Human rights in North Korea

North Korea

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The human rights record of North Korea is extremely hard to fully assess due to the secretive and closed nature of the country. The North Korean government makes it very difficult for foreigners to enter the country and strictly monitors their activities when they do. Aid workers are subject to considerable scrutiny and excluded from places and regions the government does not wish them to enter. Since citizens cannot freely leave the country,[1][2] it is mainly from stories of refugees and defectors that the nation's human rights record has been constructed. The government's position, expressed through the Korean Central News Agency, is that North Korea has no human rights issue, because its socialist system was chosen by the people and serves them faithfully.[3][4]

While it is difficult to piece together a clear picture of the situation within the country, it is clear that the government of North Korea controls virtually all activities within the nation. Citizens are not allowed to freely speak their minds[5] and the government detains those who criticize the regime.[6] The only radio, television, and news organizations that are deemed legal are those operated by the government. The media, as with Kim Il-sung,[7] universally praise the administration of Kim Jong-Il.[8][9]

A number of human rights organizations and governments have condemned North Korea's human rights record, including Amnesty International and the United Nations, which passed a General Assembly resolution in 2008.[10] In its 2006 country report on North Korea, the American government-funded[11] Freedom House alleged that the country "is a totalitarian dictatorship."[12] Freedom House categorized North Korea as "Not Free". North Korea has charged that those who make allegations about human rights in the country are interfering in the country's internal affairs and trying to force down their values.[13]

In 2004, the United States government adopted the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which criticised North Korea and outlined steps the United States should take towards North Korea. With the exception of the international abductions issue regarding Japanese, Americans, and South Koreans, which it says has been fully resolved, North Korea strongly rejects all reports of human rights violations and accuses the defectors of lying and promoting a pro-West agenda.[14]


Civil liberties

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has officially acknowledged the widespread human rights violations that regularly occur in North Korea. The following section is a direct quote from the United Nation's Human Rights Resolution 2005/11 referring specifically to occurrences in North Korea:

Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, public executions, extra judicial and arbitrary detention, the absence of due process and the rule of law, imposition of the death penalty for political reasons, the existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labour;

Sanctions on citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who have been repatriated from abroad, such as treating their departure as treason leading to punishments of internment, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or the death penalty;

All-pervasive and severe restrictions on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association and on access of everyone to information, and limitations imposed on every person who wishes to move freely within the country and travel abroad;

Continued violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women, in particular the trafficking of women for prostitution or forced marriage, ethnically motivated forced abortions, including by labour inducing injection or natural delivery, as well as infanticide of children of repatriated mothers, including in police detention centres and labour training camps.[15]

Freedom of expression

The North Korean constitution has clauses guaranteeing the freedoms of speech and assembly.[16] In practice other clauses take precedence, including the requirement that citizens follow a socialist way of life. Criticism of the government and its leaders is strictly curtailed and making such statements can be cause for arrest and consignment to one of North Korea's "re-education" camps. The government distributes all radio and television sets; citizens are forbidden to alter them to make it possible to receive broadcasts from other nations, and doing so carries draconian penalties.

There are numerous civic organizations but all of them appear to be operated by the government. All routinely praise the government and perpetuate the personality cults of Kim Jong-il and his deceased father Kim Il-sung. Defectors indicate that the promotion of the cult of personality is one of the primary functions of almost all films, plays, and books produced within the country.

Freedom of religion

Though the North Korean government estimates that there are 100,000 Buddhists, 10,000 Protestants, and 4,000 Catholics worshiping at 500 churches, it is unknown if there are any Catholic priests in the country and some reports indicate that the religious organizations that do exist are primarily meant to facilitate interaction with other nations. It is known that in China near the border with North Korea, a number of Christian organizations have been active, helping refugees and, by many reports, smuggling in Bibles and other religious material.

The government was concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border of China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the regime. Defectors cite instances of execution of individuals involved with Bible smuggling.[17] There are actually four churches in Pyongyang—two Protestant churches[citation needed], a Catholic church, and a Russian Orthodox church. However, it has been claimed by North Korean defectors that these churches are façades filled with government workers, and that they are used to convince foreign aid workers and tourists in Pyongyang that North Korea is a free society.

