Page last updated at 09:24 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 10:24 UK

N Korea human rights 'abysmal'

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with military officer - photo released 11 October 2009
North Korea's military gets priority over civilians for essential supplies

A UN envoy has criticised the rights situation in North Korea as "abysmal", saying one-third of the country's population was going hungry needlessly.

The UN envoy for North Korea said the country was not poor and urged it to drop its "military first" policy.

The envoy, Vitit Muntarbhorn, said the UN could help fewer than two million people due to a shortfall in aid.

The shortage was due to international reaction over North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, he said.

Mr Muntarbhorn said food supplies have also been affected by the state's efforts to control economic activity, particularly by restricting the role of women.

The Thai human-rights expert who has been UN Special Rapporteur for North Korea since 2004, was giving his final report to a meeting of UN members.

The exploitation of the ordinary people... has become the pernicious prerogative of the ruling elite.
Vitit Muntarbhorn
UN rapporteur on North Korea

"The human rights situation in the country remains abysmal owing to the repressive nature of the power base: at once cloistered, controlled and callous," he said.

"While many members of the population are in abject poverty and suffer the prolonged deprivations linked with shortage of food and other necessities, the country itself is endowed with vast mineral resources controlled by the authorities."

'Hostile forces'

While many North Koreans live "in abject poverty", Mr Muntarborn added, officials control the country's vast mineral wealth.

He said food conditions had been improving until the middle of the year - the World Food Programme had access to more of the country than before, and was reaching about six million needy people.

But in mid-2009, he said, there had been a shortage of international aid.

North Korean farmers, close to Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone
Economic activity is being limited in North Korea, the UN report says

He said this was influenced by fresh UN sanctions put in place after North Korea tested a second nuclear device in May - following a first test in 2006.

The WFP could now help fewer than two million people, he said.

Mr Muntarbhorn has not been allowed into North Korea, relying instead on testimony from UN agencies operating in the country, human rights groups and refugees who have fled to South Korea, Japan and Mongolia.

The report argued that the situation had been made more desperate with efforts to extend state control by curtailing economic activity.

Women under the age of 49 are not allowed to trade, it said, and some markets have been closed: this has led to several clashes between female traders and the authorities.

Women have also been forbidden to ride bicycles, a key vehicle for getting to work, and forced to wear skirts rather than trousers, the envoy said.

"The exploitation of the ordinary people", the rapporteur said, "has become the pernicious prerogative of the ruling elite."

Mr Muntarbhorn described an atmosphere of repression, dreadful prison conditions and said people were sent to labour camps for things like failing to turn up to work or watching films from South Korea.

North Korea's deputy UN ambassador Pak Tok-hun said the report was "full of distortion, lies, falsity, devised by hostile forces".

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