At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, dissidents, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines because their freedom of expression has been suppressed during the past twelve months. As well as this we focus on the authoritarian leaders who have been silencing their opponents.
Last year, we asked for your help in identifying 2021’s Tyrant of the Year and you responded in your thousands. The 2021 winner, way ahead of a crowded field, was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad .
The polls are now open for the title of 2022 Tyrant of the Year and we are focusing on 12 leaders from around the globe who have done more during the past 12 months than other despots to win this dubious accolade.
Click on those in our rogues’ gallery below to find out why the Index on Censorship team believe each one should be named Tyrant of the Year and then click on the form at the bottom of those pages to cast your vote. The closing date is Monday 9 January 2023.
VOTING HAS NOW CLOSED. SEE WHO YOU VOTED AS TYRANT OF THE YEAR 2022 HERE.
“As far as freedoms go, there is no landscape so bleak as North Korea,” says Index assistant editor Katie Dancey-Downs. “Under Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime, citizens are fed propaganda in lieu of actual food. And as for elections? The ballot paper has only one option.”
Criticism of the regime is not tolerated. Dissent is punished severely. Executions and prison camps drive fear under this totalitarian regime, while lavish displays of affection are demanded by its leader.
“North Koreans are nothing short of modern-day slaves who have been deprived of freedom of expression and movement,” says Jihyun Park, a UK-based activist who escaped from North Korea – twice. “North Korea is a place where I lived like a machine and remained silent.”
North Korea lands in last place in the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, out of 180 countries. Only official government news sources are permitted, which are packed with propaganda. No outside information gets in, and what the rest of the world gets to see is controlled with the tightest of grips. Some tyrants might overreach on internet clampdowns, but for Kim it’s all or nothing. North Koreans only have access to a localised intranet, with absolutely no view of the world wide web in any form.
With Kim Jong-un the third generation in the dynasty, and talks of his eventual successor hotting up, Dancey-Downs comments: “Perhaps beyond simply Tyrant of the Year, Kim should be up for a lifetime achievement award.”
A view into South Korea from North Korea (Image: Johannes Barre/iGEL/Wikimedia Commons)
North Korea hit global headlines again last week. This was in part because of the UN resolution condemning the catastrophic, ongoing abuses against its people, in the wake of a 400-page report chronicling the country’s countless human rights violations. However, as much attention, if not more, was devoted to the curious case of state-imposed hairstyles. Again it seemed the world’s focus was fixed on the bizarre end of the spectrum of outrageous stories coming out of the hermit kingdom. But while reports of haircuts, hysterical grieving masses, Dennis Rodman and killer dogs — true or not — have spread like wildfire across social media, Kim Young-Il has gone about his work of fighting for the often forgotten rights of North Korean defectors.
Kim escaped North Korea himself in 1996. Forced to join the army as a teenager, he soon discovered that the military, like the rest of the country, suffered from malnourishment. North Korea experienced devastating famine throughout the 1990s, in no small part down to mismanagement by authorities. Together with his parents, he made the gruelling journey to China, where they stayed for four-and-a-half years as illegal immigrants. “I had every job you can imagine,” he says. Finally, tired of living in constant fear of deportation, they made their way to South Korea. Kim went to university, where he says frequent questions from fellow students writing on North Korea, made him think about his heritage. After graduating he set up the non-governmental organisation PSCORE to help those who, like he did, make the difficult decision to escape.
The risks of defecting are huge. Many are put off even trying by widespread rumours backed up by state propaganda, of defectors being interrogated and killed by South Korean authorities. The country’s near complete lack of freedom of expression makes such stories difficult to debunk. Simply getting out of North Korea is no guarantee of freedom either. Many defectors have to go through China, the regime’s powerful ally, which operates a strict returns policy for defectors. Returnees face a multitude of possible punishments, from forced labour to execution. “If China changes their stance, that wholly changes the situation,” Kim says. At present, however, there is little to suggest they will. For those managing to avoid return, the threat to family left behind looms large. Kim’s sister-in-law is a political prisoner today for speaking on the phone to his wife.
Kim’s reasoning was that he’d rather face these dangers than the prospect of starving to death in his home country. It appears many agree. Nobody knows the exact number of defectors, as many keep quiet about it due to dangers posed to loved ones. What is certain is that it has shot up because of the devastating effects of the famine. This has also changed the demographic of defectors. While it used to be an option utilised mainly by relatively high-level North Koreans, today people from all sections of society are making big sacrifices in hope of a better life abroad.
