a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. The government had no functioning investigative mechanism.
Defector reports noted instances in which the government executed political prisoners, opponents of the government, forcibly returned asylum seekers, government officials, and others accused of crimes. The law prescribes the death penalty upon conviction for the most “serious” cases of “antistate” or “antination” crimes. These terms are broadly interpreted to include: participation in a coup or plotting to overthrow the state; acts of terrorism for an antistate purpose; treason, which includes defection or handing over state secrets; providing information regarding economic, social, and political developments routinely published elsewhere; and “treacherous destruction.” Additionally, the law allows for capital punishment in less serious crimes such as theft, destruction of military facilities and national assets, distribution of narcotics, counterfeiting, fraud, kidnapping, distribution of pornography, and trafficking in persons. Defectors and media also reported that the government carried out infanticide or required mothers to commit infanticide if they were political prisoners, persons with disabilities, raped by government officials or prison guards, or forcibly repatriated from the People’s Republic of China.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and press reports indicated that those attempting to leave the country without permission could be killed on the spot or publicly executed, and guards at political prison camps were under orders to shoot to kill those attempting to escape.
The state also subjected private citizens to public executions. A 2016 survey found that 64 percent of defectors had witnessed public executions. Defectors reported going to public executions on school field trips. The 2019 edition of the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, a report based on interviews with recent escapees and published annually by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government-affiliated think tank, reported that testimonies recounted continued public and secret executions. Escapees declared the purpose of the executions was to punish offenses including drug dealing, watching and disseminating South Korean videos, and violent crimes such as murder and rape. One defector said he witnessed the public execution of a man who shared South Korean movies in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, in 2014. Two others said they saw the execution of another Hyesan man on the same charges and the killing of an estimated 20 South Hwanghae Province residents for drug dealing and distributing South Korean videos in 2017. Testimonies also stated executions were carried out for possession of Bibles, circulating antiregime propaganda material, and superstitious activities. KINU noted, however, that public executions might have become less frequent in recent years.
In March 2019 the Malaysian prosecutor dropped charges against one woman accused of assassinating Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Later that month a second woman charged in the case accepted a plea deal and received early release in Malaysia. Four government agents, including Ri Ji U and Hong Song Hac, returned to the country from Malaysia immediately following the attack without standing trial.
As of year’s end, the government still had not accounted for the circumstances that led to the death of Otto Warmbier, who had been held in unjust and unwarranted detention by authorities, and who died soon after his release in 2017.
Killings by security forces did not appear to vary depending on race or ethnicity.
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 may have also kidnapped defectors traveling in China after relocating to South Korea. 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 Committee 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.
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. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country reported South Korea officially recognized 516 South Korean civilians abducted by regime authorities since the end of the Korean War with thousands more unaccounted for. South Korean 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.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The penal code prohibits torture or inhuman treatment, but many sources reported these practices continued. Numerous defector accounts and NGO reports described the use of torture by authorities in several detention facilities. Methods of torture and other abuse reportedly included severe beatings; electric shock; prolonged periods of exposure to the elements; humiliations such as public nakedness; confinement for up to several weeks in small “punishment cells” in which prisoners were unable to stand upright or lie down; being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods; being hung by the wrists; water torture; and being forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse, including “pumps,” or being forced to repeatedly squat and stand up with their hands behind their back.
Defectors continued to report many prisoners died from torture, disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, or a combination of these causes. Detainees in re-education through labor camps reported the state forced them to perform difficult physical labor under harsh conditions (see section 7.b.).
A report released on July 28 from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) catalogued numerous allegations of beatings, torture, and sexual violations against women who were forcibly repatriated after seeking to flee the country to find work, usually in neighboring China. KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported that children repatriated from China underwent torture, verbal abuse, and violence including beatings, hard labor, and hunger.
Impunity for acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by members of the security forces was endemic.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. NGO, defector, and press reports noted the government operated several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and camps for political prisoners. NGO reports documented six types of detention facilities: kwanliso (political penal-labor camps), kyohwaso (correctional or re-education centers), kyoyangso (labor-reform centers), jipkyulso (collection centers for low-level criminals), rodong danryeondae (labor-training centers), and kuryujang or kamok (interrogation facilities or jails). According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps, and either it or the Ministry of Social Security administered the other detention centers.
According to a March report by the HRNK, the government operated six kwanliso–Camps 14, 15, 16, 18, and 25, as well as Choma-bong Restricted Area. According to KINU’s most recent estimate in 2013, there were between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners in the kwanliso. Defectors claimed the kwanliso camps contained unmarked graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities. KINU identified the five kwanliso facilities as Gaecheon (Camp 14), Yodok (Camp 15), Hwaseong/Myeonggan (Camp 16), Gaechon (Camp 18), and Cheongjin (Camp 25). In addition the HRNK reported that the Choma-bong Restricted Area, constructed between 2013 and 2014, had not been confirmed by eyewitness reports, but it appeared to be operational and bore all the characteristics of a kwanliso.
