Is North Korea Right About U.S. Human-Rights Abuses?

"The U.S. is a living hell as elementary rights to existence are ruthlessly violated," the state news agency claims.
North Koreans bow at the base of the giant bronze statue of 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. (David Gray/Reuters)

Some countries are accustomed to U.S. reports deploring their human-rights abuses. But on Wednesday, North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) retaliated with a human-rights report of its own titled "News Analysis on Poor Human Rights Records in US." In it, KCNA claim that the U.S. is the "world's worst human rights abuser" and a "living hell." Do the agency's claims hold up to scrutiny? Here's a fact-check of the report.

Shortly ago, the United States had a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the institution of citizenship act in the presence of President Obama.

As the world's worst human rights abuser, it pretended to be a "model" in human rights performance. More ridiculous are Obama's remarks at the ceremony that as the president, he came to realize that it is hard to make progress in the American society and there are some discouraging points.

In fact, the remarks are little different from his admission of the serious human rights situation in the U.S.

The "institution of citizenship" act appears to be a mistranslation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 50th anniversary of which Obama commemorated last month in Texas. Obama did concede that "yes, race still colors our political debates, and there have been government programs that have fallen short," but he used that line and the story of the Civil Rights Act to reiterate that "the story of America is the story of progress." Unsurprisingly, that part was left out of North Korea's summary of his remarks.

Under the citizenship act, racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year's case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman who shot to death an innocent black boy.

That's why 52 percent of the Americans have said that racism still exists in the country while 46 percent contended that all sorts of discrimination would be everlasting.

This critique is particularly surreal, given that North Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world and that experts like B.R. Myers have described Pyongyang's official national ideology as deeply xenophobic and racist despite. And yet KCNA has chosen to emphasize American racism. Are the agency's criticisms accurate?

While U.S. federal and state laws prohibit racial discrimination in the workplace, there are certainly racial disparities in hiring and wages. U.S. Labor Department statistics released on Friday pegged the black unemployment rate at 11.6 percent in April, a decline from 12.4 in March but still almost twice as high as the national unemployment rate of 6.3 percent. This isn't just tied to the Great Recession: the average annual unemployment rate for black Americans from 1963 to 2012 was also 11.6 percent, more than double the 5.1-percent average unemployment rate for whites. Ten percent of whites fell beneath the poverty line in 2011, compared with 28 percent of blacks.

KCNA also cites threats to the "right to elect," and the news agency has a point here, too. Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision last summer, lawmakers in Texas, North Carolina, and other states have enacted election laws that disproportionately target minorities, the elderly, and the working poor, in what my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has called an example of "elegant racism."

The mention of a "white policeman who shot to death an innocent black boy" in Florida appears to be a reference to George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch volunteer who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Zimmerman's acquittal on murder charges the following July by a Florida jury received widespread international coverage, including a condemnation from Iran's Foreign Ministry.

The statistics regarding American views on race relations seem to be drawn, in part, from a CBS News poll taken in March. But North Korea's report omits one of the poll's main findings: that six in ten Americans say the state of American race relations is good, including 60 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks. While the U.S. clearly still has progress to make, a "kingdom of racial discrimination" it is not.

The U.S. is a living hell as elementary rights to existence are ruthlessly violated.

At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken.

The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless.

The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City.

It's unclear whether North Korea's economic analysis here is intentionally misleading or just factually deficient. The report correctly notes that about 300,000 people a week are registering for first-time unemployment claims, but that statistic in isolation doesn't paint a full picture. According to government statistics, for example, the United States saw a net growth of 288,000 jobs in April. While North Korea's observations on the U.S. housing market are statistically accurate, rising home values on their own aren't necessarily a problem. The U.S. homeownership rate dropped significantly after the crash—it is currently 64.8 percent overall, the lowest level since 1995—but other factors, including higher barriers to mortgages and persistent joblessness, affected the rate too too. And although Pyongyang implies otherwise, the national homelessness rate actually dropped in 2013 for the third consecutive year.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the National Channel and works on social media.

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