Freedom of movement

North Korean citizens usually cannot freely travel around the country, much less travel abroad.[1][2] Only the political elite may own or lease vehicles, and the government limits access to fuel and other forms of transportation due to frequent shortages of gasoline, diesel fuel, crude oil, coal and other fossil fuels. (Satellite photos of North Korea show an almost complete absence of vehicles on all of its roads throughout the country, even in its cities.) Forced resettlement of citizens and whole families, especially as punishment for political reasons, is said to be routine.[18]

North Korean refugees who flee to China are often later forcibly repatriated back to North Korea by Chinese authorities, and are routinely beaten and sent to prison camps.[19] This is because the North Korean government treats emigrants from the country as defectors.[19] This treatment is more severe in cases where North Korean refugees have come into contact with NGOs that are associated with South Korea or with religions, especially Christianity.[19] In cases where the North Korean government discovers that contact has occurred between refugees and these NGOs, the punishments for these refugees are torture and execution upon their repatriation back to North Korea.[19]

Only the most loyal, politically reliable, and healthiest citizens are allowed to live in Pyongyang. Those who are suspected of sedition, or who have family members suspected of it, are expelled from the city; similar conditions affect those who are physically or mentally disabled in some way (the only exception being People's Army Korean War veterans with injuries relating to the conflict). This can be a significant method of coercion since food and housing are said to be much better in the capital city than elsewhere in the country.

Freedom of the press

North Korea is currently ranked second to last (ahead of Eritrea) on the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.[20] The constitution of North Korea provides for freedom of the press, but in practice all media is strictly controlled by the government. The national media is focused almost entirely on political propaganda and the promotion of the personality cults surrounding Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.[21] It emphasizes historical grievances towards the United States and Japan. According to the North Korean government's account of history, the country was the victim of aggression during the Korean War by the United States, while historians from the West say that it was North Korea that started the war.[22]

Reporters Without Borders claims that radio or television sets which can be bought in North Korea are pre-set to receive only the government frequencies and sealed with a label to prevent tampering with the equipment. It is a serious criminal offense to manipulate the sets and receive radio or television broadcasts from outside North Korea. In a party campaign in 2003 the head of each party cell in neighbourhoods and villages received instructions to verify the seals on all radio sets.[20]

As North and South Korea use different television systems (PAL and NTSC respectively), it is not possible to view broadcasts across the border between the two countries; however, in areas bordering China, it has reportedly been possible to receive television from that country. A North Korean envoy for the United Nations reported that any North Korean citizen caught watching a South Korean film may result in that person being sent to a labour camp.[23]

Minority rights

North Korea's population is one of the world's most ethnically homogeneous and today immigration is almost non-existent. Among the few immigrants that have willingly gone to North Korea are Japanese spouses (generally wives) of Koreans who returned from Japan from 1955 to the early 1980s. These Japanese have been forced to assimilate and for the most part, the returnees overall are reported to have not been fully accepted into North Korean society (with a few exceptions, such as those who became part of the government) and instead ended up on the fringes, including concentration camps mentioned below. Foreigners who visit the country are generally strictly monitored by government minders[24] and are forbidden to enter certain locations.[25]

Disabled rights

On March 22, 2006, the Associated Press reported from South Korea that a North Korean doctor who defected, Ri Kwang-chol, has claimed that babies born with physical defects are rapidly put to death and buried.[26] A United Nations report also mentions how disabled people are allegedly "rounded up" and sent to "special camps."[27] People diagnosed with autism and other related disorders are often persecuted.[27]

Forced prostitution

A group called "A Woman's Voice International" alleged that the state forcibly drafts girls as young as 14 years to work in the so-called kippŭmjo that includes prostitution teams. The source used is unclear as to whether only adult kippŭmjo are assigned to prostitution or whether there is prostitution of children – other kippŭmjo activities are massaging and cabaret dancing. Claims were made that there are orders "to marry guards of Kim Jong-il or national heroes" when they are 25 years old.[28]

Criminal justice

Public executions

The DPRK resumed public executions in October 2007 after they had declined in the years following 2000 amidst international criticism. Prominent executed criminals include officials convicted of drug trafficking and embezzlement. Common criminals convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery, rape, etc. have also been reported to be executed, mostly by firing squad. The DPRK does not publicly release national crime statistics or reports on the levels of crimes.[citation needed]

In October 2007, a South Pyongan province factory chief convicted of making international phone calls from 13 phones he installed in his factory basement was executed by firing squad in front of a crowd of 150,000 people in a stadium. In another instance, 15 people were publicly executed for crossing into China.[29]

Reports from the aid agency "Good Friends" also said that six were killed in the crush as spectators left.

