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Torture, kidnapping and gulags: North Korea’s alleged crimes against humanity

A North Korean man stands on the rooftop near a North Korean flag as fighter jets fly past during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of North Korean founder, Kim Il Sung on Sunday, April 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The decision by a U.N. General Assembly committee to condemn North Korea for crimes against humanity this week is historic. It could well lead to North Korean leaders facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), forcing them to confront the numerous accusations made against their isolated regime.

There is still a long way to go, however. The resolution must pass the Security Council, where Russia and China -- two important allies of North Korea -- hold veto power. Also, the ICC itself has struggled with problems of legitimacy since it was established in 2002 to prosecute war crimes.

Even so, North Korea seems worried, and after Tuesday's decision it offered a belligerent warning that it would conduct further nuclear tests. The reaction reflects a broader trend: In the past few months, the country has used crude insults and a curious charm offensive to try to deflect the U.N. criticism of its human rights offenses. At one point, it even released a list of the alleged U.S. human rights abuses, in a clear moment of "Whataboutism."

The fear emanating from Pyongyang comes from one major factor: the sheer scale and scope of the human rights abuses it stands accused of committing.

A year-long U.N. investigation released earlier this year found that they were “without any parallel in the contemporary world." The crimes were so bad that the specially formed Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea compared them to the horrors of Nazi Germany. In the light of backlash and the upcoming decision by the U.N. Security Council, it's worth taking a look back at just how extreme the accusations made against North Korea are.

The lengthy Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea identified six groups of victims against whom North Korea had committed crimes against humanity. We explain them below.


1. Inmates of political prison camps.

North Korea denies they exist, but its political prison camps have become notorious around the world in the past few years, and accounts of the camps from survivors formed one of the key parts of the committee's report.

While the country has downsized to just four sites in recent years, the committee still estimated there are between 80,000 and 120,000 people still in the camps, most of whom are never due for release. The system is modeled on the Soviet Union's infamous "Gulag" system, though the United Nations notes that "many features of the DPRK camps are even harsher than what could be found in the Gulag camps."

One particularly horrible concept is “guilt by association," which has meant that generations of families could be locked up for the alleged political crimes of one person. The report noted that three generations could be locked up in some cases. Some prisoners were even born in the camps, and never saw freedom. One ex-prisoner told the committee:

“I was born a criminal and I would die a criminal. That was my fate … Where I lived only two kinds of people existed, the guards who had guns and the people who are inmates wearing uniforms. Inmates were born inmates, so we lived like inmates; that was our fate... Nobody taught us that way but that was all that we could see… so that’s how we lived.""

In these camps, things are especially dire. People are beaten and tortured routinely, and conditions so bad that prisoners are forced to eat rodents to survive. One former inmate told the committee how she fed her young children:

“[The] babies [had] bloated stomachs. [We] cooked snakes and mice to feed these babies and if there was a day that we were able to have a mouse, this was a special diet for us. We had to eat everything alive, every type of meat that we could find; anything that flew, that crawled on the ground. Any grass that grew in the field, we had to eat. That’s the reality of the prison camp.”"

2. Inmates of the ordinary prison system, in particular political prisoners among them.

While the regular prison system isn't quite as bad as the political system, it's still horrific by any standard we know. The report notes that many of the inmates are imprisoned without trial or without any kind of due process. The committee notes that the conditions inside the ordinary prison system can still be so bad that people die:

A former female inmate of Ordinary Prison Camp (kyohwaso) No. 11 at Cheungson described how she was held with 40 to 50 inmates in a cell of approximately 40 square metres in the female section. People could not lie down straight and fights about space were frequent. In winter, it was extremely cold in the cellblock. Inmates could only wash themselves once a month, and everyone had lice. Every month, at least two people from her cell died.

Prisoners can be treated horrifically. The report details some of the sexual abuse seen at one ordinary prison:

According to a former female inmate of [Kyohwaso N. 12 prison], the guards had the prettier among the female inmates sit close to the bars, so that they could grope their breasts. The same witness also knew several women who agreed to sexual contacts with the guards to receive more than the usual starvation rations or other benefits that allowed them to survive. On one occasion, one female inmate spoke about such a sexual contact with others. The guards made her kneel outside covered from head to toe in thick layers of snow, so that she appeared like a grotesque human snowman.

3. Religious believers and others considered to introduce subversive influences.

The U.N. committee's report states that religious North Koreans, in particular Christians, face persecution from the state. While the North Korean state points to a number of state-sanctioned churches as proof of religious tolerance, the committee found that ordinary citizens are not allowed to practice Christianity and that it was treated as a political crime.

"It has been compared to a drug, narcotics, a sin, and a tool of Western and capitalist invasion. Christian missionaries are portrayed as the product of USA capitalism and work akin to vampirism," the report notes.

Accounts from North Koreans suggest horrific punishment for those found to be practicing Christianity:

Both of Mr A’s sisters were punished severely for their religious belief and activities. One was discovered to be preaching Christianity to a friend and was caught with a Bible resulting in a 13 year sentence in an ordinary prison camp (kyohwaso). The other was caught in China. As a result of the starvation rations and horrendous living conditions, the first sister almost died in prison and only survived after Mr A paid a substantial bribe to free her after three years of confinement. The other sister was labelled a political criminal because it was discovered that she had practised Christianity in China and had also attempted to flee to the ROK. She was sent to Yodok Camp and was never heard from again.

