Human rights in North Korea

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
North Korea
Foreign relations

Human rights in North Korea are severely limited. Despite numerous rights being de jure guaranteed by the country's constitution, in practice, there is no de facto right to free speech, and the only radio, television, music and news providers that are deemed legal are those operated by the government.[1][2] An estimated 80,000120,000 prisoners are incarcerated in camps that are dedicated to political crimes, and are subject to forced labor, physical abuse and execution.[3]

The North Korean government strictly monitors the activities of foreign visitors. Aid workers are subject to considerable scrutiny and are excluded from places and regions the government does not wish them to enter. Since citizens cannot freely leave the country,[4][5] 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 international criticism of its human rights record is a pretext for overthrowing its Juche-based socialist system, while the abuses of its critics go unpunished.[6][7]

North Korea's human rights record is among the worst in the world and has been condemned by western-centric organisations — especially by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the European Union and the United Nations. Indeed, western human rights organizations claim North Korea has no contemporary parallel[8] with respect to violations of liberty.[9][10][11][12]

The General Assembly of the United Nations has since 2003 annually adopted a resolution condemning the country's human rights record. The latest resolution of December 19, 2011, passed by a vote of 123–16 with 51 abstentions, urged the government in Pyongyang to end its "systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights", which included public executions and arbitrary detentions. North Korea rejected the resolution, saying it was politically motivated and based upon untrue fabrications.[13] In February 2014, a UN special commission published a detailed, 400-page account based on first-hand testimonies documenting "unspeakable atrocities" committed in the country.[14]

Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

The Commission of Inquiry found evidence of systematic, gross and widespread human rights violations.

On May 6, 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced the appointment of Michael Kirby of Australia, Sonja Biserko of Serbia, and Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia as members of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.[15]

[The] commission of inquiry will investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ... including the violation of the right to food, the violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other States, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.[16]

On August 20, 2013, the commission began five days of public hearings at Yonsei University in Seoul hearing testimony from defectors,[17] and on August 29, 2013, in Japan from relatives of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.[18][19] North Korea describes the inquiry as "a political plot" and has not given investigators access to the country. The UN panel interviewed witnesses in South Korea, Japan and the UK, and conducted hearings in the U.S. on October 30 and 31, 2013. The commission said it has consistently asked North Korean representatives to take part in the public hearings and question witnesses.

On February 17, 2014, the panel published their findings in a 400-page report.[14] The commission accused the North Korean government of being involved in systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations. The panel chairman Michael Kirby described some acts by stating that they resembled those committed by the Nazis.

In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the State; they are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale and nature of these violations revealed a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.

Roberta Cohen, joint chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said it was now up to the world community to take action to protect those persecuted and bring the perpetrators to justice. The DPRK rejected the findings. In a statement it said the commission was "a product of politicization of human rights on the part of the EU and Japan, in alliance with the US hostile policy."[20] On November 18, 2014, the UN voted in favor of a draft resolution to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.[21][22]

Position of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Human-rights discourse in North Korea has a history that predates the establishment of the state in 1948. Based on Marxist theory, Confucian tradition, and the Juche idea, North Korean human-rights theory regards rights as conditional rather than universal, holds that collective rights take priority over individual rights, and that welfare and subsistence rights are important.[23]

Kim Il-sung stated that the concept of democracy cannot "provide freedom and rights to hostile elements who oppose socialism or impure elements who act against the interests of the People".[24]

The government of North Korea claims that the Constitution of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea guarantees the human rights of its people, and that these guarantees are fully elaborated in its laws and regulations. It claims that these human-rights guarantees and laws are strictly enforced throughout the country and with respect to every individual.[25]

Seven months after the release of the Commission of Inquiry report, North Korea released its own DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies report, which claims that North Koreans enjoy "genuine human rights".[26] North Korea also agreed to implement 113 of the 268 recommendations to improve its human rights performance made at the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review process.[27] Kirby cited North Korea's participation in the Universal Periodic Review, the country's publication of their own human rights report, and Hwang Pyong-so's visit to the 2014 Asian Games a "charm offensive" and expressed skepticism about whether the North Korean government has become genuinely concerned about human rights or is simply preparing for imminent criticism in the UN.[28] Kirby welcomed parts of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies report as "fair comment" but noted that it fails to discuss the issues raised in the Commission of Inquiry report.[29]

Civil liberties

North Korea's founder Kim Il-Sung rejected the concept of civil rights for people who oppose the regime.[24] There is an extensive system of informers throughout North Korea which monitor Koreans with respect to political and other possible infractions without reference to formal civil rights.[30]

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.[31] 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, extrajudicial 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.[32]

Labor rights

North Korea is one of the few nations in the world that does not belong to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ruling Korean Workers’ Party firmly controls the only authorized trade union organization, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea.[33]

The issue of forced labor is also common in North Korea, especially in the mining and textile industries as reported in the U.S. Department of Labor's List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.

Freedom of expression

The North Korean constitution has clauses guaranteeing the freedoms of speech and assembly.[34] 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.[30] The government distributes all radio and television sets; citizens are forbidden to alter them to make it possible to receive broadcasts from other nations; doing so carries draconian penalties.[30]

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 the deceased Kim Jong-il and his 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.[35]

Freedom of religion

North Korea is officially an atheist state and the North Korean Constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief".[36][37][38] However, government policies continue to interfere with the individual's ability to choose and to manifest their religious belief. The government continues to repress the religious activities of unauthorized religious groups. Refugee, defector, missionary, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports indicate that religious persons engaging in proselytizing in the country, those who have ties to overseas evangelical groups operating across the border in the People's Republic of China, and specifically, those repatriated from China and found to have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties. Refugees and defectors allege that they witnessed the arrests and execution of members of underground Christian churches by the regime.[39] Due to the country's inaccessibility and the inability to gain timely information, the continuation of this activity remains difficult to verify.[40]

There were several cases of foreigners imprisoned for evangelism in North Korea. The most prominent was Kenneth Bae, who was detained in December 2012 and released on November 8, 2014. Kenneth Bae is a Korean-American Evangelical Christian missionary who was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment by the North Korean government in April 2013. In another case the North Korean news agency explained that it is a criminal act to spread Bible tracts, as this hurts the people’s absolute trust in their leader.[41]

Persecution of Christians and Buddhists

According to NGOs, North Korea is amongst the countries where persecution of Christians is the worst.[42]

There are numerous reports of people sent to prison camps[43] and subjected to torture and inhuman treatment because of their faith.[44] It is estimated that 50,000–70,000 Christians are held in North Korean prison camps.[45] There are reports of public executions of Christians,[46][47] e.g., Ri Hyon-ok was publicly executed in Ryongchon on June 16, 2009, for giving out Bibles, while her husband and children were deported to Hoeryong political prison camp.[48] If it is discovered that North Korean refugees deported from China have converted to Christianity, they suffer harsher ill-treatment, torture and prolonged imprisonment.[49] The government considers religious activities political crimes,[50] because they could challenge the personality cult and semi-deification of Kim Il-sung and his family.[51]

From 1949 to the mid-1950s, under the rule of Kim Il-sung, all churches were closed.[52][53][54] According to AsiaNews, all non-foreign Catholic priests were executed,[55] and Protestant leaders who did not renounce their faith were purged as "American spies."[52] The martyrdom of the Benedictine monks of Tokwon Abbey is documented exemplarily,[56] as the process of beatification was initiated for them.[57] Only 60 out of 400 Buddhist temples have survived the religious persecution in the 1950s. The 1,600 monks were killed, disappeared in prison camps or were forced to recant their faith.[58] The remaining temples are now preserved as national cultural heritage. North Korean defectors reported that government-employed "monks" are serving as caretakers and tourist guides, but they did not see genuine worship.[59] As reported, most Buddhists are afraid to openly practice their religion in the temple areas and practice their religion only in secret.[59] However, on special occasions, ceremonies were permitted by the authorities.[60]

The North Korean government estimated the number of religious believers in 2002 to be 12,000 Protestants,[61] 10,000 Buddhists and 800 Catholics, while estimates by South Korean and international church-related groups were considerably higher. In addition, the Chondoist Chongu Party, a government-approved traditional religious movement, had approximately 15,000 practitioners.[62] Since 1988, four churches have been erected in Pyongyang with foreign donations[63] to give the outside world the impression that religious freedom exists in North Korea.

The North Korean regime restricts religious observance with the cult of personality created by national founder Kim Il-Sung. The government has authorized four state churches: one Catholic, two Protestant and one Russian Orthodox. However, they are only open to foreigners, and North Korean citizens cannot attend the services. The services are used to bring in foreign currency from foreign visitors, including South Koreans.[64] The North Korean constitution nominally protects religious freedom, as long as it is not used to harm the state or the social order.[65] However, in practice, there is no genuine religious freedom,[66] and the government severely restricts religious activity except if it is supervised by government organizations.[67]

Freedom of movement

North Korean citizens usually cannot freely travel around the country,[30] let alone travel abroad.[4][5][30] Emigration and immigration are strictly controlled.[30][68] Only the political elite may own or lease vehicles, and the government limits access to fuel and other forms of transport due to frequent shortages of gasoline/petrol, 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.[69]

North Korean refugees who flee to China are often later forcibly repatriated back to North Korea by authorities, are routinely beaten, and sent to prison camps.[70] This is because the North Korean government treats emigrants from the country as defectors.[70] This treatment is more severe in cases where North Korean refugees have come into contact with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are associated with South Korea or with religions, especially Christianity.[70] 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.[70]

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.[35]

According to The Independent, in May 2016 Kim Jong-un temporarily banned all weddings and funerals across the country, and freedom of movement into and out of the capital, in preparation for a meeting, on 6 May, of the Worker’s Party of Korea, the first gathering of its kind for 36 years.[71]

Freedom of the press

As of 2015, North Korea is ranked second to last (ahead of Eritrea) on the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.[72] The constitution of North Korea provides for freedom of the press, but in practice, all media is strictly controlled by the government.[30] 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.[73] It emphasizes historical grievances toward the United States and Japan.

Reporters Without Borders claims that radio or television sets that can be bought in North Korea are preset 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 neighborhoods and villages received instructions to verify the seals on all radio sets.[74]

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 United Nations envoy reported that any North Korean citizen caught watching a South Korean film may result in that person being sent to a labor camp.[75]

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. Foreigners who visit the country are generally strictly monitored by government minders[76] and are forbidden to enter certain locations.[77]

Disability rights

As a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), North Korea has international obligations to refrain from discriminating against its people based on disability (among others). Under Article 2 of the CRC, "States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or their parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status" (emphasis added).

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.[78] A report by the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea highlighted reports from defectors describing how disabled people are allegedly "rounded up" and sent to "special camps."[79]

However, the charity Handicap International reports that it has been operating in North Korea since 1999, assisting the Korean Federation for the Protection of Disabled People, including supporting orthopedic centers serving thousands of disabled people.[80] The International Committee of the Red Cross reported in 2006 that it had assisted in setting up a rehabilitation center for disabled people in Pyongyang.[81] The International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports that North Korea "has a comprehensive system for assisting persons with disabilities; however, this system is limited by the general economic situation of the country."[82] North Korea participated in the Paralympic Games for the first time in 2012.

Still, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Marzuki Darusman, stated the following in his report before the UN Human Rights Council’s twenty-second session:

As early as 2003 the Commission on Human Rights expressed deep concern at the "mistreatment of and discrimination of disabled children". Since 2006 the General Assembly has consistently decried "continuing reports of violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities, especially on the use of collective camps and of coercive measures that target the rights of person with disabilities to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.” Whereas in 2006 the Special Rapporteur noted "to date, the situation facing those with disabilities are sent away from the capital city, and particularly those with the mental disabilities are detained in areas or camps known as 'Ward 49' with harsh and subhuman conditions."[83]

According to Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea's Social Classification System, North Korea adopted a law in 2003 to promote equal access for disabled people to public services and claimed in its second report on compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that its handicapped citizens are protected. North Korea acceded to this covenant on September 14, 1981. However, its law has not been implemented, and North Korean refugees in the South testify that the handicapped are severely discriminated against unless they are wounded soldiers who say their wounds were the result of American aggression in the Korean War.[84]

Right to food

Amnesty International documented the relationship between the food crisis and the right to food in North Korea.[85]

Shortly thereafter, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea published Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea (by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, 2005), which discussed the probability that North Korean food shortages in the 1990s were a man-made (regime) phenomenon and that with plausible policy adjustments – such as maintaining food imports on commercial terms or aggressively seeking multilateral assistance – the North Korean government could have avoided famine and food shortages. Instead, the regime blocked humanitarian aid and diverted resources to the military.[86]

In 2016, British scholar Hazel Smith reported that health and nutrition of the population had improved greatly and was comparable to other developing countries. She disputed the view that government policies were creating a human rights crisis that was unique to North Korea.[87]

Discrimination and unequal access to food

Economic reform abolished the old coupon system in North Korea, which had favored non-productive citizens. After the coupon system disappeared, an average urban family spent between 75 and 85 percent of their income on food, while state farmers were spending only a third of their income on food. These disparities show that North Korea does not have safety net mechanisms to protect the vulnerable people in society, such as housewives and the elderly.[85]

When the food crisis began, access to food came through a public distribution system (PDS) controlled by the regime, and entitlements were partly a function of political status. As the socialist economy crumbled and markets developed in response to the state's inability to fulfill its obligations under the old social compact, the character of the crisis changed. Current shortages bear a closer resemblance to food emergencies in market and transition economies, where access to food is determined by one's capacity to command resources in the marketplace. This type of emergency is no less severe, but poses different challenges to outside donors.[88]

Food is distributed to the civilian population of North Korea through two channels. Workers on state and cooperative farms account for roughly 30 percent of the population, and most of these farmers are granted an annual allotment of grain at the time of the harvest. However, the country is highly urbanized, and the bulk of the population is fed through the PDS. The PDS distributes food as a monthly or biweekly ration. Rations, in turn, vary according to occupational status and age. For example, high-ranking party, government and military officials are fed through separate distribution channels and receive higher rations, as do certain classes of workers.[88]

In confronting the fundamentally non-cooperative stance of the North Korean government, the humanitarian community has pursued two basic strategies to guarantee the integrity of its assistance: the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the monitoring of food deliveries to assure that these targeted populations are being reached. At virtually every point, the North Korean government has placed roadblocks in the way of the donor community in North Korea, which succeeded to the extent that it did only through extraordinary perspicacity and flexibility. Yet, even by its own admission, this monitoring effort is a leaky sieve, and it is estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of food aid is diverted. Most concerns with diversion center on the appropriation of food by the military. Military and party elites have other sources of food; an equal if not greater problem is the diversion of food to the market or to less deserving groups.[88]

Also, the remote regions that suffered from the most severe famine conditions were the first regions to stop receiving shipments of food supplies, and at the same time, as local industry collapsed, residents' purchasing power decreased.[89]

Restrictions on the freedom to move caused the so-called 'hostile class' ‒ whose members were relocated to remote mountain areas ‒ to suffer from the limited access to food.[85]

Food shortage and malnutrition in detention

According to testimony by a previous detainee, detention was most often severely overcrowded and there existed a serious lack of food. "Malnourishment made life in Yodok very difficult. We were given corn-rice in small quantities; at times we got only salt soup with cabbage leaves. No meat was served. We were always hungry; and resorted to eating grass in spring. Three or four people died of malnutrition. When someone died, fellow prisoners delayed reporting his death to the authorities so that they could eat his allocated breakfast."[90] Prisoners were punished with withdrawal of food as well as torture and harsh labor. Malnutrition and infectious disease caused more than half of the deaths in detention.

