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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

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law 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 (see also section 1.a.).

Detainees in re-education through labor camps reported the state forced them to perform difficult physical labor under harsh conditions (see also section 7.b.).

A 2020 report from the 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 2020 reported that children repatriated from China underwent torture, verbal abuse, and violence including beatings, hard labor, and hunger. On January 11, 2021, the OHCHR reported that beatings, stress positions, psychological abuse, forced labor, denial of medical care and sanitation and hygiene products, and starvation all combined to create an atmosphere of severe mental and physical suffering in detention, exacerbated by extremely poor living conditions. The report added that multiple credible accounts of such abuse provided reasonable grounds to believe that officials “have inflicted and continue to intentionally inflict severe physical and/or mental pain upon detainees in custody.” The December 2021 TJWG Mapping Killings under Kim Jong-un study reported testimonies describing “inhumane treatment” of the accused immediately before their executions; violence used to deny their dignity and serve as a warning to the public; public statements denouncing the accused as a threat to society, to justify the violence directed at them including torture, execution, and corpse desecration; and victims’ family members compelled to watch them being executed.

Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Reports from the South Korea-based NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights 2020 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. The White Paper added that women defectors who were forcibly repatriated suffered significantly worse sexual assaults and abuse in prisons and jails than did other women.

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, survivors 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 2020 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 were routinely subjected to systematic torture, sexual violence, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and forced labor.

On July 14, China forcibly repatriated approximately 50 North Korean refugees to the DPRK, prompting fear among human rights organizations that the repatriated individuals, and more than 1,000 North Koreans still detained in China and at risk of forcible return, faced the prospect in the DPRK of forced labor, imprisonment, sexual violence, and torture (see also section 1.e., Politically Motivated Reprisal).

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 2020, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps, and either it or the Ministry of Social Security administered the other detention centers.

NGOs reported varying numbers of political prisons. According to a 2020 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. The NGO NK Watch estimated that 135,000 political prisoners continued to be held in four political prison camps between September 2019 and July 2020. 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/Myonggan (Camp 16), Bukchang (Camp 18), and Chongjin (Camp 25).

Kwanliso camps consisted 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 2020, children were allowed to leave camps after rising numbers of defectors made it difficult to send entire families to political prison camps. The 2020 White Paper contained testimony indicating that in some cases, only parents were detained while children were released. In other cases children were detained in psychiatric hospitals and executed there. 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.

In August media reported that the government had ordered preliminary work for constructing “specialized quarantine facilities” to replace the local inns, nursing homes, and other makeshift facilities where individuals confined with suspected COVID-19 symptoms failed to receive proper treatment. These makeshift facilities lacked medicine and adequate food, and individuals in them often died of hunger and cold. The same month media reported the government was “believed to be confining violators of quarantine rules in ‘total control zones,’” camps of “lifetime imprisonment” where inmates were subjected to forced labor in mines and lumber camps.

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 2020 HRNK report entitled North Koreas 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.

Another 2020 report by the HRNK entitled North Koreas 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.

On July 22, 2021, an HRNK report, North Koreas Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 8, Sunghori, stated that the facility was located approximately 16 miles east of Pyongyang and held 2,000 prisoners who mined coal. Using satellite imagery, the HRNK determined that two elements of the facility were within 1,200 feet of six small mining operations with a “well-used trail” leading directly there – “strong indications” that prisoners were used for mining operations. A former prisoner told the HRNK that due to the proximity of the mine, parts of the floor were so hot it was impossible to walk on, and that one day when an export unit connecting doll eyelashes for export to China failed to reach its quota, women in the unit had to kneel on the hot part of the floor, causing their skin to burn within five minutes. The prisoner reported that five or six inmates died from the heat during her imprisonment.

On November 3, 2021, the HRNK, announcing another report, North Koreas Long-term Prison-Labor Facility, Kyohwaso No. 3, Tosong-ni, noted that both satellite imagery and interviewee testimony indicated prisoners were “forced to work in agricultural production as well as in some light manufacturing, likely including clothing and bicycles.” The report included a satellite image from March 2021 that it termed “somewhat unique” in showing “what are most probably three groups of prisoners in formations of different sizes outside the main prison entrance and in the nearby support area,” where “what appear to be numerous stacks of grain” stood adjacent to the formations, supporting testimony that prisoners were used to work nearby agricultural fields. The HRNK executive director stressed that the facility’s location in Sinuiju city, just across the Yalu River from Dandong, China, was of great importance “to both the illicit border trade fueling North Korea’s informal markets and the routes followed by North Koreans who attempt to escape.” He added that “under the pretext of COVID prevention,” the government was “cracking down hard” on both markets and attempted escapes.