Part of the reason could also be that in the some 60 years since its establishment, life in the Democratic Republic has shown no signs of improving. Kim tells of a complex and rigid class system, explaining that records of your grandparents’ position and occupation are used to determine your standing in society. The state decides who can be a doctor and who can be a farmer. Women have some possibilities for upward social mobility through marriage, but on the whole, your path in life is determined almost entirely by factors outside your control. That is, with one notable exception: “It’s difficult to move up, but very simple to drop down.”
This system, reassuring many North Koreans that there is always someone worse off than you, has played its part in deterring popular dissent and large-scale social uprising, Kim explains. That, and the crippling fear of a brutal regime acting with impunity. Asked whether any noticeable changes came with the change of leader, Kim said that any hope of the country opening up when Kim Jong-un took power following the death of his father, was quickly extinguished. The issue of South Korean pop culture is striking example. Kim Jong-un and his family are big consumers of their neighbours’ booming entertainment industry, while the official line is that it’s strictly prohibited. Kim says a man as recently found to be selling CDs with South Korean films and music. He was publicly executed to set an example for others.
So many head for China and hope. In China is where PSCORE’s work starts. Kim travels over several times a year to meet defectors and bring them to South Korea. Finding them isn’t always easy, and when he does, many are afraid to speak. “We don’t ask questions immediately. We try to identify with them first,” he explains, mindful of the rumours and propaganda they have been subjected to in the north. Many have gruelling journeys behind them. Nam Bada, PSCORE’s General Secretary, showed Index pictures of a girl’s feet, disfigured by frostbite. She lost her shoes travelling on foot in the snow. Others have used brokers; locals living in the border areas, charging to help defectors cross. The brokers are “just interested in profit, not human rights” says Kim, and estimates the price is currently between $2000-6000. The practise puts defectors, especially female ones, at risk of human trafficking. PSCORE have helped a number of women from being sold by brokers.
Once they reach South Korea, they’re interrogated by authorities. “90% of South Korea’s information about North Korea comes from defectors,” Kim explains. After that, they’re enrolled in a basic, three-month education programme, and then more or less left to their own devices. The transition from arguably the most closed society in the world, to one of the most open ones can be difficult. Kim highlight language as a big hurdle. North Korean has been completely shielded from outside influence for decades, while South Korean has been free to develop. And while there is no discrimination against defectors legally and on paper, Kim says they are often discriminated against.
It’s against this backdrop PSCORE are providing education to defectors and helping them adjust to their new lives. Kim compares the process to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: “At first, people are just glad to be fed, but later they want more.” They also continue to campaign against North Korean human rights violations, which the aforementioned UN report described as “systematic, widespread and gross” and in many instances constituting crimes against humanity. Something to keep in mind the next time North Korea is in the news because of haircuts.
North Korea has expanded its deletion of a few hundred online articles mentioning Jang Song Thaek, the executed uncle of Kim Jong Un, to all articles on state media up to October 2013, numbering in the tens of thousands.
“It’s definitely the largest ‘management’ of its online archive North Korea has engaged in since it went online. No question,” Frank Feinstein, North Korea news analyst, told this writer on Sunday (15 December).
The Korean Central News Agency (www.kcna.kp), the state’s main organ, started publishing in its current online form on 1 January, 2012, and had some 39,000 Korean-language articles by mid-December 2013, with many translated into other languages. “Now however there are now no articles in the archive from prior to October 2013, with everything numbered to around 35,000 – or to October this year – gone,” said Feinstein, director of KCNA Watch, which analyses North Korean media for keywords and converts that into visual data to gauge reporting trends. Similar proportions of deletions were true for Korean Workers’ Party paper Rodong Sinmun and www.uriminzokkiri.com.
Just four days passed from the arrest Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang, which was televised across North Korea, to his execution on 12 December 12. Thereafter the expurgation of any mention of Jang from the state news files took just hours. Following outages that to seemed affect several state online news sources, of some 550 Jang-related Korean articles on www.kcna.kp, Feinstein estimated that by late Friday, “every single one has either been altered, or deleted, without exception”. This included the most anodyne reports such as a 5 October KCNA story about Kim Jong Un visiting a hospital under construction now reads: “He personally named it ‘Okryu Children’s Hospital’ as it is situated in the area of Munsu where the clean water of the River Taedong flows.” But the original had continued: “He was accompanied by Jang Song Thaek, member of the Political Bureau of the CC, the WPK and vice-chairman of the NDC, and Pak Chun Hong, Ma Won Chun and Ho Hwan Chol, vice department directors of the CC, the WPK.”
