Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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 with the person’s hands behind their back. Mothers were in some cases reportedly forced to watch or to commit the infanticide of their newborn infants. Defectors continued to report many prisoners died from torture, disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, or a combination of these causes.
The December 2017 International Bar Association (IBA) Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons alleged that torture with water or electricity was standard practice by the MSS. Other allegations include being stripped, hung inverted, and beaten as well as the sticking of needles under a detainee’s fingernails, among other forms of torture.
The White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, published by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a South Korean government-affiliated think tank, and the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report stated that officials had in some cases prohibited live births in prison and ordered forced abortions as recently as 2013. Detainees in re-education through labor camps reported the state forced them to perform difficult physical labor under harsh conditions (see section 7.b.).
The KINU white paper found that, in some cases of live birth, the prison guards killed the infant or left the baby to die, and it reported cases of guards sexually abusing or exploiting female prisoners.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
NGO, defector, and press reports noted there were several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and separate 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 the 2017 KINU white paper, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps and either it or the Ministry of People’s Security administered the other detention centers.
There were reportedly between 5,000 and 50,000 prisoners per kwanliso. Defectors claimed the kwanliso camps contained unmarked graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities. NGOs reported the existence of between four and six kwanliso facilities, including Gaecheon (Camp 14), Yodok (Camp 15), Hwaseong/Myeonggan (Camp 16), Pukchang (Camp 18), Cheongjin (Camp 25), and the Choma-bong Restricted Area. 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 “rerevolutionizing zones,” from which prisoners may be released. 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. Those 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. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.
Reports indicated conditions in the prison camp and detention system were harsh and life threatening and that systematic and severe human rights abuse occurred. 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 held populations of up to thousands of political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals.
Both the kyohwaso re-education camps and kwanliso prison camps host extremely brutal conditions, according to HRNK’s 2016 report North Korea: Kyohwaso No. 12, Jongori. The report noted, “The brutality affects both those convicted of actual offenses and those sentenced for essentially political offenses.”
According to the Hidden Gulag IV report, since late 2008 Jongori (formerly referred to as Camp 12) in North Hamkyung Province was expanded to include a women’s annex that held approximately 1,000 women, most of whom the state imprisoned after forcibly returning them from China. Satellite imagery and defector testimony corroborated the existence of this women’s annex. Defector testimony also cited food rations below subsistence levels, forced labor, and high rates of death due to starvation at Jongori.
Physical Conditions: Estimates of the total number of prisoners and detainees in the prison and detention system ranged between 80,000 and 120,000. Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Anecdotal reports from the NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and the 2014 COI report stated that in some prisons authorities held women in separate units from men and often subjected the women to sexual abuse. The COI report added, “Cases of rape are a direct consequence of the impunity and unchecked power that prison guards and other officials enjoy.” In November, Human Rights Watch released a report providing defector accounts of sexual abuse at detention centers between 2009 and 2013. 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 while being transferred between facilities.
There were no statistics available regarding deaths in custody, but defectors reported deaths were commonplace as the result of summary executions, torture, lack of adequate medical care, and starvation. The COI report cited “extremely high rate of deaths in custody,” due to starvation and neglect, arduous forced labor, disease, and executions.
Defectors also 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 Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Children age 12 or older worked, and guards gave light duty to prisoners older than 65 years of age. According to 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 provided supervision over other prisoners and worked 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.
NGO and press reports estimated there were between 182 and 490 detention facilities in the country.
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 age 14 and younger than age 17, but little information was available regarding how the law was actually 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. In past years refugees reported authorities subjected Christian inmates to harsher punishment if they made their faith public. No information was available regarding religious observance nor on whether authorities conducted proper investigations of credible allegations of abuse.
Independent Monitoring: There was no publicly available information on whether the government investigated or monitored prison and detention conditions. The 2015 HRNK Imagery Analysis of Camp 15 noted officials, especially those within the Korean People’s Army and the internal security organizations, clearly understand the importance of implementing camouflage, concealment, and deception procedures to mask their operations and intentions. The government did not allow the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the DPRK into the country to assess prison conditions. The government did not permit other human rights monitors to inspect prisons and detention facilities.