On December 22, 2021, the HRNK, announcing the publication of North Koreas Political Prison Camp, Kwanliso No. 14, Update 1, stated that the entire camp was believed to be a “total control zone,” where prisoners were never eligible for release. “Based on the physical security measures observed,” most individuals inside the camp perimeter were prisoners. According to satellite imagery analysis, prisoners maintained the agricultural fields, orchards, and livestock. Forced to work in logging and manufacturing wood products, they were also dispatched as forced labor at light industrial facilities and mines. The report cited testimony from several interviewees that prisoners were routinely treated with brutality and received limited food rations.

In both kyohwaso and kwanliso prison camps, conditions were extremely brutal, according to the HRNK’s 2017 report The Parallel Gulag: North Koreas An-Jeon-Bu Prison Camps. The report cited defector accounts of imprisonment, forced labor, and the provision of below-subsistence-level food rations “for essentially political crimes.”

Physical Conditions: Nutrition, hygiene, and the medical situation inside prison camps were dire, according to KINU’s 2020 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. In July media reported that the number of inmates in political prisons had increased since March 2020 from an estimated 209,000 to approximately 232,400. KINU’s 2020 White Paper noted political prisoners were often forced into hard labor, which one defector of Camp 18 stated 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.

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 Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, 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.

Section 7. Worker Rights

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. The government did not enforce the law and mobilized the population for compulsory labor on construction and other projects. “Reformatory labor” and “re-education through labor,” sometimes of entire families, were 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. Penalties for forced labor were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes such as kidnapping and were not applied.

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 the brick making, cement manufacturing, coal mining, gold mining, logging, iron production, agriculture, and textile industries. The Walk Free Foundation in its 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that one of every 10 individuals, or approximately 2.6 million persons, in the country were in situations of modern slavery.

On July 28, 2021, the UN secretary-general reported that the economy “continues to be organized in a way that relies on the widespread extraction of forced labor, including from conscripted soldiers and the general populace, including children” (see also section 7.c.). In June RFA reported the government was forcing nearly 14,000 married women from all regions of the country to “volunteer” for farm work in South Hwanghae Province to boost food output after the 2020 suspension of border trade with China cut off food imports and the country endured a bad harvest. In July RFA reported the government forcibly mobilized married women in Ryanggang Province, near the river bordering China, to make cement blocks for the construction of a wall to prevent escape and stop the smuggling of food and other goods that had escalated after the government’s border closure caused price spikes in 2020. The schedule required those ranging “from newlywed women in their 20s to those in their 60s” to transport enough sand from the mountains each day to mix with cement and produce 10 blocks, for the wall to be built by October 10, the Party Foundation Day deadline.

According to reports from an 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.” In 2019 workers who were reportedly required to work at enterprises assigned by the government received no compensation or were undercompensated by the enterprises. In 2020 women in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, reported that government officials required all women in the area to work daily on construction and other projects. Those physically unable to work had to pay a monetary fine, and security forces arrested evaders.

The 2019 UN report The Price Is Rights noted work “outside the State system, in the informal sector, has become a fundamental means to survival [but] access to work in the informal sector has become contingent on the payment of bribes.” In addition, NGOs and media reported that stricter border and internal travel restrictions, due to government fears concerning the spread of COVID-19, made it extremely difficult for persons to pursue a living through informal trading. The HRNK’s 2020 report entitled Imagery Analysis of Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongo-ri, Update 3 detailed the use of forced labor by prison officials in the production of false eyelashes.

According to NGO Open North Korea’s 2016 report Sweatshop, North Korea, individuals ages 16 or 17 from the low-loyalty class were assigned to 10 years of forced labor in military-style construction youth brigades. One worker reportedly earned 120 won (less than $0.15) per month. During a 200-day labor mobilization campaign in 2016, for example, these young 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 floor was added. Loyalty class status also determined lifelong job assignments, with the lowest classes relegated to dangerous mines.

HRW reported the government operated regional, local, or subdistrict-level “labor training centers” where detainees were forced to work for short periods doing hard labor, with little food and subject to abuse, including regular beatings. Authorities reportedly sent individuals to such centers if they were suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or were unemployed. In 2018 the HRNK reported that thousands of citizens including children were detained in prison-like conditions in these centers and suggested that satellite imagery indicated the number and size of such camps were expanding.

The vast majority of North Koreans employed outside the country were in Russia and China. Workers were also reportedly in Georgia (in Abkhazia, a Russia-occupied region), Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Laos, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Syria, and Tanzania. While some places removed most or all of these workers during the year, reports suggested that some places either took no action or issued work authorizations or other documentation, allowing these individuals to work.

Numerous NGOs noted workers abroad were subjected to forced labor. NGO reports indicated the government managed these laborers as a matter of state policy and that they were under constant and close surveillance by government 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 was 270,000 to 900,000 won per month ($300 to $1,000), but in most cases employing firms paid salaries directly to the 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 state reportedly withheld some wages in certain instances until the laborers returned home after the completion of their three-year contracts. Workers reportedly worked in a range of industries, including but not limited to apparel, construction, footwear manufacturing, hospitality, information technology services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.

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

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