The North Korean Human Rights Situation
For almost 70 years, North Korea’s human rights record has been abysmal. Almost thirty years after the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, North Korea’s Kim regime has maintained its absolute grip on power, while accomplishing two hereditary transmissions of power: from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il in July 1994, and from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un in December 2011. The primary strategic objective of the Kim regime continues to be its own self-preservation, regardless of the toll imposed on the North Korean people’s fundamental human rights.
Although North Korea is bound, as a UN member state, by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and although it is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Genocide Convention, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, each and every conceivable human right continues to be violated in that country. In the year 2017, North Korea remains the only country on the face of the planet that is running a political prison camp system. Up to 120,000 men, women, and children continue to be brutally persecuted behind the barbed wire fences of North Korea’s political prison camps, subjected to unrelenting induced malnutrition, forced labor, torture, sexual violence as well as public and secret executions. Those suspected of being disloyal to the regime, of being, from the regime’s viewpoint, wrong-thinkers, wrong-doers, of possessing wrong knowledge, of having engaged in wrong associations, or of coming from the wrong family background, are subjected to extrajudicial arrest and detention, often together with members of three generations of their families. They are held in North Korea’s hidden gulag indefinitely, in most cases without charge or hope for recourse.
In the year 2017, pursuant to Songbun—a system of social discrimination established in the 1950s—the people of North Korea continue to be divided into three social categories and 51 subcategories, based on their degree of loyalty to the regime, and on the perceived allegiance of their parents and grandparents. Their access to food, jobs, and any type of opportunity continues to depend on their social classification. In the mid to late 1990s, as up to 3 million North Koreans starved to death, the Kim regime continued to invest in the development of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, and purchased dozens of jet fighters.
Human Rights Trends under the Kim Jong-un Regime
The human rights situation has deteriorated under the Kim Jong-un regime. Three trends stand out in particular: an aggressive crackdown on attempted defections—the number of North Korean escapees arriving in South Korea declined by almost 50% from 2011 to 2012/2017; an aggressive purge—culminating in the execution of Jang Sung-taek, the leader’s uncle, and his associates in December 2013 as well as the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam with VX nerve gas at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017, and more than 340 senior officials reportedly executed since 2012; and the “restructuring” of North Korea’s political prison camp system—facilities near the border with China have been closed, while other camps have been expanded.
The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI)
On March 21, 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council—composed of 47 UN member states—adopted by consensus a resolution to establish a “Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI).” While NGOs such as HRNK, tasked to monitor, research and report on the North Korean human rights situation, had been aware of the extent of the North Korean human rights violations for many years, this was the first time that an investigative body was established by the United Nations to determine the extent and gravity of North Korea’s human rights abuses.
After investigating “the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in North Korea, the COI released its report on February 17, 2014, one month ahead of the formal submission to the UN Human Rights Council on March 17. The report finds that “in many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.”
In 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, the UN Human Rights Council passed resolutions including strong language on crimes against humanity committed pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state in North Korea, and the recommendation that the UN Security Council submit the North Korean case to the International Criminal Court. In 2014, 2015, and 2016, the UN General Assembly passed similar resolutions. In December 2014, 2015, and 2016, the UN Security Council voted to include North Korean human rights in its agenda, next to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Following up on the recommendations of the UN COI, in June 2015, a UN field office was established in Seoul to continue the commission’s investigative work.
The COI’s Findings
The COI has determined that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by North Korea. These include:
In light of the gravity, scale and level of organization of these violations, the COI has concluded that crimes against humanity have been committed by officials of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State. These crimes against humanity involve extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. The COI has also established that crimes against humanity continue to be committed in North Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.
One of the most important determinations made by the COI is that North Korea can be characterized as a totalitarian state that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within. In other words, the COI has found that crimes against humanity and other abysmal human rights violations are at the very core of the North Korean regime’s modus operandi. The COI has characterized North Korea as “a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” due to the “gravity, scale, and nature of the violations committed” by the North Korean regime.
The Victims of North Korea’s Crimes against Humanity
The COI determined that crimes against humanity target anyone viewed as a threat to the political system and leadership of North Korea, in particular:
The Way Forward
Although North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs continue to take center stage, it is essential to continue to investigate and interview witnesses, and to continue to bring attention to the systematic, widespread crimes against humanity and egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime, to protect the victims, to bring justice to their tormentors, and, without further delay, to seek ways to improve the human rights situation in that country.
His Excellency Lee-Jung Hoon
Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea
Yonsei Center for Human Liberty
Jung-Hoon Lee is the ROK government’s inaugural Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights. Before his appointment in September, he served for three years as Ambassador for Human Rights. He is also a professor of international relations at Yonsei University, where he is currently Director of the Yonsei Center for Human Liberty, which he founded in January 2014. The Center has played an active role in raising awareness and providing a venue for collaboration in research, media outlet, and NGO/think tank network. His former positions include research and teaching at U.C. Berkeley, University of Tokyo, CSIS in Washington, D.C., and Keio University. He is currently a senior member of South Korea’s National Unification Advisory Council and policy advisor at the Ministry of Unification. In the latter case, he chaired the Advisory Committee for Humanitarian Affairs. Other main commitments include his role as Co-Chair of Save NK, an NGO dealing mainly with North Korean human rights, Chairman of the Future Korea Weekly, a bi-weekly current affairs magazine based on Christian and conservative values, and Vice-Chair of the Supporter’s Group for ‘House of Sharing’ where several remaining “comfort women” are housed. He is also Chair/CEO of the Board of Tongwon Foundation that houses Tongwon University, Hanyoung Foreign Language High School, Hanyoung High School, Hanyoung Junior High School, Hanyoung Kindergarten, and Kukje Haksulwon, a research think-tank. Ambassador Lee also hosted a weekly TV program on current affairs for five years, and his writing and commentary frequently appear in local and foreign media. His contributions to over a hundred op-ed articles have been compiled into a book that was recently published entitled Tongbukah Kyŏkrang ui Hanbokpanesŏ [In the Midst of a Northeast Asian Current]. His most recent journal article, “Drawing the Line: Combating Atrocities in North Korea,” was published in The Washington Quarterly’s summer 2016 issue. He received his BA from Tufts University, MALD from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, and PhD from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College).
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
Greg Scarlatoiu is Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in Washington, D.C. At HRNK, he plans, coordinates, manages and conducts research and outreach programs aiming to focus world attention on human rights abuses in North Korea, and to seek creative solutions for improving the human rights situation in that country. A regular guest on CNN and Al Jazeera TV as well as the John Batchelor radio show, he has authored a weekly radio column broadcast by Radio Free Asia to North Korea for fourteen years. Scarlatoiu has authored numerous journal articles as well as op-eds and letters to the editor in publications including The Washington Post and The New York Times. Scarlatoiu is a member of the board of directors of the International Council of Korean Studies. A returning visiting professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) in Seoul, Scarlatoiu co-chairs the Korea and Japan class at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. He has testified before the U.S. Congress on several occasions, and given lectures addressing the Korean peninsula at numerous U.S. academic institutions as well as other venues in Asia, North and South America, and Europe. Now a naturalized U.S. citizen, Scarlatoiu was born and raised in communist Romania under the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. He lived in Seoul for 10 years and is fluent in Korean, French and Romanian. He holds MAs in international relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and Seoul National University, and a BA in international relations from Seoul National University. In 1999, Scarlatoiu was conferred the title of Citizen of Honor, City of Seoul. Scarlatoiu is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Council on Korean Studies (ICKS).
Prior to joining HRNK, Scarlatoiu was the Director of Public Affairs and Business Issues of the Korea Economic Institute (KEI) in Washington, D.C. In that capacity, he planned, designed and implemented outreach programs to educate Americans on developments on the Korean peninsula and U.S.-Korea relations both inside and outside of Washington, DC. Before his work with KEI, he was Management Associate for the International Science and Technology Institute, Inc. (ISTI) in Arlington, Virginia. He was tasked with business development, project management, technical assistance implementation, and liaising with multilateral and bilateral development agencies, partners, and clients under USAID, World Bank and Asian Development Bank projects worldwide.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Seoul)
Signe Poulsen has served as the Representative of OHCHR(Seoul) since August 2015. Prior to this, she served in various capacities for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights including postings in Liberia, Timor-Leste, Kyrgyzstan, Papua New Guinea. Before joining the United Nations Ms. Poulsen worked in international human rights organizations including Amnesty International. She is a Danish national and holds a MSc. From the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Political Prison Camp Survivor
Founder and Director, No Chain for North Korea
Mr. Jeong Kwang-il was a prisoner at No.15 Yodeok Political Penal-labor Colony for three years, from 1999 to 2002. He is currently one of the best-known former North Koreans involved in outreach activities aiming to expose North Korea’s human rights violations and to inform the international public opinion on the human rights situation in that country. Mr. Jeong’s UN testimony was critical in passing a resolution on North Korean human rights by the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2014. He has provided testimony to UN representatives in New York City and Geneva and human rights organizations around the world. He has also been compiling lists of prisoner names in North Korea, a rare asset in the hands of the North Korean human rights investigator. Such information will prove critical to the accountability and transitional justice process in North Korea.