Section 7. Worker Rights
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. Nonetheless, the government mobilized the population for construction and other labor projects. “Reformatory labor” and “re-education through labor,” sometimes of entire families, have traditionally been common punishments for political offenses. Forced and compulsory labor in such activities as logging, mining, tending crops, and manufacturing continued to be the common fate of political prisoners. Re-education involved memorizing speeches by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
The law requires all citizens of working age to work and “strictly observe labor discipline and working hours.” There were numerous reports that farms and factories did not pay wages or provide food to their workers. Forced labor continued to take place in brick making, cement manufacturing, coal mining, gold mining, logging, iron production, agriculture, and textile industries. South Korean NGO Open North Korea estimated that North Koreans perform $975 million worth of forced labor each year. In July the Walk Free Foundation, in its Global Slavery Index, estimated one out of every 10 individuals, or approximately 2.6 million persons, in North Korea were in situations of modern slavery.
According to reports from a NGO, during the implementation of short-term economic plans, factories and farms increased workers’ hours and asked workers for contributions of grain and money to purchase supplies for renovations and repairs. By law failure to meet economic plan goals may result in two years of “labor correction.” There were reports that workers were required to work at enterprises to which the government assigned them and then failed to compensate or undercompensated them for their work. Media reported an increasing number of urban poor North Koreans moved to remote mountains in an attempt to hide from authorities and avoid mass mobilizations. In March the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea noted that in April 2017 authorities reportedly evicted up to 600 families in villages in Ryanggang Province to allow for the construction of a new railway line and high-rise apartment blocks. Some of those evicted were reportedly mobilized alongside local youth shock brigades to help with the railway construction.
According to Open North Korea’s report Sweatshop, North Korea, 16- or 17-year-olds of low songbun were assigned to 10 years of forced labor called dolgyeokdae. One worker reportedly earned a mere 120 won (less than $0.15) per month. During a 200-day labor mobilization campaign in 2016, for example, the workers worked as many as 17 hours per day. State media boasted that the laborers worked in subzero temperatures. One laborer reported conditions were so dangerous while building an apartment building that at least one person died each time a new floor was added. Songbun status also determines lifelong job assignments, with the lowest classes relegated to dangerous mines.
The NGO Human Rights Watch reported the government operated regional, local, or subdistrict level “labor training centers” and forced detainees to work for short periods doing hard labor, receiving little food, and subject to abuse, including regular beatings. Authorities reportedly sent individuals to such centers if suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or unemployed.
There were an estimated 100,000 North Korean citizens working as overseas laborers, primarily in Russia and China. Workers were also reportedly present in the following countries: Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mali, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Congo, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Workers reportedly worked in a range of industries, including but not limited to apparel, construction, footwear manufacturing, hospitality, IT services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.
Reports suggested many countries took steps to reduce the number of North Korean workers in their countries during the year, although some reports suggested several countries resumed issuing work authorizations for North Korean workers in the second half of the year. For example, the Russian government reportedly extended work permits for more than 3,200 DPRK workers through December 2019. Similarly, there were reports that previously closed factories in China had resumed operations with new North Korean workers.
Numerous NGOs noted North Korean workers abroad were subjected to forced labor. NGO reports indicated the government managed these laborers as a matter of state policy and were under constant and close surveillance by DPRK security agents. Laborers worked between 12 and 16 hours per day, and sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. Employers stated the average wage as 270,000 to 900,000 won per month ($300 to $1,000), but in most cases employing firms paid salaries directly to the DPRK government, which took between 70 percent and 90 percent of the total earnings, leaving approximately 90,000 won ($100) per month for worker take-home pay. The government reportedly received hundreds of millions of dollars (more than a trillion won) from this system per year. The state reportedly withheld some wages in certain instances until the laborers returned home after the completion of their three-year contracts, making them vulnerable to deception and exploitation by authorities.
