HRNK releases its third David Hawk report on NK’s political prison camps!

For the newest information on North Korea’s political prison camps, please read the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s (HRNK) report, North Korea’s Hidden Gulag: Interpreting Reports of Changes in the Prison Camps, by David Hawk. It is available here.

North Korea's Hidden Gulag“The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), a US-based non-governmental organization, has launched a new report by David Hawk, updating the current status of the North Korean political prison camp system. The report was made possible by funding from the Open Society Foundations (OSF). The report confirms the closure of two of North Korea’s known six political penal labor colonies, finding “extremely high” the total number of prisoners remaining incarcerated on political grounds, reported missing and unaccounted for, and who have died in detention. The report builds on the 2012 HRNK report Hidden Gulag Second Edition by the same author, drawing on recent satellite imagery analysis, interviews with former camp prisoners and guards as well as new sources of information within North Korea.” (emphasis added)

Full press release is here.

 

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Human Rights in North Korea

Holding true to its uniqueness, North Korea interprets ‘human rights’ to mean national sovereignty, and it adamantly denies any accusations of human rights violations. Despite this complete denial, North Korea is arguably the worst violator of human rights in the world. In fact, it has been called “the last worst place on earth.”[1]

North Korean Perspective of Human Rights

North Korea operates under an entirely different perspective of human rights and sovereignty than many other countries. From North Korea’s standpoint, human rights are not inherent in individuals but granted by the state. “[A]s human rights
are guaranteed by sovereign States, any attempt to interfere in others’ internal affairs, overthrow the governments and change the systems on the pretext of human rights issues constitutes violations
of human rights. In this sense, the DPRK holds that human rights immediately mean national sovereignty.[2] In fact, “[t]he North Korean government has stressed that human rights should be primarily based on the protection of national sovereignty and collective rights, and that the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the State should be likewise emphasized.”[3]

In 
its 2009 report to the Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, North Korean diplomats insisted, “[T]he DPRK holds that human rights immediately mean national sovereignty.” This is inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).[4]

“Of course, the regime’s view that international human rights values are anathema—and a direct threat—to its existence as a cohesive political structure may well be true if there is little genuine support
for the regime among its people. Freeing people from oppression is a core principle of human rights.”[5]

“North Korea’s 2009 Constitution also provides an interpretation of human rights at variance with international standards. On the one hand, the Constitution requires regime institutions to protect human rights norms. On the other hand, it proclaims that all institutions and people must ‘struggle actively against class enemies and all law offenders.’”[6] Not surprisingly, the Kim regime takes a harsh outlook toward states that request it be held accountable for human rights abuses. As is characteristic of the juche philosophy and propagandist-oriented ways, the North Korean government has stated that international attention to human rights abuses in North Korea is “‘a plot of propaganda fabricated and persistently pursued by hostile forces’ as part of their psychological warfare to ‘overthrow the State system of the country.’”[7]

Egregious Human Rights Violations

Despite its denial, North Korea’s deplorable human rights record is systematic, pervasive, and particularly egregious in North Korea.

George Orwell wrote, ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ The North Korean boot has been stamping on human faces since 1953, almost with impunity from the international community, craven for a deal, some deal, any deal, with the totalitarian leadership.[8]

Since North Korea’s human rights abuses are numerous, only the songbun system and political prison camps are highlighted to illustrate the atrocities committed by the Kim regime.

a. Songbun

In an effort to outdo his Maoist and Leninist forebears, the Kim dynasty created a camp system whereby the so-called offender is not the only one condemned, not even the immediate family, but often the generation above and below. It is therefore common for those labeled with that totalitarian catch-all favorite of the Soviets and the Chinese, “enemies of the state,” to be small children and elderly grandparents.[9]

According to some, “[t]he most heinous example of…abuses is the North Korean camp system…This classification of people based on ideological trustworthiness determines a person’s fate from the time they are born.”[10] Songbun has been practiced since North Korea was created and “has played a major role in determining the main victims of the human rights violations
that are of concern to the U.N. General Assembly.”[11]

Robert Collins’ definitive piece, Marked for Life: SONGBUN, North Korea’s Social Classification System, illustrates the care and attention to detail that the North Korean regime takes in ensuring all of its citizens are identified as members of three distinct social castes, all hovering around perceived levels of regime loyalty. “Songbun subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state. These many categories are grouped into three broad castes: the core, wavering, and hostile classes.”[12]

The “state-published Political Dictionary states, ‘human rights are to be enforced through dictatorship against the class enemy.’ The songbun system has made the identity of these “class enemies” clear.[13] “The discrimination created by songbun ensures politically-directed denial of the right to make many of the decisions other countries assume to be a matter of individual prerogative—one’s occupation, spouse, housing, education, and medical treatment.”[14]

In a recent ROK Ministry of Unification survey where they were asked to identify the greatest abuse of human rights In North Korean society, North Korean refugees in the ROK answered: the famine (29.6%), public executions (22.6%), torture (19.1%), discrimination based in songbun (18.3%), lack of freedom of movement (6.1%), and lack of freedom to communicate (2.1%). However, among party members from that group, 66.7% insisted songbun was the greatest tool of abuse of North Korean human rights.[15]

b. Political Prison Camps, aka Gulags

Another egregious and more visible violation of human rights and international criminal law by the Kim regime is the establishment and operation of political prison camps, also known as gulags, in which political prisoners are enslaved for any perceived threat to the Kim regime. “North Korea’s State Security Agency maintains a dozen political prisons and about 30 forced labor and labor education camps, mainly in remote areas.”[16]

Not long ago, a newspaper article told the story of former political prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk’s experience living in one of North Korea’s political prison camps. Shin said that due to the rampant starvation, fellow prisoners were ‘happy’ when one of them died because it meant more food. He recounted having to eat rats and corn kernels from animal feces as well.[17] And thanks to his incredible journey and illuminating book, Escape from Camp 14, the world knows a little more about Shin’s tragic upbringing in one of these gulags:

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.[18]

These gulags, where political prisoners are starved, tortured, and worked to death, have accounted for over 1 million deaths.[19] This figure does not factor in recent intelligence and aerial satellite imagery that shows that the gulags in North Korea are far larger than previously known. Amnesty International estimates conservatively that Kim’s gulags now imprison at least 200,000 people for political reasons. David Hawk’s 2012 and 2003 reports call for the dismantlement of these prisons.[20]

Conclusion

The DPRK has signed onto several human rights treaties, including the ICCPR and ICESCR, but has proven through egregious human rights violations such as songbun and gulags, that its signature has no merit. The fact that the international community knows strikingly little about the North Korea’s human rights abuses – because it intentionally keeps its borders closed off to the world – is in itself evidence that there are potential human rights violations, if none other than the violation of the right to information. In time, hopefully the regime will collapse.

It is not easy to predict when change will come. It was not foreseen that the Berlin Wall would fall when it did, that the Soviet Union would collapse, and that reforms would take place in Arab countries. But bringing down the information wall around North Korea and exposing its crimes against humanity may in time lead to change.[21]


[1] Jack Rendler, North Korea: The Last Worst Place On Earth, Amnesty International: Human Rights Now Blog, May 11, 2011, http://networkedblogs.com/hJTyR.

[2] Robert Collins, Marked for Life: SONGBUN, North Korea’s Social Classification System, 90-91 (HRNK, 2012) (hereinafter “Songbun”) (citing DPRK National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 15(A) of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, Human Rights Council, Working group on the Universal Periodic Review, Sixth Session, Geneva, 30 November-11 December 2009, A/HRC/WG.6/6/PRK/1, 27 August 2009, 4).

[3] In Sup Han, The 2004 Revision of Criminal Law in North Korea: A Take-Off?, 5 Santa Clara J. Int’l L. 122, 130-31 (2006).

[4] Songbun, supra note 2, at 92; see Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, Sixth session, Geneva, 30 November-11 December 2009
National Report Submitted In Accordance With Paragraph 15 (A) Of The Annex To Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1,* Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (A/HRC/WG.6/6/PRK/1, 27 August 2009), Section 15. URL: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G09/151/47/PDF/G0915147.pdf?OpenElement.  

[5] Songbun, supra note 2, at 93.

[6] Id. at 88 (citing Sin, “North Korean Constitution—April 2009.”); see also p. 63 (analyzing North Korea’s criminal code).

[7] Id. at 131.

[8] Lamont Colucci, As the World Watches, North Korean Atrocities Unfold, US News World Report, April 19, 2013, http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/04/19/north-koreas-forgotten-story.

[9] Songbun, supra note 2, at 87.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at iii.

[13] Songbun, supra note 2, at 93.

[14] Id. at 87.

[15] Id. at 86-87 (citing Lee Kum-sun, Kim Su-am, “Pukhan Inkwon Chimhae Kujo mit Kaeson Chollyak (North Korean Human Rights Abuse and Strategies for Improvement), Ministry of Unification (Seoul: Research Series 09-11, 2009); see also id. at 104.