Tim A. Peters
Helping Hands Korea (HHK)/Catacombs
Tim Peters is a Christian activist and founder of the NGO, Helping Hands Korea_Catacombs (HHK). In 1996, HHK undertook a fundamental shift in focus from projects in South Korea to the needs of North Koreans in crisis. In response to news of famine in North Korea, Peters began by launching a pilot program to provide food aid to the most vulnerable sectors of North Korean society. Through these efforts and frequent innovations over 21 years, asymmetric avenues of aid delivery have been developed to reach the most vulnerable as well as maximize transparency in distribution, a chronic challenge for aid groups to North Korea. From 1998, HHK undertook the additional task of assisting North Koreans in China who had fled famine and oppression in their own country only to find their lives also at risk in China. Emergency aid to North Korean refugees in China in their bid to escape to third countries via the so-called ‘underground railroad’ has included secret shelters, food, clothing, emergency medical treatment, and logistical support in transportation, communication, etc. Melanie Kirkpatrick’s landmark book, Escape from North Korea, The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, cites HHK’s aid work repeatedly in her groundbreaking 2012 study of Christian humanitarian assistance provided to escapees who flee DPRK tyranny. Since 2005, aid by HHK in China to orphaned children of forcibly repatriated North Korean refugee women has also grown into a significant aspect of HHK’s work.
Mr. Peters’ has given U.S. Congressional testimony on three occasions between 2002 and 2005 and twice (2012 and 2014) to the U.K. Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. Peters’ written submission to the 4/28/2004 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee,“Korean Pathetique: A Symphony of Refugee Tears Unheeded” contains the essence of his analysis and policy recommendations as requested by the World Economic Forum later in 2004. Peters formalized this study as a chapter in the collaborative volume, Korea Confronts the Future (2005). In 2015 Peters authored “Beset from Within; Beleaguered from Without: The North Korean Catacombs in an Era of Extermination,” a case study chapter dealing with the history and current persecution of Christians on the Korean Peninsula in the book, Freedom of Belief and Christian Mission, Vol. 28 of the Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series (Oxford).
Peters’ Christian activism was profiled in a cover story of TIME magazine (Asia) on May 1st of 2006 and HHK has received periodic attention in the international media. In 2007 The Wall Street Journal recommended Peters for the Nobel Peace Prize. HHK’s founder was the recipient of the 2008 St. Stephen’s Prize in Oslo, presented by Norway’s former Prime Minister, Kjell Bondevik, on behalf of the human rights organization, Stefanus Alliance International.
ROK Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS)/HRNK
As non-resident fellow at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Mr. Kim Kwang-jin is an invaluable, experienced resource shedding light into the darkest corners of the North Korean regime‘s secret and illegal international financial operations. His revelations have saved re-insurance companies tens of millions of dollars and brought an end to an important method the corrupt regime purloined from foreign sources the funds it needed to maintain its internal oppression.
In September 2003, Kim Kwang-jin and his family rushed to an airport in Southeast Asia to fly to freedom in Seoul, South Korea. Months earlier, Mr. Kim lived a privileged life working for the government’s overseas banking operations in Singapore. Then, Mr. Kim fell out of favor after he was suspected of leaking information about the regime to foreign nationals. Before being summoned back to North Korea to face severe punishment, Kim made the decision to defect with his family. During his banking career, Mr. Kim helped earn millions of dollars for what he calls North Korea's "Royal Court Economy," i.e., the enterprises and often illegal schemes that financially supported the country’s totalitarian regime.