Forced prostitution

A group called "A Woman's Voice International" alleged that the state forcibly drafts girls as young as 14 years old to work in the so-called kippŭmjo, which 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 include massaging and cabaret dancing. Claims were made that they are ordered "to marry guards of Kim Jong-il or national heroes" when they are 25 years old.[91]

Forced abortion

The People’s Republic of China returns all illegal immigrants from North Korea, which usually imprisons them in a short term facility. Women who are suspected of being impregnated by Chinese men are subjected to forced abortions; babies born alive are killed.[92] Abortions up to full term are induced by injection; live premature babies or full-term newborns are sometimes killed but more commonly simply discarded into a bucket or box and then buried. They may live several days in the disposal container.[93]

Criminal justice

The death penalty, often without judicial due process, is administered for a wide variety of political and common crimes. Attempts to escape from the country or from a prison camp within the country may result in execution on the spot.[30] Personnel in the criminal justice system have wide discretion and are allegedly authorized to operate without regard to the formal legal rights of Koreans.[30]

A number of members of the regime itself have disappeared or been executed after falling out of favor. The most prominent example is Jang Sung-taek, the uncle of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un. On December 8, 2013, Jang was publicly expelled from the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Some of the accusations included "illicit affairs with women, obstructing the nation's economic affairs, and committing anti-party factional acts." On December 13, 2013, the state media announced that Jang had been executed.[94]


The constitution states that courts are independent and that judicial proceedings are to be carried out in strict accordance to the law; however, an independent judiciary does not exist. Little information is available on formal criminal justice procedures and practices, and outside access to the legal system is limited to trials for traffic violations and other minor offences. There is no indication that independent, nongovernmental defence lawyers exist or that defence lawyers are always assigned.[95]

There are no indications that the presumption of innocence is respected in practice. The Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) dispenses with trials in political cases and refers prisoners to the State Security Department (SSD) for punishment. According to Hidden Gulag, most inmates in prison camps were sent there without trial, without knowing the charges against them, and without having legal counsel.[95] Witness to Transformation[96] reported that only 13 percent of the 102 respondents who had been incarcerated in the country received a trial.[97]

Public executions

North Korea 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, drug dealing, smuggling, piracy, vandalism, etc. have also been reported to be executed, mostly by firing squad. The country does not publicly release national crime statistics or reports on the levels of crimes.[35]

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, according to a report from a South Korean aid agency called Good Friends.[98] Good Friends also reported that six were killed in the crush as spectators left. In another instance, 15 people were publicly executed for crossing the border into China.[99]

A UN 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. North Korea has condemned the draft, saying it is inaccurate and biased, but it was still sent to the then 192-member General Assembly for a final vote.[100]

In 2011, two people were executed in front of 500 spectators for handling propaganda leaflets that had floated across the border from South Korea, apparently as part of a campaign by former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to tighten ideological control as he groomed his youngest son as the eventual successor.[101]


According to many organizations, the conditions in North Korean prisons are harsh and life-threatening.[102] Prisoners are subject to torture and inhumane treatment by DPRK authorities.[30][103][104] Public and secret executions of prisoners, including children, especially in cases of escape attempts,[105] and infanticides (forced abortions and baby killings upon birth[30][106]) also often occur. The mortality rate is very high, because many prisoners die of starvation,[107] illnesses,[108] work accidents, or torture.

The North Korean government flatly denies all allegations of human rights violations in prison camps, claiming that it is prohibited by criminal procedure law,[109] but former prisoners testify that there are completely different rules in the prison camps.[110] The North Korean government has failed to provide any information on prisoners or prison camps or to allow access to any human rights organization.[111]

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."[112] Many other former prisoners, such as Kang Chol-hwan, have given detailed testimonies on the human rights crimes in North Korean prison camps.

According to the testimony of former camp guard Ahn Myong Chol of Camp 22, the guards are trained to treat the detainees as sub-human. He gave an account of children in one of the camps fighting over who got to eat a kernel of corn retrieved from cow dung.[113]

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).[114]

Internment camps for political prisoners

Further information: Kwalliso
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,[30] and are detained for the rest of their lives.[115]

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.[30][116] The total number of prisoners is estimated to be 80,000 to 120,000.[117] The 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 labor with primitive means in mining and agriculture. The food rations are very small, so 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.[118] Moreover, many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. There is a rigid punishment system in the camp. Prisoners who work too slowly or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured.[106] In cases 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 was closed down following an unsuccessful riot in 1987 where around 5,000 prisoners were killed[119]). Today there are six political prison camps in North Korea (see below). Most of the camps are documented in testimonies of former prisoners, and coordinates and satellite images of all are available.

