North Korea’s transformation: A legal perspective

The Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) published an interesting paper (with the above title) on legal reform in the DPRK.  Below are some highlights.  Links to the entire paper at the bottom.

As citizens have been left without state provisions for subsistence since the state did not have the material resources to supply the people through its central rationing system, the vast majority of individuals and organizations had to support themselves. Legitimizing commercial and market activity and expanding the scope of private ownership were a part of this effort. One of the most important laws reflecting this transformation is the Damage Compensation Law (sonhae bosang-beop), which is the North Korean version of a general torts law. This law holds an individual or any legal entity liable for its tort when damage is inflicted. Monetary compensation is the rule, while restoration is allowed when possible.

Under the socialist system, where the state is responsible for the provision of a citizen’s livelihood, tort law was of little use. Even in the case of death, one’s family would not suffer economically since the state provided sustenance rations. However, with the collapse of the public distribution system, the North Korean authorities could no longer maintain their socialist system. Since an individual now has to rely on his or her own devices, the loss of the employment, for example, directly inflicts a financial burden on the individual or family. Therefore, damage to property or person should be compensated for by the responsible party. Therefore, the new damage compensation law acts as a new mechanism for the protection of private property, and strengthens individual responsibility for negligent acts that inflict damage on others.

and…

Relaxation of law and order, along with the laxity of organizational control due to economic difficulties, changed individual attitudes toward government authorities and organizations in which these individuals were members. Individuals became more independent from the state and its organizations, since both the state and more directly engaged organizations lost important means of control over individuals in society due to the lack of resources and the inability to provide basic necessities to the people.

Under these circumstances, individual victims had no appropriate method to seek compensation for damage through an official dispute resolution process. This has led to an environment in which self-remedy has become the rule, rather than the exception. Although new criminal law punishes those who have used force in asserting their rights, there is no effective means of dispute resolution outside of taking advantage of officials willing to look the other way in exchange for favors, or hiring thugs to more directly resolve disagreements. Citizens can buy justice through bribes, and law enforcement officials are especially helpful in these endeavors when their palms are greased. This is much more economical as well as effective than bringing a case to the relevant official agency, which is generally incapable of resolving problems and instead further exploits the situation.

On courts and lawyers…

For example, the most prominent role of the court in North Korea, where other types of lawsuit are very unusual, was to handle divorce settlements, since divorce through simple agreement of the two parties was not allowed. Ordinary citizens went so far as to perceive settlement of divorce to be the most important role of the court. Criminal cases were also unusual. Political crime is handled through a non-judicial process, while many deviances are resolved through unofficial processes within more local organizations. The role of the court in resolving disputes was negligible, aside from divorce. Since the role of law enforcement agencies is to protect the state and secure the socialist system, the most important qualification for them is not legal expertise, but rather, loyalty and devotion to the North Korean ideology and system.

On the other hand, the Lawyer’s Act of 1993 prescribes the required qualifications of a lawyer. Those who are eligible to work as lawyers are those who are certified legal professionals, those who have working experience of no less than 5 years in legal affairs, or those who have a professional license in a certain area and have passed the bar examination after a short-term course in legal education. This qualification for working as a lawyer signifies that the state wants to equip the judicial system with legal professionals. Although there is no explicit professional qualification for a judge or prosecutor, we may assume that legal professionals have been elected or recruited in practice. This trend is likely to be reinforced as these social changes continue to unfold.

New provisions were also introduced to reinforce the judicial system. For example, interference with a law enforcement official’s performance of duties is now a punishable offence ; Threatening a witness or exacting revenge has been criminalized ; Non-execution of judgment will now be punished. Although the introduction of these provisions was an expression of the government’s effort to bring in a more effective judicial system, it would not be an easy task under the vague status of transformation. The state is very cautious and reluctant to undertake bold or fundamental changes due to concerns about political instability. Therefore, it takes time for various coherent mechanisms to fully support a market system.

You can download the entire paper in PDF format here.

You can read it on the IFES web page here.

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