Some academic reporting showed North Korean workers specializing in cyber were required to meet financial quota through both licit and illicit cyber activity. According to NGO reporting, such workers reportedly face many of the same living and working conditions as those workers in low-skilled jobs.
In 2017 international press and the NGO Human Rights Watch reported the forced labor conditions faced by DPRK overseas workers at World Cup sites in Russia, noting 11-hour workdays for $10-$15 a day, seven days a week, the confiscation of passports, and cramped living conditions.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
By law the state prohibits work by children younger than age 16. Neither the general labor law nor Kaesong Industrial Complex labor law prohibits hazardous child labor.
Officials occasionally sent schoolchildren to work in factories or fields for short periods to assist in completing special projects, such as snow removal on major roads or meeting production goals. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child noted its concern children were also sometimes subjected to mass mobilizations in agriculture away from their families, with long working hours per day, sometimes for periods of one month at a time. The Committee also noted its concern with the practice of accepting children aged 16 and 17 to dolgyeokdae (military-style construction youth brigades) for 10-year periods. Such children were subjected to long working hours and heavy physical work.
The effects of such forced labor on students included physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion, and growth deficiencies. The law criminalizes forced child labor, but there were reports such practices occurred. NGOs reported government officials held thousands of children and forced them to work in labor camps with their parents.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
While the law provides that all citizens “may enjoy equal rights in all spheres of state and public activities” and all “able-bodied persons may choose occupations in accordance with their wishes and skills,” the law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or other factors. There is no direct reference to employment discrimination in the law, yet classification based on the songbun system has a bearing on equal employment opportunities and equal pay.
Despite the law according women equal social status and rights, societal and legal discrimination against women continued. The 2014 UN COI report noted that, despite the economic advancement of women, the state continued to discriminate against them and imposed many restrictions on the female-dominated market. The November 2017 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted, for example, its concern with the continued sex-segregation of the workforce, with labor laws and directives assigning specific jobs to women while impeding their access to others, and women’s retirement age being set at 55 years, compared with 60 years for men, and its consequences for their pension benefits, economic independence, and access to decision-making positions.
Persons with disabilities also faced employment discrimination; for example, the December 2017 report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities noted persons with disabilities with no opportunities to work were “looked down upon.” Most of the approximately 1,200 workshops or light factories for persons with disabilities built in the 1950s were reportedly no longer operational; there were limited inclusive workplaces, although the government reported it created nine self-help groups in 2014 of persons with and without disabilities working together on income-generating activities.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
No reliable data were available on the minimum wage in state-owned industries. Monthly wages in some enterprises in the heavy industrial sectors as well as in the textile and garment sector reportedly increased from 3,000 to 4,000 won ($0.30 to $0.40) to 30,000 won ($30) in 2013, with approximately one-third of the wage paid in cash and the remainder in kind.
The law stipulates an eight-hour workday; however, some sources reported that laborers worked longer hours, perhaps including additional time for mandatory study of the writings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The law provides all citizens with a “right to rest,” including one day’s rest per week (Sunday), paid leave, holidays, and access to sanitariums and rest homes funded at public expense; however, the state’s willingness and ability to provide these services were unknown.
The law recognizes the state’s responsibility for providing modern and hygienic working conditions. The law criminalizes the failure to heed “labor safety orders” pertaining to worker safety and workplace conditions, but only if the conditions result in the loss of lives or other “grave loss.” Workers themselves do not have a designated right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions.
Mandatory participation in mass events on holidays and practice sessions for such events sometimes compromised leave or rest from work. Workers were often required to “celebrate” at least some part of public holidays with their work units and were able to spend an entire day with their families only if the holiday lasted two days. Failures to pay wages were common and reportedly drove some workers to seek income-generating activity in the informal or underground economy.
Many worksites were hazardous, and the industrial accident rate was high. Citizens labored under harsh conditions while working abroad for state-owned firms and under arrangements between the government and foreign firms (see section 7.b.).
Endnote: Note on Sourcing
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The DPRK does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other invited guests the freedom of movement that would enable them to assess fully human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses.