Last year, North Korea launched over 90 ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles – more than any other year in the country’s history.
Its annual volley of weapons testing began on 5 January 2022 with the successful launch of a hypersonic missile. By 30 January, the state had conducted its biggest missile launch since 2017, and in September, it passed a law declaring itself to be a nuclear weapons state.
In November, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, 210km west of the island of Hokkaido. Japan’s defence minister declared that, launched at a lower trajectory, the missile had the range to hit the US mainland carrying nuclear warheads.
Despite a series of sanctions from the US, Japan, South Korea and the EU, North Korea’s launches gained intensity and frequency throughout 2022 – and they are set to maintain the same trajectory in 2023.
At 2:50am local time on New Year’s Day 2023, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile into the waters east of the country, following a call from Kim Jong-Un for an ‘exponential increase’ in the regime’s nuclear arsenal. For North Korea, this new year appears to be starting with the same priorities as the last.
Weapons before food
This prioritisation of the development of North Korea’s weapons arsenal is incalculably costly to the people of North Korea.
Research from one South Korean think tank estimated the total cost of North Korea’s 2022 missile launches to be in excess of $560 million. The estimated food shortfall in the country was $417 million.
In other words, if North Korea had redirected money spent on its myriad missile launches to foodstuffs and agriculture – if Kim Jong-Un cared more about his people than his weapons – chronic food insecurity and widespread reports of starvation might not be a reality.
This overspending on missiles and underspending on domestic food supplies is indicative of a wider and long-standing truth: that Kim Jong-Un cares more about maintaining totalitarian control and being perceived as a world threat than he does about the needs and rights of his people.
The homeless, starving and missing
Homelessness and food scarcity have been rife in North Korea for several decades. In the 1990s, a widespread famine commonly known as ‘the Arduous March’ caused the deaths and internal displacement of countless North Korean citizens. Because of the regime’s opacity, much about the Arduous March remains unknown, but it is understood to have been a humanitarian catastrophe of extreme suffering on a vast scale; projected estimates suggest the deaths of up to 3.5 million people. The nation’s weak economic system, extreme secrecy and harsh treatment of its citizens were largely seen to be responsible. Today, these issues are still ongoing.
In September 2022, a study from the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that food availability in North Korea has now likely fallen below minimum human needs. On one metric, it appears to be the worst it has been since the 1990s famine.
In addition, in recent months, several outlets have reported rising numbers of homeless in North Korea’s cities. Daily NK reported that the number of homeless people wandering the streets has risen in every North Korean city, including many elderly citizens and an increasing number of kkotjebi (homeless children).
In the latter months of last year, as temperatures dropped and food scarcity increased, large numbers of people have gone missing. It is believed they have either frozen or starved to death.
Appalling living conditions and brutal torture
Food scarcity and homelessness are just two of many indicators of North Korea’s total denial of its citizen’s rights and needs.
Exact numbers of those detained in North Korea’s prison camps are impossible to obtain, but most estimates land between 80,000 and 120,000. Prisoners endure appalling living conditions and brutal torture and are often forced to carry out long days of hard labour. The UN Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK concluded that the human rights violations perpetrated in these camps – which include murder, torture, rape and sexual violence – amount to crimes against humanity.
The North Korean regime has long divided society into three political classes – a system known as songbun – the ‘loyal’ or ‘core’ (haeksim), ‘wavering’ (dongyo) and ‘hostile’ (choktae) class. Those assigned to the hostile class are consigned to a lifetime of discrimination and are more vulnerable to harsh treatment and camp imprisonment.
Any proponent of a belief or ideology outside of Juche (North Korea’s state ideology) is included in this ‘hostile’ class. Consequently, many of the detainees in Kim Jong-Un’s prison camps are detained because of their religion or belief. Christians are targeted in a particularly systematic and violent manner, but adherents of other religious and belief groups, including Shamanism and Buddhism, are also detained.
In line with North Korea’s principle of guilt by association, many innocent family and community members can also be punished for the ‘guilt’ of an associated individual.
North Korea’s total denial of the rights of its citizens has been ongoing for decades. It is utterly indefensible. For too long, the Kim family have neglected the needs of their people in preference of the weaponization of the nation and the preservation of their repressive, totalitarian rule.
But it is not too late to stand up and demand change. The international community must resist and reject the ‘creeping apathy’ that UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana warned of in 2021. States must continue to routinely scrutinise the situation of human rights in the country, separately from the question of nuclear non-proliferation, and any countries engaging with North Korea must ensure that human rights concerns are regularly raised in bilateral and multilateral discussions.
In addition, CSW calls on North Korea to release all those detained in prison camps immediately and unconditionally, to redirect monetary resources to addressing chronic food insecurity and homelessness, and to cease their violent, targeted persecution of Christians and other religious groups across the nation.
By CSW’s East Asia Team
Featured Image: Stefan Krasowski, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons