The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) has released a report that focuses on how human rights abuses affect ordinary people in North Korea, a bottom-up view that the author contrasts with a traditional top-down focus on the leaders and other state actors.
Authored by North Korea expert Robert Collins, the report, Denied From the Start: Human Rights at the Local Level in North Korea, pays special attention to the ways in which the government of North Korea not only denies the rights of citizens, but also uses the citizens themselves to deny rights to each other.
“Most of the writings that our country does, our academics and our intelligence agencies and those overseas in the international community are all top-down oriented pieces of work,” said Collins, at a panel discussion of the report in Washington Wednesday.
“There has been extremely little from the bottom up. How are Ma and Pa Kim facing an everyday denial from the local representatives of the party and the government within North Korea? That has not been discussed to any great length at all,” Collins added.
Collins says in the report that the government is able to accomplish ideological indoctrination on a scale so massive that no other society matches it in efficiency.
“With complete authority over the state, the KWP [Korean Workers’ Party] compels all North Koreans over the age of 14 to belong to a Party organization, without regard to profession, gender, level of education or locality,” Collins wrote.
Through these organizations, North Koreans are required to observe and report on each other, meaning the government in some ways has a presence in every social interaction, Collins says.
Indoctrination starts at an early age.
During the panel discussion, Collins explained how the hypothetical Ma and Pa Kim’s five-year-old son is subjected to schooling that reinforces loyalty and elevates the Kim regime to god-like status.
“Even their simple math problems, ‘Three American enemy tanks come over the hill, and the glorious soldiers serving Kim Il Sung destroy two of them, how many American tanks are left?’ That’s the kind of lesson plan they have for it,” Collins said.
“But it gets worse for the 13-year-old daughter. She now has to go participate in something that’s called saenghwal chonghwa,” said Collins, referring to weekly self-criticism meetings in which every citizen must individually confess their shortcomings on the loyalty front.
The confessor must then hear additional criticism from other citizens, then form an action plan to compensate for those shortcomings.
“Everybody has to go through this. They start in school and it never ends. They could be my age at 69 and they’re still doing it,” Collins explained.
The report details this process further, showing that everyone, including elites must go through saenghwal chonghwa with their peers at local inminban (neighborhood watch units).
“The inminban is the lowest level of administrative organization in this strategy of social control,” Collins writes. “[It] serves to enforce the complete loyalty of every North Korean citizen to the Supreme Leader and the KWP.”
Senior Fellow and SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies Jung Pak of the Bookings Institution said the report details the organization of the local indoctrination networks, seeing possible uses of these networks in the event of conflict or for humanitarian purposes.
Indoctrination at such a scale is necessary because “Kim fears his people more than he fears the United States. The people are his most proximate threat to the regime,” she said.
David Maxwell, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a HRNK board member said a report grasping the struggles of the people “has application across every scenario, whether it is war, regime collapse, post-conflict, post-collapse, to businesses and to NGOs.”
“Why is that? It’s because the people in the North are the key to the future. They really are the center of gravity in any outcome on the peninsula,” he said.
Recommendations to the regime
In the report, Collins notes that Kim Jong Un is primarily focused on boosting the economy of North Korea.
“However, in order for North Korea to develop economically and qualify for international, bilateral and multilateral assistance, it would need comprehensive and substantial economic, political and social reform,” Collins wrote.
To achieve this level of reform, Collins offered several recommendations.
He first calls for the end of the songbun socio-political classification system by which every citizen is classified based on how loyal one’s family has been to the regime through several generations. Collins says the political caste system is discriminatory.
“The regime applies this profiling to its personnel stationing, housing, education, occupational assignment, healthcare and food distribution policies as a means of social control,” wrote Collins, adding that some can be “denied the concept of opportunity due to being born into the ‘wrong’ family.”
Collins also calls for the elimination of saenghwal chonghwa and a destruction of all data regarding negative information about individual citizens collected through the self-criticism sessions.
He also recommended that the regime eliminate North Korea’s doctrine of Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology, a list of loyalty-reinforcing commandments that that every North Korean citizen must memorize and strive to live their lives by.
Finally he recommended that the government allow unimpeded access to observers so they would be more able to assess the human rights situation.
These recommendations are “the fundamental requirements of reforms aimed at bringing North Korea into the 21st century,” Collins wrote.
Collins acknowledged that change in the human rights situation in North Korea would not occur without internal resistance because “any potential advancements in human rights under the Kim Jong Un regime can only begin through concepts that are unimaginable today in the ruling circles of the KWP.”
“Change would require that the regime implement a complete reversal of Party-based ideology that serves the Supreme Leader.”