A look at the North Korean human rights abuses played down by Trump

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A few months ago Donald Trump used his first State of the Union address to condemn the cruelty of North Korea’s government.

But after his historic summit on Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who he described as “very smart” and having a “great personality”, Mr Trump seemed to play down the severity of human rights violations in the country.

“It’s rough,” Mr Trump acknowledged after being asked about North Korea’s human rights record, but added: “It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way. Not just there.”

Donald Trump greets Kim Jong Un
Donald Trump greets Kim Jong Un (Susan Walsh/AP)

But his post-summit comments drew an angry reaction from activists, who have spent years highlighting North Korea’s extensive crimes against humanity.

“By leaving human rights out of the final statement, the Trump administration effectively told North Korea that human rights are not a US priority,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said.

“For North Koreans, this means continued public executions, restrictions on movement, brutally punishing three generations of a family when one member ‘offends’, and an absolute prohibition on any civil and political rights, on top of inadequate access to food, housing, education and health care.”

In his speech to Congress in January, Mr Trump lashed out at the “depraved character” of Mr Kim’s government. He pointed to invited family members of Otto Warmbier, an American detainee who died after returning from North Korea with severe injuries, and a North Korean defector who lost a leg while scrapping for food and travelled thousands of miles on crutches to escape.

A look at North Korea’s dismal record of rights abuse:


While North Korea officially denies it, outside governments and human rights group believe the country runs massive prison camps where people accused of political crimes are detained without trial and often without their families being notified about their whereabouts.

South Korea’s Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-sponsored think tank, estimates that as many as 120,000 inmates were held at the country’s five major political prisons as of 2013.

It is believed that the inmates, many accused of insulting the North’s supreme leadership or attempting to escape to South Korea, are subject to horrific conditions, including forced labour, torture and rape. Inmates are often executed, some publicly, for disobeying orders, the institute said in a study.

The death tolls are further exacerbated by torture, denial of adequate medical care and high incidence of work accidents, said a 2014 UN report.

“The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent,” said the UN report. “Public executions and enforced disappearance to political prison camps serve as the ultimate means to terrorise the population into submission.”

The report said gross violations are also being committed in North Korea’s ordinary prison system, including torture and deliberate starvation. Some of these prisons are labour camps that the North claims aim to reform prisoners through work.


Since assuming his father’s position in 2011, Mr Kim, a third-generation hereditary leader, has shown a brutal side while consolidating his power. In what critics called a “reign of terror”, he executed a slew of members of the North Korean old guard, including his uncle Jang Seong Thaek, who was convicted of treason, and senior government officials accused of slighting his leadership.

He has also been accused of ordering the assassination of his estranged half brother, Kim Jong Nam, last year at a Malaysian airport by assailants using a lethal nerve agent.

Kim Jong Nam
Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at a Malaysian airport (Shizuo Kambayashi/AP)

In 2015, South Korea’s spy agency said Kim Jong Un ordered his defence chief, Hyon Yong Chol, executed with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of spectators at a military shooting range. Mr Hyon had complained about Mr Kim’s leadership, the National Intelligence Service said.


North Korea has abducted thousands of South Koreans and other foreigners to use them for spying and propaganda purposes or as political pawns to gain concessions from outside governments.

The abductees include South Korean government officials, students and fishermen and also Japanese citizens. Most of them were kidnapped between the 1950s and 1970s. In recent years, North Korea has often detained South Korean activists, many of them evangelical Christians who smuggle out defectors and send anti-Pyongyang literature and Bibles into the North through its border with China.

Otto Warmbier
Otto Warmbier at the supreme court in Pyongyang (Jon Chol Jin/AP)

According to Seoul, North Korea abducted at least 3,835 South Koreans after the 1950-53 Korean War. While most were eventually released or escaped back to the South, 516 had never returned as of 2015, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

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