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.
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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.

KCNA did correctly observe that 46.5 million Americans live in poverty and that the number is rising. One in five children in New York City does live in a food-scarce home, but the claim that these children live in the "grip of famine" is hyperbolic. Still, that distinction is likely of little comfort to the one in three New Yorkers who have trouble affording food.

All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people's rights to existence and their inviolable rights.

The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of "national security."

Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates.

North Korea may be known as the "hermit kingdom" for its isolation from the world, but the folks at KCNA have apparently been following the Guardian and Washington Post reports on the NSA's extensive surveillance activities, though these revelations have yet to include the tracking of Americans' "every movement."

As for crime in the U.S., some studies suggest mass shootings are increasing, and many U.S. states have loosened their gun-control regulations in recent years. But gun-related homicides and homicides in general are actually declining. (In any case, the causal relationship between gun ownership and gun-related crime is inconclusive.) Contrary to North Korea's claims, the UN report on homicide rates around the world actually charted a below-average homicide rate in the U.S., with Honduras and Venezuela taking the top spots. The North Korean government, for its part, has solved the problem of gun-related deaths by banning all firearm sales to the public.

The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money.

A Russian TV said that in the U.S. the wealthy classes are now keen on the investment in providing private prisons for their high profit and so more people will be imprisoned.

I wish I could write that KCNA is wrong about U.S. mass incarceration, but it isn't. The statistics are staggering: The United States accounts for less than five percent of the world population but incarcerates a quarter of the world's prisoners. One in every hundred American adults is behind bars. Combined with the millions on probation or parole, "there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America," wrote Adam Gopnik, "than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height." Most of these inmates are people of color, and the effect these prison terms have on their families, communities, and livelihoods is corrosive.

Since maintaining this vast system strains tax resources, many states and the federal government have turned to private prisons for help, as North Korea correctly notes. Some research suggests that these private institutions are more costly to operate than state-run prisons even as they provide lower-quality services. Private prison companies even lobby for harsh sentences to create demand for their services.

What North Korea failed to mention is that this system may be collapsing. President Obama is mulling mass pardons to shorten or end thousands of lengthy drug sentences. A broad bipartisan coalition in Congress is working on sentencing-reform legislation. The Supreme Court recently ordered California to free thousands of inmates. At the state level, legislatures and governors are shifting resources away from prisons and into rehabilitation programs. As a result, the size of the U.S. prison population has consistently dropped in recent years.

Yes, North Korean prisons are incontestably worse than U.S. ones. But that doesn't erase the many problems with America's prison system.

Such poor human right records in the U.S. are an inevitable product of the ruling quarters' policy against humanity.

Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people's wretched life.

It is also the president who called for respect to the verdict of not guilty given to a white policeman's racialism and backed the unlawful monitoring and tapping activities.

The U.S. is the world's worst human right abuser and tundra of a human being's rights to existence.

North Korea isn't the first critic to note the high costs of presidential travel, though most of that money is spent on security. For what it's worth, Obama and George W. Bush have incurred nearly identical costs in running the White House.

If the United States is a tundra for human rights, then what is North Korea? The world's last totalitarian state suppresses all political protest and participation by its citizens. As documented by a harrowing UN report in February, the country maintains a vast network of prison camps containing as many as 200,000 political prisoners and other inmates. By any objective or subjective measure, the North Korean government treats its people far worse than the U.S. government treats its people.

But Pyongyang's sins don't make Washington a saint. While it's easy to dismiss North Korea's critiques as hypocritical, it isn't the only country to criticize America's human-rights record. When asked about Malaysia's progress on human rights at a press conference in Kuala Lampur this past week, Obama said his host "has still got some work to do. Just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do on these issues. Human Rights Watch probably has a list of things they think we should be doing as a government."

On cue, Human Rights Watch released that very list, urging the United States to improve its record on mass incarceration, NSA surveillance, and racial discrimination, among other topics.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees social media.

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