[16] Robert Windrem, Death, terror in N. Korea gulag, NBC NEWS online, January 15, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3071466/ns/us_news-only/t/death-terror-n-korea-gulag/#.UXdWaL_3DKE.

[17] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011,

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[18] Rendler, supra note 1.

[19] Wikipedia, Human Rights in North Korea, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_North_Korea.

[20] David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag Second Edition, April 10, 2012, http://hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HRNK_HiddenGulag2_Web_5-18.pdf.

[21] Roberta Cohen, North Korea Faces Heightened Human Rights Scrutiny, March 21, 2013, Brookings, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/03/21-north-korea-cohen

NK Commission of Inquiry (COI)

Progress! Two days ago – March 21, 2013 – the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) voted unanimously (47 members) to establish a North Korea Commission of Inquiry (COI).[1] Although the UN has looked at NK in the past, it has mainly focused on NK’s nuclear weapons proliferations. This time, however, shows that the ‘international community’ (more specifically, the European Union and Japan, since they brought the resolution before the OHCHR) is concerned with human rights abuses in NK. The resolution, A/HRC/22/L.19, also extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in NK for one year.[2]

OHCHR logo

OHCHR logo

What is a commission of inquiry?

I had to take a look. So far, here’s the basic idea based on some quick research: According to a Geneva Academy conference on commissions of inquiry, there are two different kinds, national and international.[3] (In this case, the NK COI will be an international tool used to investigate human rights situations.) A COI investigates potential violations of international human rights law and/or humanitarian law. It does not appear that there’s a standard construction to COIs, but recently a COI was established for the potential atrocities being committed in Syria. A commission is supposed to investigate alleged violations of law, gather evidence, and issue a report(s), all in a fair and unbiased manner. The NK COI is comprised of three members (but may include up to ten people later on), including UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Marzuki Darusman.[4] The COI is established for one year, but there is always the possibility of it being extended. The NK COI has to provide an “oral update to the Council at its twenty-fourth session and to the General Assembly at its sixty-eight session, and a written report to the Council at its twenty-fifth session.”[5]

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, shed some more light on COIs. He stated in a report to the UN Human Rights Council, “‘Commissions of inquiry are strong and flexible mechanisms that can yield ample benefits for governments, victim communities and the wider public, but they do not relieve States of their legal obligations to investigate and prosecute torture, and to provide effective remedies to victims of past violations, including reparation for the harm suffered and to prevent its reoccurrence.'”[6]

Certainly, a COI is not meant to replace NK’s duty to not violate the rights of its own people. But this assumes NK actually believes its people are being denied rights, which it clearly does not. In fact, “North Korean Ambassador So Se Pyong rejected the resolution as ‘an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces in their attempt to discredit the image of the DPRK,’ and said, “‘[a]s we stated time and again, those human rights abuses mentioned in the resolution do not exist in our country.’”[7]

What will the COI look at specifically?

Luckily for me, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) already explained this quite nicely:

“As defined by the resolution on North Korea, the Commission of Inquiry will have a mandate to “investigate all systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.’ The resolution made particular note of ‘the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners and repatriated citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and ‘the unresolved questions of international concern relating to abductions of nationals of other states.’ The resolution empowers the commission to undertake a one-year investigation into the ‘violation of the right to food, the violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other states, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.’”[8]

I need to dive into the specifics of the resolution still, but I believe some of this language is from the Rome Statute, which is the international treaty that established the International Criminal Court. Under Article 7(1) of the Rome Statute, “‘crime against humanity’ means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

(a)     Murder;

(b)     Extermination;

(c)     Enslavement;

(d)     Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e)     Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f)     Torture;

(g)     Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; 
(h)     Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(i)     Enforced disappearance of persons;

(j)     The crime of apartheid;

(k)     Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.[9]

And just for good measure, and because the argument has been made that the Kim regime has committed genocide, here’s Article 6 of the Rome Statute:

For the purpose of this Statute, “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a)     Killing members of the group;

(b)     Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c)     Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d)     Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e)     Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

How can the COI investigate since it is unlikely NK will cooperate?

I think this is the crucial question right now. The COI is established to investigate, but if NK stands in the way (which it will) and does not let the commission into NK, then it stands to reason that the COI will not gather as much evidence about potential abuses by the Kim regime. As the Geneva Academy points out, “[a]n important task of any commission of inquiry is to analyse facts on the ground with regard to applicable law. Thus, it is crucial that a commission can independently and freely conduct investigations on the ground to establish the facts for itself.”

I hope that this will not inhibit the work of the COI too drastically though. After all, as Dr. John Park pointed out recently, the roughly 24,000 NK defectors in South Korea are a relatively untouched information resource. My hope is that the COI will have the cooperation of the South Korean government and the NK defectors in order to search for the truth about what the Kim regime is doing to the people unlucky enough to live north of the 38th Parallel.

A Brief Look at North Korea’s Gulags

I wrote this piece about gulags when Kim Jong Il was still alive and in power. Today, the international community knows more about political camps, or gulags, in North Korea, and the information is appalling. Over the last couple of years, we now have access to satellite imagery that shows that perimeters of the political prison camps have expanded. For very current information, please look at a report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and David Hawk, “The Hidden Gulag, Second Edition: The Lives and Voices of Those Who are Sent to the Mountains” and a report by DigitalGlobe Analytics and HRNK, “North Korea’s Camp No. 25.”

I recently spoke to a South Korean who said that gulags are likely considered the best example of crimes (against humanity) by the North Korean State from the perspective of South Koreans. This is because gulags are the most visible showing of atrocities against North Korea’s own people. I think this is understandable, don’t you? It seems that throughout history people need to see abuses before they can really start to understand them. North Korea’s tight control on information and limited foreign access makes it very difficult for the majority of the world to see, and therefore understand and care about, the incredibly egregious human rights violations and, arguably, crimes against humanity being committed by the Kim Regime.

North Korea: “The Last Worst Place On Earth”[1]

North Korean Defector Draws Gruesome Pictures Of Life In The GulagRead more: http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korean-gulag-concentration-camp-pictures-2012-6?op=1#ixzz2NKnVXrZ5

North Korean Defector Draws Gruesome Pictures Of Life In The Gulag
Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korean-gulag-concentration-camp-pictures-2012-6?op=1#ixzz2NKnVXrZ5

Although Kim Jong Il’s regime is marked by serious and prolific human rights abuses, it has not attracted the attention of the international community as much as other parts of the world. Kim’s regime is surrounded by a state-sponsored veil of secrecy which makes it harder for the international community to document and respond to his abhorrent behavior. Recently, that veil has been slightly lifted by intrepid journalists and defectors allowing brief glimpses into the lives of North Koreans suffering under Kim’s vast oppression. The evidence indicates Kim Jong Il’s policies have caused the death of millions of his own people through deplorable human rights violations.

One of the most egregious violations of the Kim Jong Il regime has been the establishment of gulags, in which political prisoners are enslaved for any perceived threat against Kim’s regime. Defectors have told their stories and political prisons have appeared on satellite imagery – this evidence tells awful stories. For instance, the gulags, where political prisoners are starved, tortured, and worked to death, have accounted for over 1 million deaths.[2] This figure does not factor in recent intelligence and aerial satellite imagery that shows that the gulags in the DPRK are far larger than previously known. Amnesty International estimates conservatively that Kim’s gulags now imprison at least 200,000 people.[3] Recently, a newspaper article retold the account of a former political prisoner in DPRK’s increasingly-populated gulags. The prisoner said that due to the rampant starvation, prisoners were happy when one of them died because it meant more food for the others. He recounted having to eat rats and corn kernels from animal feces as well.[4] Another newspaper article tells of a prisoner’s tragic upbringing in a gulag:

“Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.”[5]

Shin’s story is, unfortunately, just one person’s account of life under Kim. There are so many more examples in spite of Kim’s control.

Additionally, reports tie the population growth in the political gulags with the possibility that Kim Jong Il may be turning over the regime to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director, stated, “‘As North Korea seems to be moving towards a new leader in Kim Jong-un and a period of political instability, the big worry is that the prison camps appear to be growing in size.’”[6]

The gulags are not the only place where human rights violations take place. Kim is accused of starving his own people and using international food donations to bolster the strength of his army. He restricts travel, denies free speech, the right to practice religion. Recently, Amnesty International reported Kim is responsible for the criminal abduction of 180,000 people.[7]


[1] Jack Rendler, North Korea: The Last Worst Place On Earth, Amnesty International: Human Rights Now Blog, May 11, 2011, http://networkedblogs.com/hJTyR.

[2] Grace M. Kang, A Case for the Prosecution of Kim Jong Il for Crimes Against Humanity, Genocide, and War Crimes, 38 Colum. Human Rights L. Rev. 51, 65 (2006).

[3] Rendler, supra note 1.

[4] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[5] Rendler, supra note 1.

[6] Editorial, North Korean Political Prison Camps Growing – Amnesty, BBC News (Asia-Pacific), May 3, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13272198.

[7] Id.