A U.N. General Assembly committee has adopted a draft resolution, co-sponsored by more than 50 countries, expressing "very serious concern" at reports of widespread human rights violations in North Korea, including public executions. The DPRK has condemned the draft, saying it was inaccurate and biased, but it was still sent to the then 192-member General Assembly for a final vote.[30]

In 2011, two people were executed in front of 500 spectators for handling propaganda leaflets floated across the border from South Korea, apparently as part of a campaign by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to tighten ideological control as he grooms his youngest son as eventual successor. (RFA)

The prison system

According to many organizations, the conditions in North Korean prisons are harsh and life threatening:[31] Prisoners are subject to torture and inhumane treatment.[32] Public and secret executions of prisoners, even children, especially in cases of escape attempts;[33] infanticides (forced abortions and baby killings upon birth[34]) also often occur. The mortality rate is very high, because many prisoners die of starvation,[35] illnesses,[36] work accidents or torture.

The DPRK government flatly denies all allegations of human rights violations in prison camps, claiming that this is prohibited by criminal procedure law,[37] but former prisoners testify that there are completely different rules in the prison camps.[38] The DPRK government failed to provide any information on prisoners or prison camps or to allow access to any human rights organization.[39]

Lee Soon-ok gave detailed testimony on her treatment in the North Korean prison system to the United States House of Representatives in 2002. In her statement she said, "I testify that most of the 6,000 prisoners who were there when I arrived in 1987 had quietly perished under the harsh prison conditions by the time I was released in 1992."[40] Many other former prisoners, e. g. Kang Chol-hwan and Shin Dong-hyuk, gave detailed and consistent testimonies on the human rights crimes in North Korean prison camps.

According to the testimony of a defected former guard at camp 21, the guards are trained to treat the detainees as sub-human, and he gave an account of children in one of the camps who were fighting over who got to eat a kernel of corn retrieved from cow dung.[41]

The North Korean prison camp facilities can be distinguished into large internment camps for political prisoners (Kwan-li-so in Korean) and reeducation prison camps (Kyo-hwa-so in Korean).[42]

Internment camps for political prisoners

Human rights in North Korea is located in North Korea
Political prison camps in North Korea

The internment camps for people accused of political offences or denounced as politically unreliable are run by the state security department. Political prisoners are subject to guilt by association punishment. They are deported with parents, children and siblings, sometimes even grandparents or grandchildren without any lawsuit or conviction and are detained for the rest of their lives.[43]

The internment camps are located in central and northeastern North Korea. They comprise many prison labor colonies in secluded mountain valleys, completely isolated from the outside world. The total number of prisoners is estimated to be 150,000 to 200,000.[44] Yodok camp and Bukchang camp are separated into two sections: One section for political prisoners in lifelong detention, another part similar to re-education camps with prisoners sentenced to long-term imprisonment with the vague hope of eventual release.

The prisoners are forced to perform hard and dangerous slave work with primitive means in mining and agriculture. The food rations are very small, so that the prisoners are constantly on the brink of starvation. In combination with the hard work this leads to huge numbers of prisoners dying. An estimated 40% of prisoners die from malnutrition.[45] Moreover many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. There is a rigid punishment in the camp. Prisoners that work too slow or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured.[46] In case of stealing food or attempting to escape, the prisoners are publicly executed.

Initially there were around twelve political prison camps, but some were merged or closed (e. g. Onsong prison camp, Kwan-li-so No. 12, following a defeated riot with around 5000 dead people in 1987[47]). Today there are six political prison camps in North Korea (size determined from satellite images,[48] number of prisoners estimated by former prisoners[49]). Most of the camps are documented in testimonies of former prisoners and for all of them coordinates and satellite images are available.

