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North Korea

Executive Summary

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is an authoritarian state led by the Kim family since 1949. Shortly after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, his son Kim Jong Un was named marshal of the country and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. His titles also include chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and supreme representative of the Korean People. In January Kim Jong Un also took the title of general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a position formerly held by Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, who remains “eternal president.” The most recent national elections, held in 2019, were neither free nor fair.

The internal security apparatus includes the Ministries of Social Security and State Security and the Military Security Command. A systematic and intentional overlap of powers and responsibilities existed among these organizations to prevent any potential subordinate consolidation of power and assure that each unit provided a check and balance on the other. Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including in political prison camps; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners and detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in another country; no judicial independence; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; serious restrictions on freedom of movement and residence within the country and on the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; severe restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health, including coerced abortion and forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; the outlawing of independent trade unions; and the worst forms of child labor.

The government took no credible steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption. The special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country reported that restrictions on travel due to COVID-19 preventive measures continued to limit international presence in the country and further reduce escapee arrivals. Impunity for human rights abuses and corruption continued to be a widespread problem.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

b. Disappearance

NGO, think tank, and press reports indicated the government was responsible for disappearances.

South Korean media reported the government dispatched Ministry of State Security agents to cities in China near the country’s border to kidnap and forcibly return refugees. According to international press reports, the government also may have kidnapped defectors traveling in China after relocating to the ROK. In some cases the government reportedly forced these defectors’ family members to encourage the defectors to travel to China in order to capture them. According to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), as political prison camps in border areas near China closed, thousands of inmates reportedly disappeared in the process of their transfer to inland facilities, amounting to enforced disappearance.

During the year there was no progress in the investigation into the whereabouts of 12 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted by the government in the 1970s and 1980s. As of July 2021, the website of Japan’s National Police Agency indicated 873 missing Japanese citizens were suspected of being kidnapped by the DPRK.

South Korean government and media reports noted the government also kidnapped other foreign nationals from locations abroad in the 1970s and 1980s. The government continued to deny its involvement in the kidnappings. Tomas Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, reported the ROK officially recognized 516 South Korean civilians abducted by regime authorities since the end of the Korean War, with thousands more unaccounted for. ROK NGOs estimated that 20,000 civilians abducted by the government during the Korean War remained in the country or had died.

Authorities took no steps to ensure accountability for disappearances.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution states courts are independent and must carry out judicial proceedings in strict accordance with the law; however, an independent judiciary did not exist. According to KINU’s White Paper for 2020, there were many reports of bribery and corruption in the investigations or preliminary examination process and in detention facilities, as well as by judges and prosecutors in the trial stage. In October 2020 HRW reported treatment of individuals in pretrial detention often depended on access to connections and money.

Trial Procedures

Little information was available on formal criminal justice procedures and practices, and outside access to the legal system was limited to trials for traffic violations and other minor offenses. Public trials were sometimes held for crimes such as violation of the December 2020 antireactionary ideology law aimed at curtailing South Korean cultural influence (see also section 2.a.).

The constitution contains elaborate procedural protections providing that cases should be public, except under circumstances stipulated by law. The constitution also states the accused has the right to a defense, and when the government held trials, it reportedly assigned lawyers. Some reports noted a distinction between those accused of political, as opposed to nonpolitical, crimes and claimed the government offered trials and lawyers only to the latter. The Ministry of State Security conducted “pretrials” or preliminary examinations in all political cases, but the courts conducted trials. Some defectors testified that the ministry also conducted trials. KINU’s White Paper for 2020 cited defector testimony that imprisonment in political prison camps was decided exclusively by the ministry, regardless of trial. There was no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers existed. There were no indications authorities respected the presumption of innocence.

According to the 2014 UNCOI report, “the vast majority of inmates are victims of arbitrary detention, since they are imprisoned without trial or on the basis of a trial that fails to respect the due process and fair trial guarantees set out in international law.” A 2020 OHCHR report focusing on cases from 2009-2019 stated that women forcibly repatriated from China to North Korea were imprisoned without due process or a fair trial, then subjected to egregious human rights abuses such as sexual violence, forced abortion, infanticide, forced labor, and detainment in overcrowded prisons with dangerous conditions.

By law the state dismisses criminal cases against persons younger than age 14. The state applies public education in case of a crime committed by a person older than 14 and younger than 17, but little information was available regarding how the law was applied.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

Although no information was available regarding the total number of political prisoners and detainees, KINU’s White Paper for 2020 reported the state detained between 80,000 and 120,000 in the kwanliso political penal-labor camps. Incarceration in a kwanliso was in most cases for life and in many cases included three generations of the prisoner’s family. NGOs and media reported political prisoners were subject to harsher punishments and had fewer protections than other prisoners and detainees.

According to the OHCHR report of October 8, 2021, escapees said anyone believed to be a threat to the political system and the country’s leadership – those who tried to reach the ROK, or those who engaged with Christians, brokers, or traffickers who helped individuals reach the ROK – were sent to kwanliso, where they endured “inhumane conditions without access to adequate food, clean water and sanitation and subjected to mistreatment, including beatings that often amount to torture.” The OHCHR report also noted that political prisoners were denied contact with the outside world, and their families were unable to determine their fate or whereabouts.

On May 15, 2021, Lee Han-byoel, a human rights activist in Seoul who fled the DPRK in 1999, told media that the last clear sighting of her brother, Le Se-il, was in 2009, when he was in custody after attempting to escape. Seeking more information concerning him a few years ago, she got only a “second-hand glimpse; he was apparently still in a prison camp in North Hamgyong Province, near the country’s borders with China and Russia. Since then, no word.”

The government considered critics of the regime to be political criminals. Reports from past years described political offenses as including attempting to defect to South Korea or contacting family members who had defected to South Korea, sitting on newspapers bearing Kim Il Sung’s or Kim Jong Il’s picture, mentioning Kim Il Sung’s limited formal education, or defacing photographs of the Kims. The 2014 UNCOI report noted that many “ordinary” prisoners were, in fact, political prisoners, “detained without a substantive reason compatible with international law.”

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: According to a 2020 report by the Hudson Institute, the DPRK’s kidnappers in recent years focused on China, where they abducted South Korean citizens who helped North Korean refugees while “China looks the other way.” In February 2021 media reported a statement by the ROK Ministry of Unification that 42 North Korean defectors had gone missing in the previous five years and a defector’s observation that in some cases there was “strong suspicion of abduction or other foul play” by the DPRK Ministry of State Security.

According to RFA, in October 2021 Kim Jong Un “ordered the extraterritorial arrest of an armed border guard” who had fled across the border to China. Stationed in Musan County, North Hamgyong Province, the guard escaped across the Tumen River to Jilin Province on September 30. Following a failed two-week manhunt on the North Korean side of the river, the escape was reported to the central government, Kim gave the order, and the Military Security Command dispatched an arrest team to China, while requesting cooperation from Chinese border forces and police. Military authorities reportedly treated the escape of a soldier “with an automatic rifle and about 30 rounds of ammunition” as “a political case.” At year’s end there was no indication whether the border guard was captured.

Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: The government attempted to target, harass, and threaten defectors and other perceived enemies outside the country. Media reported in 2018 that Kim Jong Un ordered government agencies to exert greater pressure on family members of defectors to pressure them to return home. Defectors reported that family members in the country contacted them to urge their return, apparently under pressure from government officials. Other defectors reported in 2020 that they received threatening calls and text messages, presumably from the government.

In May 2021 South Korean officials arrested a North Korean spy, Song Chun-son (also known as Song Mo), on charges of helping the DPRK Ministry of State Security in violation of South Korea’s National Security Act. She confessed to operating in the ROK for approximately three years, coercing defectors to return to the DPRK to support the regime’s political agenda. Caught by DPRK authorities in 2016 while helping North Korean defectors in the South transfer cash remittances to their relatives in the North, she reportedly was pressured into working as an undercover agent for the Ministry of State Security before staging her own defection to the ROK two years later. During her trial Song admitted she had given a DPRK secret police agent, Yon Chol-nam, the telephone number of a defector she knew living in the ROK and had asked the defector to help Yon, claiming he was her husband and was assisting North Korean families reach their defector relatives in the South. With the defector’s unwitting assistance, Yon had located three other defectors in the South, put their North Korean relatives on the telephone with them, and persuaded one of them to return to the North, where he later appeared on television as part of the government’s propaganda operations. On November 30, Song was sentenced to three years in prison.

The DPRK also harassed its own diplomats and other officials abroad, amplifying financial demands on them, tightening restrictions on them, and directing threats against those who ignored the restrictions. In August 2021 RFA reported the government had banned its trade representatives in China from making money on the side, ordering punishment of those who defied the ban for betraying the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and Kim Jong Un. Finding themselves stranded in China without income after the DPRK closed the China border and suspended all trade in January 2020 to counter the pandemic, they had taken temporary jobs such as delivering food for Chinese restaurants to support themselves. North Korean trade workers in Dalian and Dandong, Liaoning Province, China, confirmed that DPRK investigations of them and their interpreters were under way in both locations. Earlier in the year, according to an RFA report, the DPRK had ordered the impoverished trade workers to pay “loyalty funds” in advance of the annual April 15 “Day of the Sun” celebrating the birth anniversary of regime founder Kim Il Sung.

The DPRK made similar demands on workers it dispatched to Russia to earn foreign cash. In June 2021 RFA reported an order from DPRK authorities to North Korean workers in Vladivostok and St. Petersburg, whose “loyalty funds” payments had continued after the pandemic sharply increased their work hours and cut their income, to increase their loyalty contributions to fund construction of 50,000 homes to alleviate a housing shortage in the North Korean capital. The order prompted complaints not only from the workers but also from low-level party secretaries and security officers dispatched to watch over them. As expressed by a source, “The money they earn has come from dangerous work during the pandemic which takes a physical and psychological toll on them, and most of it had already been going to loyalty funds. Now the authorities are making them pony up for construction in Pyongyang …. No one can accept this.”

Efforts to Control Mobility: The government restricted the movement and access to other fundamental freedoms of North Korean workers in China and Russia, with the complicity of local authorities, and often involving methods and agents of the DPRK Ministry of State Security. Although most countries previously employing North Korean workers responded to international pressure and UN sanctions to cease using them by the end of 2019, China and Russia continued the practice, including employment of forced labor. On November 17, 2021, the UN General Assembly Third Committee adopted a resolution expressing concern regarding “the exploitation of workers sent abroad” by the DPRK “to work under conditions that reportedly amount to forced labor.”

In November 2020 the Guardian disclosed its investigation had revealed that hundreds of North Koreans, mostly women, were secretly employed by factories in Dandong, China, across the Yalu River from North Korea, as forced labor. They worked for up to 18 hours a day with no days off and under constant surveillance, manufacturing personal protective equipment for export as worldwide demand for items like isolation gowns and protective overalls spiked during the pandemic. Approximately 70 percent of their wages were reportedly passed by North Korean factory managers to the DPRK. It was, the Guardian reported, “a mutually beneficial arrangement, with Chinese factories getting a cheap and compliant workforce and the North Korean regime receiving millions of dollars in return.” During 2021 indications of North Korean labor in Dandong, including forced labor, continued. RFA reported that as of March an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 North Korean workers remained in and near Dandong, working in textiles, electronics, accessories, and quarantine product manufacturing, as well as seafood processing and agriculture. In November Reitmans Ltd., a major Canadian retailer of women’s clothing, broke off its business relationship with the Dandong Huayang Textiles and Garments Company following the disclosure of evidence in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation that their factory was using North Korean forced labor. Earlier in the year, a foreign government blocked the importation of goods from that factory on suspicion it used North Korean forced labor.

On December 9, 2021, Daily NK reported that DPRK authorities, concerned regarding potential defections by North Korean workers forced to extend their sojourns abroad due to North Korea’s border closures, were “exerting increasingly cruel surveillance and controls” over these workers. On December 4, authorities reportedly issued an order calling for strict surveillance and regular reports on workers who often complained, whose movements were “suspicious,” or who wanted to “abandon the Fatherland and escape” to prevent their alleged shortcomings from “turning into actual crimes.” The order called for the arrest of those who tried to escape and their return to the country in accordance with “Ministry of State Security repatriation procedures.” According to a North Korean defector who had worked in Russia, all workers there knew that the “Ministry of State Security’s repatriation procedures” meant breaking the legs of would-be defectors and repatriating them in wheelchairs. A high-ranking source in the DPRK reportedly verified that Chu Kyong Chol, a North Korean worker in Russia who attempted to defect, was repatriated in an anesthetized state with injured Achilles tendons after his arrest by a Ministry of State Security team sent to Russia.

Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes the DPRK attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having them take adverse action against specific individuals. On November 17, 2021, the UN General Assembly Third Committee expressed concern regarding the pressure the government exerted on other states to forcibly return North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, and regarding retaliations those individuals faced once repatriated, including internment; torture; other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; sexual and gender-based violence; or the death penalty. The resolution urged all states to respect the fundamental principle of nonrefoulement.

At various times since 2019, authorities in China have detained at least 52 North Korean asylum seekers in Liaoning, Shandong, Jiangsu, Yunnan, Hebei, and Jilin provinces, and in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. These detainees were at risk of forcible repatriation to the DPRK and, if repatriated, faced the prospect of torture and other serious human rights abuses. In April Daily NK reported detention facilities for defectors in Dandong, Liaoning Province, were full, since police arrested increasing numbers of North Koreans who crossed the border, driven by food scarcity after the DPRK cut off cross-border trade in 2020.

On July 14, 2021, after the DPRK opened its border to forcible repatriation while maintaining the closure to regular repatriations imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year earlier, China responded to the demand signal, repatriating approximately 50 North Korean escapees, including soldiers and air force pilots who could face severe punishment including the death penalty. HRW stated it believed that China continued to hold at least 1,170 North Koreans in detention, at risk of forcible repatriation. In August, according to an RFA report, after a long period of time in which the North Korean spouses of Chinese nationals were treated leniently despite Beijing’s commitment with Pyongyang to repatriate all illegal North Koreans found within its borders, police began “actively arresting them.” Activists and human rights organizations expressed fear that the escapees repatriated in July and the others in China at risk of repatriation faced the prospect after arrival in North Korea of forced labor, imprisonment, sexual violence, or torture. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea declared that China was “challenging international law” and urged “the application of the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ to North Koreans who may face torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon repatriation.”

In February 2021 RFA reported DPRK agents in Russia were offering bounties of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of escaped North Korean construction workers in Vladivostok, Nakhodka, Khabarovsk, and Ussuriysk. A source from Ussuriysk said the North Korean authorities asked Russian police to issue wanted orders for the workers who had escaped. Another source from Vladivostok said a wanted order was issued for North Korean workers who had escaped from their workplace there and “arrest operations by North Korean agents are underway.” RFA noted that although the workers were screened for loyalty before their assignment abroad, some of them used the opportunity to escape the DPRK entirely by running away from their workplaces in Russia and going into hiding.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens do not have the ability to choose their government peacefully.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent national elections to select representatives to the Supreme People’s Assembly occurred in 2019. These elections were neither free nor fair. The government openly monitored voting, resulting in a reported 100 percent participation rate and 100 percent approval of the preselected government candidates.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The government has created several “minority parties.” Lacking grassroots organizations, the parties existed only as rosters of officials with token representation in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: Although the law affords women equal right to vote and hold political office, few women were elected or appointed to senior government positions. As of 2016 women constituted approximately 3.1 percent of members and 2.8 percent of alternate members of the Central Committee of the WPK and held few key WPK leadership positions. In 2020 media reported the appointment of a woman, Pak Myong Sun, to the WPK Central Committee Political Bureau, the party’s highest-level body, and as director of a WPK Central Committee department. In October Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, was appointed a member of the State Affairs Commission. She previously served on the Political Bureau but was not listed among the members after the party congress in January. Among approximately 20 party departments and offices, one was headed by a woman. The 2014 UNCOI report indicated 10 percent of central government officials were women.

The country is racially and ethnically homogeneous. There were officially no minority groups.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The government criminalized rape of women but not rape of men. Rape is punishable by “reform through labor” for up to five years; if the assailant “commits a grave offense,” a term of more than 10 years; and if the rape was “particularly grave,” a life term or the death penalty. No information was available on how effectively the law was enforced. The 2014 UNCOI report found the subjugation of inmates and a general climate of impunity created an environment in which guards and other prisoners in privileged positions raped female inmates. This was reconfirmed in OHCHR reporting on women who attempted to flee the country, were forcibly repatriated, and finally escaped for good. The women testified they had been subjected to widespread, systemic sexual violence while detained after repatriation. The 2018 HRW report You Cry at Night but Dont Know Why cited endemic sexual and gender-based violence and detailed cases of sexual assault or coerced sexual acts by men in official positions of authority between 2011 and 2015.

When cases of rape came to light, the perpetrator often escaped with mere dismissal or no punishment. For example, HRW reported a 2009 case in which a woman arrested for illegally fleeing the country was raped by a police chief. After she told her lawyer, the lawyer refused to mention it during her trial, saying nothing would be done and that the woman could be punished more severely for bringing it up. As noted in the KINU White Paper for 2020, the law prohibits domestic violence, but both KINU and the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women expressed concern that the government took no protective or preventive measures against such violence. Defectors continued to report violence against women was a systematic problem both inside and outside the home. The White Paper, however, noted some recent testimonies that domestic violence was decreasing as the economic power of women increased.

Sexual Harassment: Despite the law defectors reported the populace generally accepted sexual harassment of women due to patriarchal traditions. They reported there was little recourse for women who had been harassed. Defectors also reported lack of enforcement and impunity enjoyed by government officials made sexual harassment so common as to be accepted as part of ordinary life. According to the 2020 KINU White Paper, authorities repeatedly stated there was no sexual harassment problem in the workplace, suggesting willful ignorance on the part of the government.

Reproductive Rights: NGOs and defectors reported state security officials subjected women to forced abortions for political purposes, to cover up human rights abuses and rape, and to “protect” ethnic purity, and not for population control. Cases of infanticide were also reported.

Vulnerable populations were not always able to provide informed consent to medical treatment affecting reproductive health. The KINU White Paper for 2020 described testimony of forced sterilization of persons with nanocormia, a form of dwarfism.

KINU’s report for 2020 described the testimony of a substantial number of female North Korean defectors who, following forcible repatriation from abroad, were subjected to “uterus examinations” in detention centers and holding centers, specifically, “examination … conducted during the body search process to find money, secret letters or secret documents.”

According to one 2020 NGO report on menstrual health, menstruation carries social stigma. Sanitary pads were available but remained costly to many, and most women used home-made reusable cloth pads. Lack of adequate menstrual hygiene limited women’s social inclusion and ability to travel and work.

There was no information on what sexual and reproductive health services (including emergency contraception), if any, the government provided to survivors of sexual violence.

Discrimination: The constitution states, “women hold equal social status and rights with men”; however, few women reached high levels of the party or the government, and defectors reported that gender equality was nonexistent. KINU reported discrimination against women emerged in the form of differentiated pay scales, promotions, and types of work assigned to women, in addition to responsibility for the double burden of labor and housework, especially considering the time and effort required to secure food.

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

The country is racially and ethnically homogeneous and officially there are no minority groups. The small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese in total number less than 1 percent of the population, and there are no laws to protect members of racial or ethnic minorities or groups from violence and discrimination. In Freedom in the World 2021: North Korea, Freedom House reported that members of the ethnic Chinese population had “limited options for education and employment.”

The HRNK testified that officials treated women returning from China who were pregnant with half-Chinese babies as “impure”, and that the officials commonly used racial slurs while forcibly performing abortions or committing infanticide.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship from their parents and, in some cases, birth within the country’s territory.

Education: The law provides for 12 years of free compulsory education for all children. Many NGO reports indicated that authorities denied some children educational opportunities and subjected them to punishment and disadvantages because of the songbun loyalty classification system and the principle of “collective retribution” for the transgressions of family members. NGO reports also noted some children were unable to attend school regularly because of hidden fees or insufficient food. NGOs reported that children in the total-control zones of political prisons did not receive the same curriculum or quality of education available to those outside the total-control zones.

Foreign visitors and academic sources reported that from the fifth grade, schools required children to attend several hours a week of mandatory military training and that all children received political indoctrination. In its 2019 report The Lost Generation: The Health and Human Rights of North Koreas Children, 1990-2018, the HRNK characterized the national curriculum as prioritizing political indoctrination and unswerving loyalty to the regime, while punishing those who deviated from the curriculum.

