The U.N. human rights office has accused the North Korean government of starving its people while building up its military power. It finds people are trapped in a system of endemic corruption and repression, which keeps them mired in lifelong poverty and deprivation.
The report is based on first-hand accounts of more than 200 escapees interviewed in South Korea during the past two years. Witnesses say North Korea’s social and economic system is based on the pervasive practice of bribing officials.
U.N. human rights spokeswoman, Marta Hurtado, says bribery in North Korea has become an essential means of survival.
“The constant threat of arrest and prosecution provides State officials with a powerful means to extort money and other favors from people desperate to avoid detention in inhumane conditions," she said. "In addition, the living conditions and treatment of detainees can also depend on the payment of bribes.”
The report finds nearly 11 million people, or more than 43 percent of the population, are undernourished and in a perpetual state of hunger. While people are scrounging around for food and other basic necessities, the report says huge resources continue to be spent on the military.
Official figures put the percentage of the national budget allocated to the military at between 14 and 16 percent. But Hurtado says estimates by non-governmental organizations believe that sum could be as high as 50 percent.
She tells VOA her agency acknowledges the importance of U.S. talks with North Korea in efforts to try to reduce its nuclear arsenal. But she says human rights have to be at the core of these negotiations.
“It is clear that all the money, all the energy, all the brains that are used to focus on nuclear issues and nuclear development, if it would be focused on raising the standard of living of the population, the situation would be a different one,” she said.
The report recommends drastic reforms in the criminal code and, especially in the establishment of the rule of law in North Korea.
In assessing the findings, Human Rights Chief Michele Bachelet says people must not be arrested, detained, prosecuted or subjected to extortion. This, simply for trying to acquire an adequate standard of living.