Asia Pacific

North Korea says it will grant large-scale prisoner amnesty next month

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea is planning to grant a general amnesty next month in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of its foundation day in September, state media said Monday, in an echo of moves done before other key dates in the nuclear-armed country’s history.

The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said Monday that the amnesty would be granted for “those who had been convicted of the crimes against the country and people.” It said the process would take effect starting Aug. 1.

“The DPRK Cabinet and relevant organs will take practical measures to help the released people settle down to normal working life,” KCNA said in the report.

The North is believed to have carried out several other general amnesties under leader Kim Jong Un, with the last coming in 2015, when it marked the 70th anniversary of the Korean Peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule and the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party.

The wording of Monday’s amnesty was virtually identical to the 2015 announcement.

It also granted amnesties in 2012, to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Kim’s grandfather and the founder of the North, Kim Il Sung, and the 70th birthday of his father, Kim Jong Il, the same year.

The estimated population of North Korea’s prison and gulag system is believed to be around 200,000 men, women and children, according to rights groups, with most held for political and not criminal reasons.

A comprehensive report published in 2014 by a United Nations commission concluded that conditions in normal North Korean prisons were often every bit as harsh as those in the political gulags.

It said many of those held are imprisoned without trial or any kind of due process, adding that beatings and sexual abuse of prisoners were commonplace.

Those findings were hotly contested by Pyongyang.

Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said that it appeared the North might be working to bolster solidarity, unity and loyalty before the anniversary and “maybe even show (the) world it’s improving human rights.”

The orders stressed Kim Jong Un’s “love and respect for his people,” Kim wrote on Twitter. But “it remains to be seen if those included will be political prisoners.”

Last month, the U.N. special rapporteur for the North, Tomas Ojea Quintana, urged Pyongyang to begin releasing prisoners under a gradual general amnesty.

Speaking just ahead of the landmark summit in Singapore between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, Quintana said that not raising human rights issues would send a “wrong message.”

It was unclear if Trump had broached the issue with Kim during their meeting, but the resulting joint statement did not mention human rights.

Quintana had said that not talking about rights would eventually become “a problem in terms of building a sustainable agreement” on denuclearization.

In the Singapore summit’s joint statement, the North committed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — language that some observers say gives it room to maneuver for a phased, quid pro quo approach with the U.S. But in the weeks since the June 12 summit, the United States and the North have made little progress in their talks.

Also Monday, the United States and North were reportedly scheduled to hold working-level talks to hash out details about their agreement to return the remains of American troops killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Citing an unnamed U.S. official, CNN reported that the U.S. and the North were working to repatriate the remains of some 200 American troops in two to three weeks.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, however, noted that other media reports had said the two sides might consider timing the return to occur on July 27, the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice Agreement, as part of efforts to curb criticism about insufficient progress in the wake of their June 12 summit.

The U.S. and North Korea are technically still in a state of war since the conflict ended in an armistice and not a formal peace treaty. The U.S. keeps about 28,000 troops in South Korea.

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