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North Koreans enjoy the best human rights regime of any country, according to a 53,000-word report issued this month by authorities in the Hermit Kingdom.The roughly translated document, posted on Saturday on a government-controlled website — under a photograph of desperately happy children — attempts to rebut an extensive UN human rights inquiry earlier this year that found the country's leadership responsible for "unspeakable atrocities" including murder, enslavement, rape and summary imprisonment committed against its citizens.
"The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," the UN report concluded.According to North Korea, these were "serious misunderstandings." The country, it says, actually "has the world's most advantageous human rights system."It's not the first time the government of supreme leader Kim Jong-un has criticized the UN report. In April, North Korea claimed its chief investigator Michael Kirby couldn't be trusted because he was openly gay.Kirby "is a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality," said an official commentary published in the country's Central News Agency. "This practice can never be found in the DPRK… In fact it is ridiculous for a gay to sponsor dealing with others' human rights issues."At the time, North Korea called the United States the "world's worst human rights abuser."Though UN investigators were not allowed into North Korea, they were, over the course of several years, able to piece together a picture of slave-like working conditions at government camps through the stories of survivors who later defected.Saturday's release said the commission of inquiry was "a marionette of the US and its satellite forces, fabricated and circulated its 'report' based on 'testimonies' of human scum who betrayed their homeland and people.' "Written by nameless authors for the country's Association for Human Rights Studies, the report not only rejects the UN's findings out of hand, but presents an alternative definition of what human rights entail. They are, the investigators write, bound not in individual freedom but in the protection of sovereignty. North Korea claims — farcically, say human rights advocates — that its citizens have complete freedom of the press, assembly, and that they have the right to a fair trial and can vote.
"Human rights is internal affairs and it presupposes the ensurance of state sovereignty," says the report. "The right of the individual apart from the social collective is unthinkable.""That's their fundamental take on human rights, it's very standard language about their country and the way their society works," Charles K. Armstrong, professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, told VICE News. "Their definition of human rights is not the rights of individual humans, but of collective self-determination. It's a nationalist view.""Most North Koreans would not think in terms of individual human rights," he added. "They might say terrible things are happening to them, but there's a tendency not to think in terms of systematic institutions of human rights."The government in Pyongyang says human rights, as they are generally understood in most of the world, are yielded by the West to justify foreign interventions and impingement on sovereignty.US invasions of Grenada, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Iraq were all "carried out under the pretext of 'protecting the human rights,' " according to the document. Elsewhere are mentioned American "secret prisons," established after 9/11 — in particular Guantanamo Bay — as well as drone strikes and NSA and CIA wiretapping. It also points to the widely cited fact that the US, with only 5 percent of the world's population, houses 25 percent of all the world's prisoners.
Armstrong, who has travelled to North Korea several times, says it's common for the government controlled press to latch onto human rights violations in other countries, especially the US. In the early 90s, they publicized Rodney King's beating and the riots in LA, and more recently devoted coverage to the killing of Trayvon Martin."North Koreans know about the case," said Armstrong, referring to Martin's death. "It's being presented as a heinous example of racism in America. The info they get is that things are pretty awful in the West because of inequality, racism, violence and that what they have is a harmonious, collective system."That collective structure, the UN found, entailed heavy discrimination based on songbun, the system that defines one's status in North Korea. Those on the lowest rungs can find themselves "expendable," and often in dire need of food, which in some instances is physically taken from them. UN investigators also estimated the government keeps as many as 120,000 of its citizens locked up as political prisoners in four huge camps, where starvation is implemented as a form of coercion and reprimand.This week, a court convicted 24-year-old American citizen Mathew Miller of "acts hostile" to North Korea, sentencing him to six years of hard labor. The trial provided a rare look at the country's judicial system, used to settle petty disputes, but also to hand down arbitrary and draconian verdicts with no real chance of appeal. Miller was apprehended when, while on a private tour, he ripped up his passport at the airport and in front of authorities for reasons still unclear.
Citizens, say the government, "have the rights to a fair trial in competent and independent courts organized by law in determining suspicion of any crime" — a claim that directly contradicts the UN inquiry.The report from Pyongyang also says North Korea prohibits "intentionally" torturing individuals, though it does not make clear the prevalence of any sort of torture that may be "unintentional."North Korean investigators prefaced the report by saying they had spoken to many government ministries, experts and professors - but did not mention any consultations with everyday citizens."It's always hard to tell what people are actually thinking," said Armstrong. "Most North Koreans are just trying to get by in an economic situation that is very precarious."The document's authors did allow that "due to limited space and lack of ability of the writers, some information in the Report might not have adequate bases."Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford