SEOUL — Despite talk by President Trump and leader Kim Jong Un of North Korea’s commitment to development and its economic potential, the people of the reclusive nation face a web of corruption, deprivation and official crackdowns that denies them an adequate standard of living, a new U.N. report stated Tuesday.
The U.N. human rights office called for drastic change in North Korea, where failure of centralized economic planning has pushed people to seek their livelihoods in a precarious parallel economy.
The U.N. investigation showed how the rudimentary markets where North Korean people access basic necessities operate in a legal gray area, exposing them to threats of arbitrary arrest, detention and extortion. The report gathers testimonies from more than 200 North Koreans who fled to South Korea.
“We might be referring to [them] as not escapees but entrepreneurs,” if not for the unfavorable environment in North Korea, said Signe Poulsen, Korea representative for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Since Pyongyang’s centralized economic planning and distribution collapsed in the 1990s, North Korean people have had to seek alternative sources of income away from state-assigned jobs and official food rations.
“If you just follow instructions coming from the state, you starve to death,” a woman from North Korea’s Ryanggang province was quoted as saying in the report.
Many North Koreans seek a living through rudimentary markets while paying bribes to get out of duties at official state-assigned jobs, according to the report. The uncertain legal environment surrounding the markets exposes the merchants to arbitrary threats of detention and extortion, and livelihoods depend on being able to bribe state officials.
One defector, Oh Ji-ye, told The Washington Post that she was arbitrarily detained by police while procuring crops for sale from farmers.
“Sitting in the pitch-dark cell, I questioned in fury why my legitimate efforts to earn a living landed me in this jail,” said Oh, who had been a market merchant in North Korea for three years before escaping to South Korea in 2014. The then-20-year-old had to bribe her way out of detention.
The United Nations urged Pyongyang to end prosecuting legitimate market activities and respect the freedom of movement so that the North Korean people could make a living.
North Korea, in a statement to Reuters via the country’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva, rejected the report as “fabricated information” that is “politically motivated.”
Experts question whether the Trump administration’s offer of a prosperous future in exchange for North Korea denuclearizing will really result in Kim giving his people more socioeconomic freedoms.
“No one knows what a bright future for North Korea means in practice. None of Kim Jong Un’s economic reforms so far have been very far-reaching.” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a Templeton fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “Even though the state has granted some room to the market, people still have to pay bribes to get by in much of the system.”
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for greater attention to the rights of ordinary people in North Korea while the international community pursues diplomatic engagement with the regime.
“I am concerned that the constant focus on the nuclear issue continues to divert attention from the terrible state of human rights for many millions of North Koreans,” she said.