N. Korea must legalise markets to prevent rights abuses: UN

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Seoul (AFP)

North Korea must create a legal framework for traders buying and selling basic necessities such as food and clothing to tackle rights violations in the country, the UN's human rights body said Tuesday.

Campaign groups estimate around three-quarters of North Korea's population depends on private market activity to survive since the collapse of the public distribution system -- a state rations network -- in the mid-1990s.

But despite being widespread, market activity remains a "legal grey area" in the North and a "source of further human rights violations", said the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

"In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, people face both a failed public distribution system and an insecure informal sector where they are exposed to prosecution and corruption," it said in a report, using the country's official name.

The OHCHR document -- based on interviews with 214 North Koreans -- said Pyongyang had failed to legalise people's efforts to find food and clothing outside the public distribution system, even though it was their only way to secure daily necessities.

"If you just follow instructions coming from the State you starve to death," a female defector from Ryanggang province was quoted as saying in the report.

But the lack of legal clarity for commercial activity meant North Koreans who engaged in it faced the risk of arrest and detention by authorities, the report said.

"They are denied due process and fair trial rights and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment in detention," it added.

And the threat of arrest gave officials "a powerful means to extort money and other favours", it said.

"Only those willing and able to pay off corrupt State officials and brokers' fees are able to strive towards an adequate standard of living", it went on, urging the North "to undertake profound legal and institutional reforms".

Pyongyang says it protects human rights and is improving people's standards of living.

The isolated North, which is under several sets of sanctions over its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes, has long struggled to feed itself and last year recorded its worst harvest in more than a decade.

Pyongyang has been frequently condemned by the international community for decades of prioritising the military and its nuclear weapons programme over adequately providing for its people -- an imbalance some critics say the UN's aid programme encourages.

Ahead of his Hanoi summit with leader Kim Jong Un last week, US President Donald Trump repeatedly dangled the prospect of the North becoming an economic powerhouse if it gave up its arsenal, but the two failed to reach a deal.