Medical Care: There was no verifiable information available on whether boys and girls had equal access to state-provided medical care. Access to health care largely depended on loyalty to the government. In a 2019 report on broader health and well-being trends in the country, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, using publicly available data and interviews of defectors who arrived in South Korea during the year, documented widespread inadequacies in medical care for children.

Child Abuse: Information regarding societal or familial abuse of children remained unavailable. The law states that a man convicted of having sexual intercourse with a girl younger than age 15 shall be “punished gravely.” There was no reporting on whether the government enforced this law.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age of marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 15. The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Because many girls and young women attempted to flee repressive conditions, poverty, and food shortages for their own survival or the betterment of their families, 2019 international media reports and the 2014 UNCOI report noted they were often subjected to sexual exploitation by traffickers. Traffickers promised these young girls jobs within the country or in China but instead exploited them in forced marriages, domestic servitude, or commercial sex. In its 2019 publication Inescapable Violence: Child Abuse within North Korea, the Seoul-based NGO People for Successful Corean Reunification documented endemic child abuse, including child sexual abuse, in schools, homes, camps, orphanages, and detention centers.

Infanticide: A 2020 OHCHR report stated that infanticide occurred. The HRNK also testified that officials sometimes killed the babies of women repatriated from China.

Displaced Children: According to NGO reports, there were numerous street children. The HRNK reported in 2020 that while not all were orphans, some were abandoned due to economic difficulties or escaped abusive family situations. Displaced children were forced to survive by begging and stealing at local markets or in front of train stations. On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR reported that orphans and street children were vulnerable to child labor, including deployment to “shock brigades” for extended periods without pay (see also section 7.c.).

Institutionalized Children: Guards subjected children living in prison camps to torture if they or a family member violated the prison rules. Reports noted authorities subjected children in such camps to forced labor for up to 12 hours per day and did not allow them to leave the camps. Prisons offered them limited access to education.

Daily NK, an online newspaper operating in the ROK, reported children at boarding schools for orphans received inadequate nutrition and that staff stole food to pay school debts.

In addition to children in detention facilities, a substantial number of children lived in orphanages and other institutions. In 2019 the HRNK reported that Kim Jong Un directed that 40 child-protection facilities, including orphanages, elementary academies, and middle academies, be modernized to accommodate these children. The HRNK’s interviews of those who had lived in these facilities reported substandard conditions, including lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter. As a result, many were malnourished and in poor physical condition. While living in orphanages, children often received only one meal a day, leading them to compete and fight for food or run away from the orphanage to survive. Children living in orphanages were often subjected to forced labor instead of attending school. Several respondents explained how children were forced to perform “simple work” such as carrying stones rather than being cared for and protected in orphanages.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

There was no known Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities could not access education or health services on an equal basis with others. While the law mandates equal access to public services for persons with disabilities, the government did not provide consistent support for them. Although the government claims the law meets the international standards of rights for persons with disabilities, in a 2016 survey by the ROK-based National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 89 percent of defectors reported there was no consideration for persons with disabilities. The UN special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities visited the country for the first time in 2017 and noted most infrastructure, including newly constructed buildings, was not accessible to persons with physical disabilities. There was no information on whether authorities provided government information and communication in accessible formats.

NGO reports and KINU’s 2020 White Paper stated that while the government on balance treated veterans with disabilities well, escapees often described support for veterans with disabilities as inconsistent and only at a perfunctory level. The government reportedly provided no support to other persons with physical and mental disabilities. In some cases authorities sent persons with disabilities from Pyongyang to internal exile, quarantined them within camps, and forcibly sterilized them. On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR expressed concern regarding the expulsion of such persons from Pyongyang to isolation in “restricted areas or to facilities in other cities.”

Persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in accessing public life. Traditional social norms condoned discrimination against persons with disabilities, including in the workplace (see also section 7.d.). On October 8, 2021, the OHCHR stated that children with disabilities were vulnerable to isolation from society and expressed concern regarding “a lack of available disaggregated data on the situation of children with disabilities, including those living in State institutions.” The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child repeatedly expressed concern, most recently in 2017, regarding de facto discrimination against children with disabilities and insufficient measures taken by the state to ensure these children had effective access to health, education, and social services. KINU’s 2020 White Paper evaluated the provision of special education to children with disabilities as poor.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

There are no laws against consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults, but little information was available on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. NGOs expressed concern that decency and obscenity laws could be used legally to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014 the Korean Central News Agency, the state news agency, denied the existence of consensual same-sex sexual activity in the country. According to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) rights group Equaldex, no legal mechanisms exist to protect LGBTQI+ individuals against discrimination in housing and employment. Adoption by same-sex couples is illegal. Equaldex characterized legal protections for same-sex sexual activity, the right to change legal gender, and gay and lesbian persons serving openly in the military as ambiguous.

South Korea

Executive Summary

The Republic of Korea is a constitutional democracy governed by a president and a unicameral legislature. Observers considered the presidential election in 2017 and the 2020 legislative elections free and fair.

The Korean National Police Agency, under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, is responsible for internal security over land, and the Korea Coast Guard has jurisdiction over the sea. The National Intelligence Service investigates suspected criminal activity related to national security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces, and the government utilized effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse of power.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of restrictions on freedom of expression, including the existence of criminal libel laws; government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; and laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults in the military.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials for corruption and human rights abuses.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence and impartiality.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. By law defendants in criminal trials are presumed innocent, enjoy protection against self-incrimination, and have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, with free interpretation as necessary; communicate with an attorney (at public expense if necessary); have a fair and speedy trial; attend the trial; and appeal. Defendants receive adequate time and resources to prepare a defense. They are protected against retroactive laws and double jeopardy, although prosecutors appealed not-guilty verdicts. By law initial trials must begin within six months of arrest.

Trials are generally open to the public, but judges may restrict attendance if they believe spectators might disrupt the proceedings. There is a jury trial system, but jury verdicts are not legally binding. In serious cases such as murder and rape, the judge may consent to a legally binding jury verdict, provided it is reached in consultation with the judge. The defendant must request a jury trial beforehand.

Judges have considerable scope to cross-examine witnesses for both the prosecution and defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

The Ministry of Justice stated there were no persons incarcerated or detained because of their political beliefs. Some NGOs, however, argued that individuals arrested for violations of the NSL or for strike activities qualified as political prisoners.

All male citizens must complete 18-21 months of mandatory military service; the penalty for refusing conscription is 18 months’ imprisonment. In 2020 the Military Manpower Administration began implementing an alternative service option for conscientious objectors, who in the past would have been prosecuted. Conscientious objectors approved for alternate service work for 36 months at correctional facilities. Jehovah’s Witnesses and international human rights observers said they believed the longer alternative service period was punitive and noted that alternative service personnel had curfews and restricted access to electronic devices. Prosecutors appealed three alternative service decisions during the year, and Jehovah’s Witnesses said those three individuals were serving 18-month prison sentences for objecting to military service.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

There is an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, and there were no problems enforcing domestic court orders related to human rights. Citizens had court access to file lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse decisions to domestic human rights bodies, and then to the UN Human Rights Committee. Administrative remedies are also available for alleged wrongs.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The presidential election in 2017 and legislative elections in 2020 were considered free and fair. The 2017 presidential election was held early because of the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye.

Political Parties and Political Participation: In January the Constitutional Court struck down a provision in election law that required citizens to use real names for online posts about forthcoming elections. Civil society groups had opposed the provision, asserting that such laws prohibited the electorate from freely expressing views, imparting information, and supporting campaigns.

By law the government rigorously and extensively regulates political expression by public officials and teachers, even in their private lives and regardless of their job duties. Public officials are also prohibited from joining political parties.

The law requires political parties to maintain a headquarters in Seoul and have at least five branch offices in other cities or provinces. A party’s registration is automatically cancelled if it fails to win a National Assembly seat or 2 percent of the vote.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws prevent the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. A quota system requires political parties to put forth a gender-balanced candidate list for proportional representation seats in the National Assembly and for local council elections. Women were elected to 19 percent of seats in the National Assembly in April 2020, the most ever. Civil society and government research institutes said informal political power networks were still male dominated.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women; rape not involving vaginal sexual intercourse is considered “imitative rape.” The penalty for rape ranges from a minimum of three years’ to life imprisonment, while “imitative rape” carries a minimum penalty of two years’ imprisonment. Rape and “imitative rape” are defined in law as involving the use of violence. The legal definition of rape is based on whether the perpetrator used violence or intimidation and does not consider the victim’s consent. The Supreme Court acknowledged marital rape as illegal. The law defines domestic violence as a serious crime and offenders may be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison plus fines for domestic violence offenses. Due to the narrow legal definitions, the existence of laws criminalizing defamation, and prevalent discrimination toward women, rape and domestic violence continued to go underreported and underprosecuted. Civic groups criticized the perceived lenience of the judicial system toward offenders, with many receiving light or suspended sentences. Within this context, however, police generally responded promptly to reported incidents, and the judicial system effectively enforced the law.

Digital sex crimes were a significant concern; they constituted 23 percent of reported sexual violence in 2020. Digital sex crimes may involve perpetrators capturing hidden camera footage without the victim’s consent, nonconsensual sharing of images that had been captured with consent, or sharing images that have been faked or manipulated to damage the victim’s reputation. According to a June Human Rights Watch report, victims in digital sex crime cases were mostly female, and perpetrators were overwhelmingly male. Although digital sex crime cases that moved forward normally resulted in convictions (in 2020, only 12 of 1,849 cases resulted in acquittal), most defendants received only a suspended sentence or a fine. In June the Ministry of Justice appointed prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun to lead a task force of 10 legal, media, and information technology experts in updating existing criminal justice and human rights frameworks to combat digital sex crimes.

Several NGOs said the government had taken some positive steps to address digital sex crimes but emphasized the need to provide better support for victims. A Digital Sex Crime Victim Support Center, created in 2018, assists victims in requesting the deletion of images and videos from websites and supports victims in collecting evidence and filing police reports. It also makes referrals for free legal services and provides financial assistance for medical expenses. (For more on sex crimes facilitated by the internet, see “Sexual Exploitation of Children” below.)

