In February, the United Nations released a remarkably comprehensive report on North Korea's human rights abuses. The report interviewed 320 people, including a number of survivors from the notorious secret political system, and concluded that the country was committing human rights violations “without any parallel in the contemporary world.”
So how did North Korea respond? With indignant anger. For weeks now, North Korean state media have been offering various retorts to the United Nations. In April, a North Korean spokesman argued that the United States and its allies were running a "human rights racket." Then, a few weeks later, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a commentary questioning how a gay man could lead an investigation into human rights.
This week, however, North Korea unveiled a new strategy: Releasing its own human rights reports on the West.
On Wednesday, KCNA released an article titled "News Analysis on Poor Human Rights Records in U.S." It brought up a number of points, including racial discrimination, unemployment, surveillance and poverty. "The U.S. is the world's worst human right abuser and tundra of a human being's rights to existence," the essay concludes.
So what is the U.S. actually doing wrong? Here are the key points from the criticism:
- "Under the citizenship act, racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect."
- "The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year's case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman who shot to death an innocent black boy."
- "That's why 52 percent of the Americans have said that racism still exists in the country while 46 percent contended that all sorts of discrimination would be everlasting."
- "The U.S. is a living hell as elementary rights to existence are ruthlessly violated."
- "At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken."
- "The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless."
- "The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City."
- "All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people's rights to existence and their inviolable rights."
- "The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of 'national security.'"
- "Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates."
- "The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money."
- "A Russian TV said that in the U.S. the wealthy classes are now keen on the investment in providing private prisons for their high profit and so more people will be imprisoned."
- "Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people's wretched life."
The United States isn't the only nation on the receiving end of North Korea's criticism. According to Daily NK, state newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced on Wednesday that North Korea has released a white paper criticizing human rights in South Korea. The report argues that the South has the worst human rights situation in the world, and it's "deprived of everything thanks to America."
“Over 60% of university students cannot afford their school fees so must work [to make ends meet]," the newspaper said, according to a translation from Daily NK. "Some even have to subject their bodies to medical trials."
North Korea's criticism refers to many issues that Americans feel strongly about, such as the Trayvon Martin case, NSA surveillance and private prisons. And while it doesn't cite its data, some of the allegations can be fact-checked: According to Bloomberg, a four-week moving average for jobless claims was 316,750 in the period that ended April 19, while KCNA's house price data appears to come from the S&P/Case-Shiller price index, and its data from opinion polls on racism fits into a broad trend can be that found from other polls.
In fact, the only truly debatable part is on gun crime. While it's true that the number of mass shootings has risen in the United States, violent crime in general has dropped over the past few years, with homicide rates down in most major cities. And while the April 10 U.N. report did note that the United States has a high murder rate, the top spot went to Honduras. (KCNA appears to have misread the report, which said the Americas were the region with most gun crime.)
In South Korea, it's true that tuition is an issue: While college fees are relatively low compared to the United States, students have protested in recent years as tuition rates rose and job prospects dimmed.
Perhaps you can argue that the United States is a "living hell as elementary rights to existence are ruthlessly violated." But does the reality of the situation in the West really compare to stories from North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have died in gulags, where citizens are watched and discriminated against for their political views, and where escaping to another country is prohibited by the state? In the end, this all serves as a nice reminder: Whataboutism seems to be doing better than ever in the 21st century.