What’s new about the North’s retrospective media management is its scale and that it’s doing it online, before a global audience. “This is North Korea censoring itself to the world – not just to its own citizens…Personally, I can’t believe they could think they’d get away with this sort of revisionism,” said Feinstein.
Nonetheless, the North can sustain its digital Ministry of Truth antics on the World Wide Web by preventing its output from being indexed. ‘It already works on KCNA – Google can’t index it at all. You can’t even link to an article on KCNA,’ said Feinstein, pointing to Google’s entire, paltry record of KCNA’s office in Pyongyang via this link.
It’s not clear even if South Korean intelligence or news agency Yonhap can archive KCNA’s database in its live form. “While North Korea doesn’t understand much about how to successfully operate online, they do understand this much.”
One theory contends that the North publishes different propaganda for internal and external consumption. For sure, North Korean people can only access news produced by the North Korean state, accessing www.kcna.kp through the country’s intranet, but more likely from the state TV, radio or newspapers on station platform hoardings of which obviously none enable access to digital or visual archives. TV has also been noted as adjusted, with a documentary first shown on 7 October 2013 being reshown on 7 December with Jang cut out of shots by adjusted focus and framing.
The upshot is this: “Our party, state, army and people do not know anyone except Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un,” according to the sole English-language article left on KCNA that mentions Jang, a vicious 2,750-word denouncement from 13 December 13. The piece calls Jang “impudent, arrogant, reckless, rude and crafty,” “despicable human scum … worse than a dog,” who, backed by “ex convicts”, had plotted to destroy the economy before “rescuing” the country by military coup and billions earned from hoarded precious metals.
“They are serious about removing him from history,’ said Feinstein, except for passages such as “the era and history will eternally record and never forget the shuddering crimes committed by Jang Song Thaek, the enemy of the party, revolution and people and heinous traitor to the nation,” which concludes the KCNA piece. Meanwhile, “Rodong Simnun no longer knows Jang as anything other than a traitor,” tweeted Korea historian and linguist, Remco Breuker.
Traffic to www.kcna.kp has never been higher, even than for the death of Kim Jong Il, as people now follow stories to the source and are captivated by the apparent novelty of North Korea having an online presence, and one that uses such bizarre language. “Once they find KCNA, there’s no going back.” KCNA’s legitimacy as an analytical source for the North Korean state’s views is oft obscured by its saltier reportage.
Outside news sources are also sensationalist. While most Pyongyang watchers agree Jang was shot dead, Taiwanese news reported he’d been eaten by 120 dogs in front of Kim Jong Un and 300 government ministers in an hour-long death. Feinstein also pointed to a globally syndicated article before Jang’s trial that precipitously claimed www.kcna.kp had cleared out all Jang articles, when in fact articles mentioning Jang were still up. Basically, KCNA “has a bad search function”, said Feinstein.
While the case provides a tantalising view of what the Soviets might have done in the Internet age, it has also pushed out of the headlines another North Korea story, the release of American tourist Merrill Newman who had been held in North Korea since October on charges of “espionage” relating to his military service in Korea during the 1950-1953 war. Newman, who had gone to North Korea as a tourist, said he had not understood quite how far the North Korean state does not consider the war to be over – something arguably partly attributable to the US media barely ever mentioning the conflict, despite the country still being not at peace with North Korea.
Ironically, KCNA Watch has been blocked in South Korea since 25 October. Visitors to the site hit a Korea Communications Standards Commission (KSCS) blocking screen that says “connection to this website you tried to access is blocked as it provides illegal/hazardous information,” under the 1948 National Security Act, which restricts anti-state acts or material that endanger national security, including all printed and online matter from Pyongyang. Civilians seeking to analyse KCNA material in South Korea need official clearance, with the data viewed under armed guard and deleted immediately afterwards, said Feinstein. The block extends to foreign embassies in Seoul and is under increasing criticism as a blanket weapon for stifling dissent. In August the UN special rapporteur on human rights Margaret Sekaggya called it “seriously problematic for the exercise of freedom of expression”.