Political Prison Camp Official Name Size Prisoners
Kaechon Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 14 155 km² (60 mi²) 15,000
Yodok Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 15 378 km² (146 mi²) 46,500
Hwasong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 16 549 km² (212 mi²) 10,000
Bukchang Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 18 73 km² (28 mi²) 50,000
Haengyong Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 22 225 km² (87 mi²) 50,000
Chongjin Political Prison Camp Kwan-li-so No. 25 0,25 km² (0,1 mi²) 3,000+

The South Korean journalist Kang Chol-hwan is a former prisoner of Yodok Political Prison Camp and has written a book The Aquariums of Pyongyang about his time in the camp.[50] The South Korean human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have escaped from Kaechon Political Prison Camp and gave an account of his time in the camp.[51]

Reeducation camps

Human rights in North Korea is located in North Korea
Reeducation camps in North Korea
(8 out of around 15 - 20)

The reeducation camps for criminals are run by the interior ministry. There is a fluent passage between common crimes and political crimes, as people who get on the bad side of influential partisans are often denounced on false accusations. They are then forced into false confessions with brutal torture in detention centers (Lee Soon-ok for example had to kneel down whilst being showered with water at icy temperatures with other prisoners, of which six did not survive[52]) and are then condemned in a brief show trial to long-term prison sentence. In North Korea political crimes are greatly varied, from border crossing to any disturbance of the political order, and are rigorously punished.[53] Due to the dire prison conditions with hunger and torture,[54] a large percentage of prisoners do not survive their sentence term.

The reeducation camps are large prison building complexes surrounded by high walls. The situation of prisoners is quite similar to that in the political prison camps. They have to perform slave work in prison factories and in case they do not meet the work quota, they are tortured and (at least in Kaechon camp) confined for many days to special prison cells, too small to stand up or lie full-length in.[40] In distinction from the internment camps for political prisoners, the reeducation camp prisoners are instructed ideologically after work and are forced to memorize speeches of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and have to undergo self-criticism rites. Many prison inmates are guilty of common crimes penalized also in other countries, but often they were committed out of economic necessity, e. g. stealing food, smuggling or illegal trade[citation needed].

There are around 15 – 20 reeducation camps in North Korea.[55]

Two camps are documented with coordinates, satellite images and testimonies of former prisoners.

Reeducation Camp Official Name Size Prisoners
Kaechon Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 1 300 x 300 m (900 x 900 ft) 6000
Chongori Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 150 x 350 m (450 x 1050 ft) 2000

Other camps are documented with short testimonies of former prisoners.[56]

  • Kyo-hwa-so No. 3 Sinuiju (ca. 2,500 prisoners) in North Pyongan
  • Kyo-hwa-so No. 4 Kangdong (ca. 7,000 prisoners) in South Pyongan
  • Kyo-hwa-so No. 8 Yongdam (ca. 3,000 prisoners) in Kangwon
  • Kyo-hwa-so No. 22 Oro (ca. 1,000 prisoners) in South Hamgyong
  • Kyo-hwa-so No. 77 Danchun (ca. 6,000 prisoners) in South Hamgyong

Further camps are mentioned to be in Jeungsan,[57] Taehŭng and Sŭnghori (already closed).

The South Korean human rights activist Lee Soon-ok has written a book (Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman) about her time in the camp and testified before the US Senate.[58]


North Korean propaganda tactics heavily glorify Kim Jong-Il and his father, who are referred to as the "Dear Leader" and the "Great Leader" respectively. Many North Koreans also believe that Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il "created the world" and can "control the weather".[59][60] Following the death of Kim Il-Sung, North Koreans were prostrating and crying to a bronze statue of him in an organized event.[61]


Famine and the food distribution system

In the aftermath of the Korean War and throughout the 1960s and '70s, the country's state-controlled economy industrialized with heavy subsidy from the Soviet Union. The country struggled into the 1990s, primarily due to the loss of strategic trade arrangements with the USSR[62] and strained relations with China - following China's normalization of ties with South Korea in 1992.[63] In addition, North Korea experienced record-breaking floods (1995 and 1996) followed by several years of equally severe drought beginning in 1997.[64] This, compounded with only 18 percent arable land[65] and an inability to import the goods necessary to sustain industry,[66] led to an immense famine and left North Korea in economic shambles. The famine resulted in the death of around 2,000,000 people.[67]

By 1999, food and development aid reduced famine deaths. In the spring of 2005, the World Food Program reported that famine conditions were in imminent danger of returning to North Korea, and the government was reported to have ordered millions of city-dwellers to the countryside to perform farm labour.[68] In 2005, the agricultural situation showed signs of improvement, rising 5.3% to 4.54 million tons; this was largely the result of increased donations of fertilizers from South Korea. However, the World Food Program stated that this was short of the estimated 6 million tons necessary to adequately feed the population. Nevertheless, North Korea called for food aid to cease, and shipments of food to the country ended on December 31 of that year.[69] In the same period, news sources reported that North Korea continued to raise food prices while reducing food rations.[70]

The U.S. State Department claims that North Korea's society is highly stratified by class, according to a citizen's family and political background.[18]

Before the cessation of food shipments at the end of 2005, the World Food Program sought $200 million in emergency food aid for North Korea, an increase from its 2004 request of $171 million.[71] By comparison, its 2002 defense budget was $5.2 billion according to the CIA World Factbook.

