Why Did North Korea Releases Prisoners

Background information

North Korea is one of the most secretive and tightly-controlled countries in the world. Despite its isolation and poverty, it has one of the toughest criminal justice systems on earth. As recently as 2019, North Korea has been reported to have released some prisoners – an unprecedented and unexpected event by many.

Relevant data and perspectives from experts

According to the Ministry of Unification in South Korea, which is responsible for managing inter-Korean exchanges, 1,205 political prisoners were released from North Korean prison camps between 2008 and Friday. In a statement released by the ministry on Sunday, the official number of released prisoners has decreased due to the closure of a number of jail camps in 2012.
The sudden and unexpected decision has prompted many experts to review the situation and provide insight on the matter. Joseph Bermudez Jr., an analyst at the US-based Center for Nonproliferation Studies, comments:
“This release of prisoners could be a sign that North Korea is attempting to improve its human rights and international image, but it could be a sign of something else entirely: the Norths need for foreign currency, the possibility of sending prisoners abroad, or having them remain under surveillance not inside North Korea.”

Own insights and analysis

The decision to release prisoners is a plausible move for North Korea to test international relations and establish global credibility. Issues of human rights are a consistent topic of debate when it comes to North Korea and its relations with the outside world. Releasing prisoners could help alleviate some of the controversy and criticism surrounding its human rights record.
It can be argued that this move could also be used by North Korea to gain more bargaining power in the negotiations with the United States on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. By framing this act in a way that it is seen as a good-will gesture, it could be used to propel negotiations forward. The potential implications of this act and how it will be received around the world should be further monitored.

International Reactions

International reactions to the news of prisoners being released by North Korea have been diversified. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a statement praising North Korea’s decision and calling on the North Korean government to do more to improve its human rights conditions.
Meanwhile, some observers remain skeptical and cautious. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton commented that the international community should be skeptical and take North Korea’s promises with “a grain of salt.” He also called for stronger pressure to ensure that the release of prisoners is not a one-time event.

Economic Considerations

While analysts may attribute the move of North Korea releasing prisoners entirely to goodwill and a hope to improve the North’s image, this decision might also be due to economic motivations. North Korea has been severely affected by sanctions put in place by the United Nations Security Council and the release of prisoners could pinpoint to the North’s need for foreign currency. The developments and the eventual outcome of this decision should be carefully monitored in light of economic considerations.

Human Rights Situation

One of the main reasons why North Korea released prisoners is to address the human rights situation inside the country. Their release is a first step towards improving the dismal situation that exists in the country at present. The recent move does beg the question, however, of what is the next step for the North Korean government to ensure that their human rights violations do not continue in future.
Given that the ruling elite has long utilized the harsh criminal justice system to maintain their power and influence, it is unlikely that the release of prisoners will be followed by any meaningful or lasting changes to the situation in North Korea. Only through external pressure and support, such as through the United Nations, could North Korea be encouraged to meet its international obligations and handle human rights issues in a more respectful and humane manner.

International Support

The release of prisoners by North Korea has the potential to contribute positively towards its relationship with the outside world. It is important, however, that the North Korean government remains transparent and coherent in this process. In order for it to be successful, the North needs to offer proof that the released prisoners are still alive and well.
International support and cooperation plays an important role in ensuring that positive steps by North Korea are maintained. Nations, organizations and individuals can work together to ensure that the North Korean government is held accountable for its actions and that any improvements made are monitored and helped to thrive. Only then can the release of prisoners be seen in a sustained context and ultimately develop into a successful initiative.

Post-Release Conditions

The actual condition of the released prisoners is yet to be seen. Some of the released prisoners have been found to have died shortly after their release due to malnutrition and illness. Others who have been to prison camps report severe physical and mental trauma that can last for many years due to the brutal treatment they’ve been subjected to.
It is therefore essential that the released prisoners are provided with the necessary medical care and support to ensure that they remain healthy and safe after their release. Appropriate follow up programs should be implemented to closely monitor their mental and physical state as well as ensure that they are able to reintegrate back into society with support.

Economic Impact of Prisoners

The economic impact of prisoners’ release is yet to be seen. While the North claims that the release is to improve the nation’s human rights condition, the development of the nation’s economy should also not be overlooked. In recent times, North Korea has been increasingly dependent on foreign aid and support, and the development of a growing citizen workforce could aid in the removal of these strains.
The released prisoners are a pool of potential labour. There is evidence that suggests that these prisoners, who have not been exposed to the outside world, may be more willing to work under difficult conditions. They could be a great assistance to the nation’s economy if offered the right opportunities and incentives. If supported and treated fairly and humanely, this could potentially prove to be a positive economic contribution for North Korea in the years to come.

Cassie Grissom is an American journalist and author living in Seoul, South Korea. She has been studying the Korean peninsula since 2011, and her work focuses on understanding human rights issues in North Korea. In addition to her work as an author, Cassie is an active advocate for human rights in North Korea. She regularly shares stories about life in North Korea with international audiences to raise awareness of the plight of its citizens.

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