Kwanliso camps consist of total-control zones, where incarceration is for life, and may include “revolutionary” or re-education zones from which prisoners may be released. Those whom the state considered hostile to the government or who committed political crimes reportedly received indefinite sentencing terms in political prison camps. In many cases the state also detained all family members if one member was accused or arrested. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, children were allowed to leave the camp after rising numbers of defectors made it difficult to send entire defector families to political prison camps. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.
Reports indicated the state typically sent those sentenced to prison for nonpolitical crimes to re-education prisons, where authorities subjected prisoners to intense forced labor.
Defectors noted they did not expect many prisoners in political prison camps and the detention system to survive. Detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture. Defectors described witnessing public executions in political prison camps. According to defectors, prisoners received little to no food or medical care in some places of detention. Sanitation was poor, and former labor camp inmates reported they had no changes of clothing during their incarceration and were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing. The South Korean and international press reported that the kyohwaso re-education through labor camps held populations of up to thousands of political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals. A March HRNK report entitled North Korea’s Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 1, Kaechon postulated that the government may have operated more than 20 kyohwaso. That report, which relied on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, estimated the population of Kyohwaso Number 1, located near Kaechon in South Pyongan Province, at 2,000 to 6,000 prisoners.
A September report by the HRNK entitled North Korea’s Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 12, Jongori stated the kyohwaso held both political and nonpolitical prisoners. According to the HRNK, based on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, Kyohwaso Number 12, located near Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, held approximately 5,000 individuals, the majority of whom were accused of illegal border crossings into China. The HRNK described frequent deaths within Kyohwaso Number 12 from injury, illness, and physical and mental abuse by prison officials, and included first-hand accounts of crematorium operations designed to dispose of prisoners’ bodies surreptitiously.
In both kyohwaso and kwanliso prison camps, conditions were extremely brutal, according to the HRNK’s 2017 report The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s “An-Jeon-Bu” Prison Camps. The report cited defector accounts of imprisonment and forced labor and the provision of below-subsistence-level food rations “for essentially political crimes.”
Physical Conditions: Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Anecdotal reports from the South Korea-based NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) 2019 White Paper on Human Rights stated that in some prisons authorities held women in separate units from men and often subjected the women to sexual abuse. Reports from previous years attributed rape to the impunity and unchecked power of prison guards and other officials. OHCHR reporting noted that, contrary to international human rights standards that require women prisoners to be guarded exclusively by female prison staff to prevent sexual violence, female escapees reported they were overseen almost exclusively by male officers. In the same report, victims alleged widespread sexual abuse at holding centers (jipkyulso) and pretrial detention and interrogation centers (kuryujang) by secret police (bowiseong) or police interrogators, as well as during transfer between facilities.
An October report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled Worth Less Than An Animal: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea stated the pretrial detention system was opaque, arbitrary, violent, and lacked any semblance of due process. Individuals in pretrial detention reportedly endured brutal conditions and to be routinely subjected to systematic torture, sexual violence, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and forced labor.
Nutrition, hygiene, and the medical situation inside prison camps were dire, according to KINU’s 2019 white paper. There were no statistics for deaths in custody, but defectors reported deaths were commonplace as the result of summary executions, torture, lack of adequate medical care, and starvation. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) report cited an “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous forced labor, disease, and executions.
Political prisoners faced significantly harsher conditions than the general prison population. KINU’s 2019 white paper noted political prisoners were often forced into hard labor, which one defector of Camp 18 said led to 10 deaths a year at the camp from overwork. Defectors reported that in Camp 14, prisoners worked 12 hours a day during the summer and 10 hours a day during the winter, with one day off a month. The camps observed New Year’s Day and the birthdays of Kim II Sung and Kim Jong Il. Children ages 12 or older worked, and guards gave light duty to prisoners older than age 65. According to the 2016 HRNK report Gulag, Inc., three political prison camps and four re-education camps contained mines where prisoners worked long hours with frequent deadly accidents. One prisoner reported suffering an open foot fracture and being forced to return to the mine the same day. Prisoners were forced to work even when they were sick. Prisoners who failed to meet work quotas reportedly faced reduced meals and violence. Those caught stealing faced arbitrary and serious violence.
By law the state dismisses criminal cases against a person 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. Authorities often detained juveniles along with their families and reportedly subjected them to torture and abuse in detention facilities.
Administration: There was little evidence to suggest prisoners and detainees had reasonable access to visitors. Refugees reported authorities subjected Christian inmates to harsher punishment than others. According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons whom prison authorities found were practicing religion within detention facilities. No information was available regarding whether authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of abuse. There was no publicly available information on whether the government investigated or monitored prison and detention conditions. The 2019 HRNK Imagery Analysis of Pokchong-ni Lab noted officials, especially those within the military and the internal security organizations, continued to camouflage and conceal activity at prison camps.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not allow the UN special rapporteur into the country to assess prison conditions. The government did not permit other human rights monitors to inspect prisons and detention facilities.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but according to defectors, media, and NGO reports, the government did not observe these prohibitions.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law limits detention during prosecution and trial, requires arrest by warrant, and prohibits forced confessions. The application of these provisions was not verified.
Members of the security forces arrested and reportedly transported citizens suspected of committing political crimes to prison camps without trial. According to one South Korean NGO, the Ministry of Social Security handles criminal cases directly without the approval of prosecutors, reportedly to bypass prosecutorial corruption. An NGO reported that, by law, investigators could detain an individual for investigation for up to two months. The HRNK reported Ministry of State Security or Ministry of Social Security units nonetheless interrogated suspects for months on end. No functioning bail system or other alternatives for release pending trial exists.
There were no restrictions on the government’s ability to detain and imprison persons at will or to hold them incommunicado. Family members and other concerned persons reportedly found it virtually impossible to obtain information on charges against detained persons or the lengths of their sentences. According to defector reports, families were not notified of arrest, detention, or sentencing. Judicial review or appeals of detentions did not exist in law or practice. According to an opinion adopted in 2015 by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, family members have no recourse to petition for the release of detainees accused of political crimes, as the state may deem any such advocacy for political prisoners an act of treason against the state and could result in the detention of family members. No information on detainees’ access to a lawyer was available.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests reportedly occurred. According to the 2019 report of the UN secretary-general on the situation of human rights in the country, arbitrary arrests appeared to be carried out in a widespread and systematic manner. According to KINU’s 2019 white paper, arbitrary arrest commonly occurred for political crimes, attempting to enter South Korea, and engaging in religious activities, as well as for watching or distributing foreign media.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: According to defectors there was no mechanism for persons to challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court.
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 2019, 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, HRW reported treatment of individuals in pretrial detention often depended on access to connections and money.
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.
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, they 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 court system conducted the trial. Some defectors testified that the ministry also conducted trials. KINU’s white paper for 2019 cited defector testimony that imprisonment in political prison camps is 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.”
Political Prisoners and Detainees
While the total number of political prisoners and detainees remained unknown, KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported the state detained between 80,000 and 120,000 in the kwanliso political penal-labor camps. Incarceration in a kwanliso is in most cases for life and in many cases includes three generations of the prisoner’s family. NGOs and media reported political prisoners were subject to harsher punishments and fewer protections than other prisoners and detainees. 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
There were credible reports that for political purposes the regime attempted to exert bilateral pressure on another country to repatriate refugees. According to the UN secretary-general, several UN member states, as well as OHCHR and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, expressed concern that forcibly returned defectors, including children, faced a significant risk of human rights violations, including torture. Additionally, the government attempted to target, harass, and threaten defectors and other perceived enemies resident outside of the country.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
According to the constitution, “citizens are entitled to submit complaints and petitions. The state shall fairly investigate and deal with complaints and petitions as fixed by law.” By law citizens are entitled to submit complaints to stop encroachment upon their rights and interests or seek compensation for the encroached rights and interests. Reports noted government officials did not respect these rights. For example, when individuals submitted anonymous petitions or complaints regarding state administration, the Ministry of Social Security and the Ministry of State Security sought to identify the authors and subject them to investigation and punishment.
Individuals and organizations do not have the ability to appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution provides for the inviolability of person and residence and the privacy of correspondence; however, the government did not respect these provisions. The regime subjected its citizens to rigid controls. According to a December 2019 HRNK report entitled Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, the regime relied upon a massive, multilevel system of informants called inminban, which may be loosely translated as “neighborhood watch unit,” to identify critics or political criminals. Authorities sometimes subjected entire communities to security checks, entering homes without judicial authorization.
The government appeared to monitor correspondence, telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and other digital communications. Private telephone lines operated on a system that precluded making or receiving international calls; international telephone lines were available only under restricted circumstances.
The Ministry of State Security strictly monitored mobile telephone use and access to electronic media in real time. Government authorities frequently jammed cellular telephone signals along the Chinese border to block use of the Chinese network to make international telephone calls. Authorities arrested those caught using cell phones with Chinese SIM cards and required violators to pay a fine, bribe, or face charges of espionage or other crimes with harsh punishments, including lengthy prison terms. An HRNK October report entitled Eroding the Regime’s Information Monopoly: Cell Phones in North Korea stated the number of both illegal Chinese-made cell phones and legally registered cell phones had risen sharply in recent years. Mobile networks were said to reach approximately 94 percent of the population, although only 18 percent of the population owned a cell phone. The Ministry of State Security and other organs of the state actively and pervasively surveilled citizens, maintained arresting power, and conducted special purpose nonmilitary investigations.
The government divided citizens into strict loyalty-based classes known as songbun, which determined access to employment, higher education, place of residence, medical facilities, certain stores, marriage prospects, and food rations.