Political Prison Camp Official Name Size[120] Prisoners[121]
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
Hoeryong 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.[122] The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) estimates that over 10,000 people die in North Korean prison camps every year.[123]

Reeducation camps

Reeducation camps in North Korea
(10 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 whom six did not survive[124]) and are then condemned in a brief show trial to a 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.[125] Due to the dire prison conditions with hunger and torture,[126] 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.[112]

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 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. illegal border crossing, stealing food or illegal trading.[127]

There are around 15–20 reeducation camps in North Korea.[128]

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 (328 x 328 yds) 6,000
Chongori Reeducation Camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 150 x 350 m (164 x 383 yds) 2,000

Other camps are documented with short testimonies of former prisoners.[129]

Further camps are mentioned as being in 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 a camp and testified before the US Senate.[131]

In October 2014, North Korea admitted for the first time that it had labor camps. Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry, said "Both in law and practice, we do have reform through labor detention camps – no, detention centers – where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings".[132]

International abductions

In the decades after the Korean War, there were reports that North Korea had abducted many foreign nationals, mainly South Korean 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.[133]

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.[134]

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.[30] Advocates and family members have accused the government of doing little or nothing to gain their freedom.[135]

In November 2013, a civic group, the Korean War Abductees Family Association (KWAFA), consisting of family members of South Koreans abducted to North Korea during the Korean War (1950–53), said it will take North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for unlawful detention of the abductees and failure to address related abuses.[136]

International reaction

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

Multiple countries have condemned the allegations made against North Korea. China's delegation to the United Nations said that North Korea has made considerable progress in protecting human rights. Sudan's government said that instead of criticizing the country, there should be support by the international community for North Korea's efforts to protect human rights. Venezuela's delegation to the United Nations asserted that the allegations made by UN observers against North Korea are based on flawed criteria and are not credible.[137] Cuba's delegation to the United Nations said that the body's claims made against North Korea are politically motivated and seek to impose isolation and pressure on the country, in violation of the Human Rights Council's stated principles.[138]

The U.S. and Japan have passed laws and created envoys in order to bring this issue to public attention. 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.

The NGO Freedom House has ranked North Korea at the very bottom of its "Freedom in the World" ratings since the survey was first launched in 1973.[139] In Freedom House's 2013 survey, North Korea was one of nine countries that earned a 7 (its lowest rating) for both political rights and civil liberties.[140] Its current report on North Korea categorizes it as "Not Free", and states that there are virtually no organizations independent of state control.[141] North Korea has charged that those who make allegations about human rights in the country are interfering with the country's internal affairs and trying to force down their values.[142]

Other international NGOs have been established with the purpose of relieving the human rights abuses faced by North Koreans. The North Korea Strategy Center works to provide people living in North Korea with access to videos, music, and other external media that promotes human rights and democracy.[143] An organization called Liberty in North Korea collects charitable donations in order to perform rescue missions for defectors attempting to escape North Korea through China.[144] Still other organizations focus on assisting defectors after they arrive in Southeast Asia, South Korea, the United States, or other destinations. Saejowi, a Seoul-based NGO, aims to provide medical support to defectors in South Korea, because they are often unable to understand the treatment options available to them.[145]

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 promoting only an anti-North agenda.[146]

Number of victims

According to R.J. Rummel, forced labor, executions, and concentration camps were responsible for over one million deaths in North Korea from 1948 to 1987;[147] others have estimated 400,000 deaths in concentration camps alone.[148] Pierre Rigoulot estimates 100,000 executions, 1½ million deaths through concentration camps and forced labor, and 500,000 deaths from famine, reaching a total of 2.1 million victims (not counting 1.3 million soldiers and civilians killed on both sides during the Korean War).[149]

Estimates based on the North Korean census suggest that 240,000 to 420,000 people died as a result of the 1990s famine and that there were 600,000 to 850,000 unnatural deaths in North Korea from 1993 to 2008.[150] Other estimates go as high as one million. The famine has been described as the result of the economic policies of the North Korean government[151] or as deliberate "terror-starvation".[152]

Media and organizations

See also


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