North Korea adopts the concept of “human rights abuse” for law enforcement training

North Korean soldiers are filming inside Panmunjom in the Joint Security Area on April 3, 2017. (Yeongsik Im, Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc)

The Ministry of Social Security, North Korea’s main law enforcement agency, is stepping up education for its own officials and police to train them not to commit human rights abuses.

A ministry document, dated May last year and recently obtained by NK Insider, says that ill treatment of citizens by police and officials is a primary “target of struggle.” 

What is interesting about this is not that law enforcement is training officials to go easy on people. Despite the assumption that Kim Jong-un’s police are more likely to be trained to be harsh, such education is not, in fact, new. 

But what is new is the use of the expressions “human rights” (in-gweon in Korean) and “human rights abuse” (in-gweon yoorin) in this context of education.

These words have been hated by the regime, for they are immediately associated with the enemy. South Korea and the United States and their allies constantly attack the Kim regime, using these words, for the absence of basic rights and the appalling treatment of its own citizens. 

However, the document completely turns this association around and redefines “human rights abuses” as “dangerous counter-revolutionary and anti-Party acts” that undermine the foundation of the society, which is characterized by unity among the Party, Leader, and people under “Socialism of Our Style.”

The document follows the format of monthly operational reports sent by the ministry’s provincial offices to its national headquarters regarding education for law enforcement at lower administrative levels (county, town, and district). 

It says that 13 education sessions have been held on four main topics: revolutionary tradition, Kim Jong-il patriotism (known before 2013 as socialist patriotism), class education, and human rights education. The human rights part appears the most comprehensive, with six sub-topics.

Those sub-topics are: 1. What is human rights abuse, what is authority, what is bureaucracy, and what is corruption? 2. What are the criteria for distinguishing between legitimate authority and human rights abuse? 3. Where are human rights abuses, abuse of authority and corrupt behavior found, and what kind of activity must be undertaken to uproot them? 4. Why have human rights abuses, misuse of authority, and corrupt behavior become our primary targets of struggle? 5. What is the cause of persistent human rights abuse, misuse of authority and corrupt behavior? and 6. What is the decisive task to uproot human rights abuses, misuse of authority and corrupt behavior?

Two defectors who were employed in the ministry 15 years ago said they were unfamiliar with education on human rights and found its use of the expression for training quite surprising. One, named Kwak, was in the ministry’s Economic Inspection Division in Hwanghae Province in 2007. The other, named Kim, worked in the Investigation Division in North Hamgyong Province in 2008. They said the words themselves were used but not as a theme for education. In their day, they said, the authorities had the right to abuse people. 

Most defectors surveyed in 2019 by South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission were similarly ignorant about this. They had only heard the expression “human rights abuses” in the context of anti-North Korean propaganda.

Jang Seiul

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