The report notes that there are indications of a "genocide against religious groups, specifically Christians, in particular in the 1950s and 1960s." However, the committee found that it would be impossible to research this possibility without access to North Korean archives.

4. Persons who try to flee the country.

The committee's report found that, in practice, most North Korean citizens are subject to a blanket travel ban. If they break this ban, they risk extreme violence and harsh punishment.

Despite this, many do try to flee the country, crossing illegally over to China. The committee noted that guards at the border may operate with a "shoot to kill" policy, and that North Korea's security services have also been accused of traveling into China to abduct North Korean citizens who have made it across.

Those who are caught are often made an example of to deter others who might hope to escape. The report recounts one story:

Ms Kwon Young-hee spoke to the Commission about her brother who was arrested in China in 1994 for attempting to “defect” from the DPRK. He had gone to China in search of food. As an example to others against committing similar “anti-state” offences, he was tied to the back of a truck which took him to their home town, Musan.
By the time he reached Musan, his face was covered with blood, his clothes were all torn. And when he fell, they stopped the truck and rushed him to stand up again. At the time my brother was discharged [from the army] for malnutrition, and he was diabetic. My mother tried to treat his diabetes in the hospital so he was diabetic at the time he went to China. … Even when my brother collapsed, the truck would go on and the Bowibu people, when my brother collapsed, would beat my brother up to make him stand up. Musan is a big city but they drove him around Musan city three times so that everybody could see him.

The report also notes that repatriated citizens are often tortured and kept in inhumane conditions when they return. There have even been cases where pregnant women have been forced to undergo abortions and newborn babies were killed, the committee found.

5. Starving populations.

One of the reasons that people would risk their lives to leave North Korea is simple: They can't get enough food.

While food shortages have gotten better since the the mass starvation of the 1990s, which may have led to the death of as many as 2.5 million people, the committee found that starvation was still a major issue in the country. The report sites data from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations that estimated that between 2011 and 2013, 30.9 percent of the population suffered from malnutrition. The report also noted is that what food there was often distributed for political reasons.

The lack of food has an especially big effect on children, the report noted:

At the Seoul Public Hearing, Mr Kim Hyuk described the situation in the orphanage where he was placed by his father in 1995. He said that in 1997 “twenty four out of 75 orphans passed away from starvation… internally there was no food subsidized to the orphanages. So what we ate at the time was the remainder of the corn. We dried it and we grinded and turned it into a powder. That’s what we got, but it does not contain any nutrition and because of that, we got constipation…. There was nothing to eat in the orphanage. In 1996 and 1997, the orphanages tried to release as many children as possible because they didn’t have anything to give to the kids. So they thoughts that kids were better off begging in the streets. It would be better than starving to death sitting in the orphanage.

6. Persons from other countries who became victims of international abductions and enforced disappearances.

One of the most incredible crimes described by the U.N. committee's report is the practice of abducting foreign nationals, a practice that has its roots in the Korean War but has extended into recent years.

In 2002, then-leader Kim Jong Il admitted that his country had also abducted Japanese nationals and taken them to North Korea in the 1970s and '80s. Kim expressed regret for the action, which served espionage and terrorism functions. The U.N. report describes how people were taken:

Kidnappings of nationals on land in Japan mostly occurred in the countryside, near the coast. Agents approach Japan by sea, and landed onshore. Women walking alone were often targeted for the ease at which they could be overcome. The former official cited various methods used to overcome victims. These included surrounding the victims, choking them and/ or tying a bandage soaking in anaesthetic over their mouths before putting them in a sack for transportion to the boat.

Often, those abducted were never heard from again. The U.N. noted the case of Ms Masumoto Rumiko and Mr Ichikawa Shuichi who were abducted from Japan in 1978 and (according to North Korea) subsequently died in North Korea. Masumoto’s brother, Masumoto Teruaki, told the U.N. of his anguish about the kidnapping:

“My family was worried sick about Rumiko. Every single day we prayed that she was alive somewhere. We grieved for a long time, but after a while we stopped talking about it, because every time we did, it reopened the wounds and my mother would start crying again as if it happened yesterday.
We tried to get on with our lives, but our smiles were forced. Rumiko was always in our thoughts. We lost the ability to enjoy life at all. The pain of losing a sister I loved has never gone away, so I can only imagine what torment my parents have gone through.”

A number of other nationalities have also been abducted. These people were often kept isolated and denied many freedoms. While the kidnappings appear to have slowed down in the last 15 years, the U.N. found evidence they had not stopped totally.


This is just a tiny portion of the U.N. committee's full report, which came out to 372 pages and more than 200,000 words in total, and it only scratches the surface of the depths of the accusations.

The North Korean government later released its own human rights report and stated that North Korean citizens enjoyed "world's most advantageous human rights system." The report dismissed the testimonies of the North Korean defectors who had spoken to the U.N. committee, labeling them  "riffraffs," "fugitives" and "terrorists."