Domestic violence remained a significant and underreported problem. According to official statistics, 222,046 cases of domestic violence were reported in 2020, a 7 percent decrease from 2019. Foreign brides of Korean men (often in rural areas) brought to the country by brokers since the early 1990s experienced domestic violence at a higher rate than the rest of the female population. These women, in recent years primarily Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Filipina, were more vulnerable to human rights abuses due to language barriers and the lack of a support network in the country. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family continued to operate support centers and shelters to provide protection for foreign brides who were victims of sexual or domestic violence.

The Gender Equality Ministry operated the Special Center for Reporting Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. In 2020 sexual violence counseling centers provided 258,410 counseling services to victims. There were 104 centers supported by central and local governments, 34 sexual violence victim protection facilities, and 39 “sunflower centers” that provided counseling, medical care and therapy, caseworkers, and legal assistance. The volume of services provided represented a 6 percent decrease compared with 2019, which the centers attributed to a decrease in in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to NGOs, sunflower centers generally provided adequate support to victims of sexual assault.

Sexual Harassment: The law obligates companies and organizations to take preventive measures against sexual harassment. The government generally enforced the law effectively. The national police classify sexual harassment as “indecent acts by compulsion.” The NHRCK reported that victims of workplace sexual harassment who relied on in-house grievance mechanisms faced stigma and other difficulties, including, in some cases, losing their jobs. Victims who took their cases to court, as well as those who testified on behalf of victims at sexual harassment trials, were also subject to stigma.

Sexual harassment was a significant social problem, and there were numerous allegations of sexual harassment, including high-profile cases involving public officials, reported in media throughout the year. The National Assembly passed a law in March increasing penalties for stalking, which had previously been treated as a misdemeanor offense. Offenders now face up to three years in prison and a significant fine, and up to five years in prison if they use a weapon. While activists welcomed the increased penalties, they said the law does not address single-incident stalking – only stalking that occurs repeatedly.

In June a district court in Busan sentenced the city’s former mayor, Oh Geo-don, to three years in prison for sexually abusing two female subordinates during his tenure. Oh resigned in April 2020 after admitting to “unnecessary physical contact” with one of the two employees.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for sexual violence survivors, including emergency contraception as clinical management of rape.

Discrimination: Women enjoy the same legal rights under the constitution as men. Women, however, experienced societal abuses and employment discrimination (see section 7.d.).

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

As of May, approximately two million foreigners (including an estimated 390,000 undocumented migrants) lived in the country, whose otherwise ethnically homogeneous population totaled approximately 51.8 million. Racial and ethnic minorities faced societal discrimination. The NHRCK and NGOs continued to urge the National Assembly to pass a comprehensive antidiscrimination law, calling it “an urgent task that can no longer be delayed or ignored.”

According to a 2019 NHRCK survey, migrants reported discrimination by court workers, workplace supervisors, and immigration office personnel. A large majority of immigrants and naturalized citizens were female spouses, and they were reportedly often victims of domestic violence. (See also section 6, Women).

In March the NHRCK ruled that mandatory COVID-19 testing orders specifically targeting foreign workers in several provinces and cities were discriminatory.

The Ministries of Gender Equality and Family and of Employment and Labor implemented programs to promote cultural diversity and assist foreign workers, spouses, and multicultural families to adjust to living in the country. There were also 228 multicultural centers nationwide that provided education to Koreans married to foreigners on human rights, gender equality, multicultural understanding, and various family life topics.

Some children of immigrants suffered from discrimination and lack of access to social resources, such as child-care support available to Korean children. Some children of non-Korean or multiple ethnicities were also bullied because of their physical appearance.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship requires one parent be a citizen at the time of birth. Authorities also grant citizenship in circumstances where parentage is unclear or if the child would otherwise be stateless. The law requires that all children be registered in family registries, leaving approximately 20,000 children born to undocumented foreigners without access to certain public benefits and protections.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes serious injury and repeated abuse of children and provides prison terms of between five years and life. In March a provision of law interpreted as allowing parents to use corporal punishment in childrearing was repealed.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare reported 42,251 cases of child abuse in 2020. The ministry attributed increased reports in recent years to increased public awareness and expanded child welfare reporting requirements. The law provides for the protection, counseling, education, and psychological treatment of abused children.

In late December 2020 lawmakers passed measures to strengthen child abuse prevention and penalties for abusers, including immediate separation of the child from the abusers. This was in the wake of widespread outrage about the October 2020 death of a 16-month-old child who before dying had suffered months of physical abuse from her adopted parents. Media reported the cause of death as abdominal damage caused by external force, and police had not separated the child from her parents despite multiple reports of abuse from the child’s daycare center and others.

In a July report that analyzed reported cases of child abuse from 2020, the National Human Rights Commission called on the Ministry of Health and Welfare to publish detailed reports of child abuse cases, not just the numbers. It also recommended investigating all childhood deaths to identify cases in which abuse may not have been apparent. This was needed to educate the public on spotting warning signs and to bolster child abuse prevention, the commission said.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for men and women to marry is 18. There were no reported cases of forced marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The age of consent is 16, and it is illegal to deceive or pressure anyone younger than 19 into having sexual intercourse. The penalty for rape of a minor younger than age 13 ranges from 10 years to life in prison; the penalty for rape of a minor age 13 to 19 is five years’ to life imprisonment. Other penalties include electronic monitoring of offenders, public release of their personal information, and reversible hormone treatment.

The law prohibits the commercialization of child pornography. Offenders convicted of producing or possessing child sexual abuse materials for the purpose of selling, leasing, or distributing for profit are subject to a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. The minimum sentence for distribution of child pornography for profit is five years’ imprisonment, distribution not for profit is three years’ imprisonment, and possession or purchase of child pornography is one year’s imprisonment.

In February a Seoul district court added five years to the prison sentence of Cho Ju-bin, the operator of the “Nth Room” chatrooms. Cho and other Nth Room administrators coerced women and minors into producing degrading and sometimes violent pornographic videos, and they sold access to the content via Telegram. In October the Supreme Court reduced Cho’s sentence from 45 to 42 years. In April another key member of the group received a 34-year prison sentence.

Children, especially runaway girls, were vulnerable to sex trafficking, including through online recruitment.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community numbered approximately 1,000 individuals, almost all expatriates. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities and sets penalties for deliberate discrimination of up to three years in prison and a substantial fine. The government generally enforced this law. Persons with disabilities had some access to education, employment, social programs, and government support. Children with disabilities aged three to 17 had access to a separate special education school system, and all childcare and educational facilities had to provide accommodations for students with disabilities. Government statistics show persons with disabilities were employed at lower rates than those without disabilities and, when employed, were more likely to do irregular work. The government provided a pension system for registered adults and children with disabilities, an allowance for children younger than age 18 with disabilities in households with an income below or near the National Basic Livelihood Security Standard, and a disability allowance for low-income persons age 18 and older with mild disabilities.

The government generally implemented programs to facilitate access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. The enforcement regulations for building accessibility only apply to establishments larger than 300 square feet, and the Research Institute for Differently Abled Person’s Rights Korea said this practice left persons with disabilities no access to some establishments used in everyday life. According to media reports, local agencies did not always provide accessible communications platforms for public health information during the COVID-19 pandemic or special accommodations for persons with disabilities during mandatory self-isolation periods. The closure of some care centers and schools during the pandemic also placed increased strain on family member caretakers of children with developmental disabilities.

The Research Institute for Differently Abled Person’s Rights Korea reported that individuals with intellectual disabilities did not receive sufficient support to achieve self-reliance. In August the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced a pilot project to “de-institutionalize” persons with disabilities, provide them with the community support required to allow them to choose their own housing, and support their economic independence. After a two-year pilot stage, the project aims to move 24,000 citizens with disabilities out of care facilities by 2041. An NGO noted the long timeline and lack of community support would make this challenging and said the roadmap did not consider persons with disabilities who were homeless or institutionalized at mental-care facilities.

Persons with disabilities continued to face societal discrimination. NGOs said politicians also used discriminatory language to denounce their political rivals and their policies, which encouraged and perpetuated such discrimination.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law protects the right to confidentiality of persons with HIV or AIDS and prohibits discrimination against them. According to local NGOs, however, persons with HIV or AIDS continued to suffer from societal discrimination and social stigma.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and authorizes the National Human Rights Commission to review cases of such discrimination, although its recommended relief measures are nonbinding. The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. The Military Criminal Act’s “disgraceful conduct” clause criminalizes consensual sexual acts between men in the military with up to two years’ imprisonment, regardless of consent and whether the act took place on a military installation. At the end of June NGOs reported there were two indictments and one open investigation under this law. The two individuals whose cases went to trial received suspended sentences.

Despite the NHRCK’s repeated calls for the National Assembly to adopt a comprehensive antidiscrimination law that would penalize with imprisonment or fines discriminatory practices based on gender, age, race, religion, or sexual orientation, among others, the National Assembly failed to pass it (see section 6, Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination). Politically powerful conservative Christian groups that reject LGBTQI+ rights vehemently opposed such a law.

In September Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the challenges faced by LGBTQI+ youth in schools. The report, based on 67 interviews with students and teachers, revealed widespread bullying, violence, and harassment against LGBTQI+ students. These students were isolated due to their inability to rely on teachers or mental health professionals for help and support because they risked being outed. Transgender students faced additional stresses when their gender identity was not recognized, as schools set rules for uniforms, restroom or changing facility use, and classrooms based on gender.

NGOs noted the legal prohibition of sexual activity between men in the military led to abuse of LGBTQI+ soldiers. Given that all young men complete mandatory military service, NGOs argued the existence of the law provided justification for violence against LGBTQI+ individuals within the military and in broader society. In March Byun Hui-su died by suicide. She was expelled from the army after having gender-affirming surgery in 2020. Byun wished to continue serving in the military as a woman, but the military classified her as having a “class three mental and physical disability.” The NHRCK determined that the army should reverse the decision, noting that being transgender was not a disability. In October the Daejeon District Court ordered a posthumous cancellation of Byun’s discharge from the military, saying the military’s decision was unfair. While the Ministry of National Defense requested the government appeal the Daejeon court decision, the Ministry of Justice declined to do so, citing “consideration of facts, legal principles, respect for human dignity, and public sentiment.”

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