to a series of incidents in which Thailand, India and several other countries joined forces in recent months to intercept North Korean vessels and air cargo carrying weapons, including missiles and their parts.
"As a result of that, North Korea's mind is very much focused, and hopefully they will understand that the only way to avoid isolation is to return to the six-party talks," Hammer said. "So the message has been clear."
The spokesman, however, said conflicting messages from the North leave him unsure if the six-party talks will resume.
"We don't know yet if they are ready to go down that path," he said. "They sometimes say things that are encouraging and then only to say other things that seem to indicate that they're not prepared to do so. We also understand it takes time to help encourage another country to change its behavior."
North Korea Ranks Last in U.S. Economic Freedom Index
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea ranked as the world's worst country in terms of economic freedom for the 16th straight year in an annual survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, according to their websites on Jan. 22.
The socialist state scored just one point out of a possible 100 in the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, taking the bottom spot among 179 countries surveyed, they said.
North Korea has been the worst performer since the survey's inception in 1995. The index, which excluded a handful of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, said the North scored zeros in eight categories -- including business freedom, investment freedom, labor freedom and government spending -- but salvaged five points each in property rights and freedom from corruption.
South Korea ranked 31st among the 179 nations surveyed in the same index, rising nine notches from 2009 and five notches higher than its decade high of 36th in 2007. The South earned 69.9 points in the index, which measures economic freedom in 10 categories: business, investment, trade, property rights, government spending, labor, finance, fiscal freedom, monetary freedom and freedom from corruption.
North Korea has scored fewer points each year since 2005. The survey estimated that the isolated country had a gross domestic product of US$26.2 billion in 2008.
The North is one of the world's poorest countries, having depended on international handouts since famine killed an estimated 2 million people in the mid-1990s. Unable to generate energy for its debilitated economy, the country has turned to international talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear arms programs for fuel and other aid.
The talks remain stalled after North Korea boycotted them over U.N. condemnation of its long-range rocket in April last year. The country went ahead with its second nuclear test in May of the same year.
In its New Year's message this year, the North vowed to funnel resources into rebuilding its economy and raising the standard of living for its people.
Critics doubt the country can bounce back from years of economic mismanagement; recently it has reportedly tried to reinforce its socialist planning and crack down on illegal market activities.
Sanctions on N.K. Are Major Achievement toward Global Nonproliferation
WASHINGTON (Yonhap) -- A senior aide to U.S. President Barack Obama on Jan. 25 described U.N. sanctions against North Korea as a major first-year achievement for the president toward global nuclear nonproliferation.
"We have secured new, stronger sanctions against North Korea. And in the context of the six-party talks, we sent Ambassador (Stephen) Bosworth to Pyongyang last month for direct talks, which has not happened in a long time," National Security Adviser James Jones told a forum at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
U.S. officials have said they will not consider lifting sanctions unless North Korea returns to the six-party talks and takes substantial denuclearization steps.
North Korea, for its part, has said sanctions should be removed before it resumes the multilateral negotiations. It also demands a peace treaty to replace the fragile armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
Pyongyang has boycotted the six-party talks, which also involve South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, citing U.N. resolutions adopted after the North's nuclear and missile tests early last year. The resolutions instituted financial sanctions, an overall arms embargo and the interdiction of suspicious cargo on the high seas.
U.S. officials have hinted at another face-to-face meeting to facilitate the reopening of the negotiations since Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, failed to woo the North back to the table. Bosworth's trip to Pyongyang last month marked the Obama administration's first high-level official contact with the North.
In a report issued last month, the State Department listed strengthened international cooperation to impose sanctions on North Korea as one of the key foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration, which took office last January.
Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, recently expressed satisfaction with the international cooperation to implement the sanctions on North Korea, saying, "Teamwork among different agencies in the United States and partners abroad just last week led to the interdiction of a Middle East-bound cargo of North Korean weapons."
Blair was referring to a cargo plane impounded in Bangkok last month while carrying 35 tons of North Korean weapons to an unknown destination.
Arms sales are one of the major sources of revenue for North Korea, suspected of being behind nuclear and missile proliferation in Syria, Iran, Pakistan and several other countries.
The United Arab Emirates in July seized a Bahamian-flagged ship carrying North Korean weapons. India seized a North Korean ship off its coast in August only to find no weapons aboard. In June, a North Korean cargo ship, possibly on its way to Myanmar, returned home after being closely tracked by U.S. Navy vessels.