The DPRK Government explained that the country suffered from severe economic hardships starting from the mid-1990s that led to a sharp deterioration of people's health.[72]

International abductions

In the decades after the Korean War there were reports that North Korea had abducted many foreign nationals, mainly South Koreans and Japanese. For years these were dismissed as conspiracy theories even by many of the regime's critics; however, in September 2002, Kim Jong-Il acknowledged to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi the involvement of North Korean "special institutions" in the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He stated that those responsible had been punished.[73] Five surviving victims were allowed to visit Japan and decided not to return to North Korea. For eight more Japanese abductees, officials claimed deaths caused by accidents or illnesses; Japan says this leaves two still unaccounted for, and says that what the North claimed were the ashes of Megumi Yokota were not hers. In addition, information from American deserter Charles Robert Jenkins indicates that North Korea kidnapped a Thai woman in 1978.[74]

Despite the admission to Prime Minister Koizumi, the North Korean government continues to deny the kidnappings of other foreign nationals and refuses any cooperation to investigate further cases of suspected abductions. However, officials of the South Korean government claim that 486 South Koreans, mostly fishermen, are believed to have been abducted since the end of the Korean War. Advocates and family members have accused the government of doing little or nothing to gain their freedom.[75]

International reaction

Most countries and multilateral organizations have criticized North Korea for its human rights abuses. In each November since 2005, the UN General Assembly's Third Committee has condemned North Korea for its conduct.[76]

A few countries have condemned the allegations made against the DPRK. China's delegation to the United Nations said that the DPRK has made considerable progress in protecting human rights. Sudan said that instead of criticizing the country, there should be support by the international community for DPRK's efforts to protect human rights. Venezuela's delegation to the United Nations asserted that the allegations made by UN observers against the DPRK are based on flawed criteria and are not credible.[77] Cuba's delegation to the United Nations said that the body's claims made against the DPRK are politically motivated and seek to impose isolation and pressure on the country, in violation of the Human Rights Council's stated principles.[78]

The U.S. and Japan have passed laws and created envoys to focus attention to this issue. The U.S. initially passed the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 in October of that year, and reauthorized the law in 2008. It created an office at the State Department focused on North Korean human rights, run originally by Special Envoy Jay Lefkowitz.

Robert Park, a Korean-American Christian missionary from Arizona, illegally entered North Korea on Christmas Day, 2009, with the purpose of drawing attention to North Korea's human rights abuses. He was released on February 6, 2010.[79] Park has remained publicly silent about his time in captivity but it has been reported that he was severely tortured.[80] Aijalon Mahli Gomes, a second American who illegally entered North Korea in January, was imprisoned for 8 months before being freed following a humanitarian visit by former US President Jimmy Carter.[81] Gomes, a teacher from Boston, Massachusetts, devout Christian, and associate of Robert Park, was tried by North Korea for his illegal entry, and on April 6, 2010, was sentenced to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 (USD).[80] Later that month he was allowed to speak to his mother by phone.[82] In late June, North Korea responded to international findings that it had deliberately sunk the South Korean patrol boat Cheonan in March by publicly threatening to impose on Gomes "harsher punishment" based on "wartime law."[83] Gomes was reported to have attempted suicide in July.[84]

See also


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External links

Web Logs
  • One Free Korea: Updated daily; focusing on human rights, political, economic, and military issues, often with Google-Earth tours of North Korea's most secret places
  • RU NK: Focusing primarily on human rights issues, by a member of Liberty in North Korea
  • Daily NK run by the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, includes reports citing informers inside North Korea
  • NK Zone: Includes a variety of perspectives, with a greater focus on cultural and economic issues
  • Concentrations of Inhumanity, report by Freedom House on the political penal labor camps system in North Korea. May 2007.
U.S. State Department Annual Reports

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