Since arriving in South Korea, Mr. Kim has served as an analyst at the ROK Institute for National Security Strategy. A household name on TV and radio programs addressing North Korea, he has worked as a consultant for the ROK Unification Ministry as well as media organizations including KBS, MBC, and RFA. He is a standing member of the ROK National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC). His educational background includes completion of Ph.D. course work and an MBA in Finance and Insurance from Kookmin University (Seoul, 2014, 2012), a Master’s in Economics/IT of North Korea at the University of North Korean Studies (Seoul, 2008), and a BA in British Literature from Kim Il Sung University (Pyongyang, 1989). Working for the North Korean regime, Mr. Kim served as Singapore Representative of North East Asia Bank (2002-2003); an agent of the Korean Foreign Insurance Company and North East Asia Bank, Pyongyang, (1998-2002), and Professor of the Pyongyang Computer College (1991-1997). He has published numerous papers and articles on the North Korean economy and the current power transition in North Korea, including: “Gulag, Inc.—The Use of Forced Labor in North Korea’s Export Industries” (HRNK, 2016); “After Kim Jong-il: Can We Hope for Better Human Rights Protection?" (HRNK, 2009, 2011); "Financial Institutions in North Korea and Their Role"(2016); "North Korea's Provocations after Presidential Elections in South Korea"(2012); "On KWP's Role and Its Prospect in Power Transition to Kim Jong-eun" (2011); "The Defector's Tale, Inside North Korea's Secret Economy", World Affairs Journal (2011); “Kim Jong Il’s Royal Court Economy and Destruction of the People’s Economy” (2008); “The Change of North Korea’s Foreign Exchange Control System and its Increasing Dependence on Foreign Currency” (2008); “The Dollarization of North Korea Economy and Kim Jong Il’s Royal Court Economy” (2007); “The Korea Foreign Trade Bank and North Korea’s Foreign Exchange Control System” (2007); and “The US Financial Sanctions Regime on North Korea and Its Prospect” (2006)
Amanda Mortwedt Oh
Amanda Mortwedt Oh is a project officer at HRNK in charge of a series of more than 30 studies monitoring and investigating North Korea’s political prison camps through satellite imagery and escapee testimony. Her research focuses on human rights, international criminal law, and North Korea’s prison camps. Amanda authored a report that was submitted to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (COI) on behalf of HRNK and co-authored a Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights study calling for a “Rights Up Front” policy toward North Korea. She holds a Master of Laws in International Law (LLM) degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she studied “North Korean State and Society” and wrote her thesis on North Korea and transitional justice. Amanda also serves as an attorney in the U.S. Army Reserve Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Raymond Ha is an editorial consultant for HRNK, and was the Office Manager & Outreach Coordinator from 2014 to 2016. He has participated in editorial work on publications including North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-un; Arsenal of Terror: North Korea, State Sponsor of Terrorism; Pyongyang Republic: North Korea's Capital of Human Rights Denial; and Gulag, Inc.: The Use of Forced Labor in North Korea's Export Industries. He has a B.A. in Politics from Princeton University and is currently a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Stanford University.
 Human Rights Council, A.HRC.25.63, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic Republic of Korea, February 17, 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquiryDPRK.aspx.
This report is part of a comprehensive long-term project undertaken by HRNK to use satellite imagery and former prisoner interviews to shed light on human suffering in North Korea by monitoring activity at civil and political prison facilities throughout the nation. This study details activity observed during 1968-1977 and 2002-2021 at a prison facility commonly identified by former prisoners and researchers as "Kyo-hwa-so No. 3, T'osŏng-ni" and endeavors to
This report is part of a comprehensive long-term project undertaken by HRNK to use satellite imagery and former detainee interviews to shed light on human suffering in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea) by monitoring activity at political prison facilities throughout the nation. This report provides an abbreviated update to our previous reports on a long-term political prison commonly identified by former prisoners and researchers as Kwan-li-so
Through satellite imagery analysis and witness testimony, HRNK has identified a previously unknown potential kyo-hwa-so long-term prison-labor facility at Sŏnhwa-dong (선화동) P’ihyŏn-gun, P’yŏngan-bukto, North Korea. While this facility appears to be operational and well maintained, further imagery analysis and witness testimony collection will be necessary in order to irrefutably confirm that Sŏnhwa-dong is a kyo-hwa-so.
"North Korea’s Long-term Prison-Labor Facility Kyo-hwa-so No. 8, Sŭngho-ri (승호리) - Update" is the latest report under a long-term project employing satellite imagery analysis and former political prisoner testimony to shed light on human suffering in North Korea's prison camps.
Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of Korea: The Role of the United Nations" is HRNK's 50th report in our 20-year history. This is even more meaningful as David Hawk's "Hidden Gulag" (2003) was the first report published by HRNK. In his latest report, Hawk details efforts by many UN member states and by the UN’s committees, projects and procedures to promote and protect human rights in the DPRK. The report highlights North Korea’s shifts in its approach
Embargoed until 12:01 a.m. February 25, 2021. South Africa’s Apartheid and North Korea’s Songbun: Parallels in Crimes against Humanity by Robert Collins underlines similarities between two systematically, deliberately, and thoroughly discriminatory repressive systems. This project began with expert testimony Collins submitted as part of a joint investigation and documentation project scrutinizing human rights violations committed at North Korea’s short-