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The Real Victims of North Korea's Nuclear Aspirations

22/04/2013 18:38 BST | Updated 22/06/2013 10:12 BST

Whether North Korea's nuclear programme presents a serious security threat, or if the Kim dynasty merely provides fodder for internet bloggers and tweeters, recently, the authoritarian state has not been far from our minds.

However, whilst we fret over all-out war, mutually assured destruction and ridiculous pictures of Kim Jong-Un sitting on assorted weaponry, we forget that North Korea's nuclear programme has already had disastrous consequences, even before a missile has been fired in anger. We forget that it is the ordinary people of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), who are already the victims of the authoritarian regime's nuclear programme.

Assessing North Korea's human rights situation isn't easy. Outsiders have limited access to the country and any successful entrants are under close surveillance. Citizens are prohibited from leaving their own state, with DPRK authorities recently indicating that they would 'annihilate' up to three generations of a family if a one member fled the country during the 100-day period of mourning following the death of Kim Jong-Il. Thus, any human rights reports are based the anecdotal evidence of refugees and defectors.

Nevertheless, many NGOs claim that blatant human rights violations are widespread. Internment, political prison camps, torture, public executions, suppression of workers' rights, and prohibitions on freedoms of expression, media, movement, association and religion are just a few of the reported abuses.

Predictably, the North Korean Government repeatedly refutes the claims; in September 2012, a Government statement argued that "the words 'human rights' sound absolutely nonsensical in the DPRK where the dignity and independent rights of the working masses are fully guaranteed legally and institutionally."

For ordinary North Koreans, daily life is grim. According to Human Rights Watch, those arrested or even accused of the most arbitrary crimes are subjected to 'obedience-training', i.e. 'torture', even though North Korea's criminal code prohibits inhuman treatment. Common forms of torture include sleep deprivation, beatings with iron rods or sticks and enforced sitting or standing for hours. A 2010 study found that 60% of previously imprisoned refugees had witnessed a death due to beating or torture.

Some citizens never get to speak of their treatment. North Korea's criminal code foresees the death penalty for more than 20 crimes, including smuggling and dealing narcotics, stealing state property and counterfeiting currency. The code also allows for arbitrary decisions by the authorities in 'the gravest cases' or 'extremely serious cases'. In 2011, North Korea executed around 30 people, placing the country among the ranks of those carrying out the greatest number of executions in the world, according to Amnesty International.

Amnesty International also found that around 200,000 prisoners (nearly 1% of the population) are held in six large political prison camps. Although North Korea has never recognised the existence of these camps, citizens suspected of being disloyal are sent there without a trial, often forcibly accompanied by three generations of their family. The prisoners may have committed 'crimes' such as not dusting a portrait of the leader or being Christian.

All prisoners, including children, are forced to work in torrid, back-breaking conditions. They are routinely tortured and kept on the verge of starvation, receiving around twenty grains of corn per day. Convicts have even been said to search through cow dung for undigested grain. No medical treatment is provided and pregnant women face forced abortions or have to give up their babies upon delivery, often to be murdered or abandoned.

No-one is exempt from the harsh punishments. Although North Korea participated in the 2012 Paralympics, reports suggest that disabled newborns are routinely killed and disabled people being sent to special camps and banned from the capital.

Even those who avoid prison face unfathomable hardship. North Korea has been dependent on food aid since famine in the mid-1990s. In March 2011, the UN estimated that more than six million vulnerable people required immediate international food aid. With food shortages reaching more than one million tonnes, the World Food Programme called it the worst famine in a decade. The problems were exacerbated by floods, an extremely harsh winter; discriminatory food policies that favour the elite, and the economic mismanagement of a monetary devaluation scheme in November 2009 that wiped out many peoples' savings.

All North Korean media outlets are heavily censored and strictly controlled by the government. In fact, North Korea is ranked second-to-last out of 179 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, next to Eritrea. Broadcasts consist of political propaganda and the promotion of the leaders' personality cults. Internet use is limited to the political elite and mobile phone access is limited to an internal network (one million users or 4 % of inhabitants). International calls can only be made by foreigners and the political elite and fines for making an international call can be as high as KPW 1 million (about USD 1,100), coupled with one week of detention.

After establishing diplomatic relations with the DPRK in 2001, the EU has maintained political dialogue with the DPRK and has regularly raised the issue of the North Korean human rights situation in discussions at UN bodies. Other international organisations and national governments have widely condemned the human rights abuses in the DPRK, but as we are witnessing with current events, it is North Korea's nuclear programme which takes precedence both inside North Korea but also in international debates surrounding the country.

Widespread human rights abuses appear to be an 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the West. Whether the DPRK has viable nuclear weapons that threaten our security or not, the real victims are, and always will be, the ordinary citizens of North Korea.