The Situation

The UN Commission of Inquiry for North Korea found in its February 2014 report that, for decades, "unimaginable atrocities" had been committed at the highest level of the state, with the complete impunity of the North Korean regime. The Commission found evidence of crimesagainst humanity in all nine categories it investigated, including the right to food, political prison camps, arbitrary detentions, torture and inhumane treatment, discrimination, the right to life, freedom of movement and expression, and enforced disappearances. The Commission recommended referral of the North Korean leaders to the International Criminal Court. States overwhelmingly supported that recommendation through resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly. For the first time, the human rights situation was officially discussed by the UN Security Council in December 2014.

  • Caste system-Songbun

  • Political prison camps and other forms of detention

  • Starvation

  • Refugees

  • Abductions

  • Freedom of belief, opinion, and expression

  • Torture

Caste system-Songbun

North Korea's political caste system divides North Korean citizens into three classes—core, wavering, and hostile—based on their ancestors' perceived loyalty to the regime. One's caste is inherited; upward mobility is severely limited. The songbun system provides a basis uponwhich the government provides discriminatory access to education, employment, food rations, and even medical treatment. Those in the core (loyal) class receive better state services, while those in the hostile class are subject to state-imposed persecution. The songbunsystem contributes to the vast numbers of families being purged to political prison camps.

Political prison camps and other forms of detention

As of the time of writing, there are five known political prison camps in North Korea. Up to 120,000 people the North Korean regime considersdisloyal are incarcerated in these camps. Prisoners are given no due process—no fair trial, no notification of the charges. Along withthe alleged offender, the authorities often also imprison three generations of the accused's family, including young children, through a guilt-by-association system. Harsh labor conditions, minimal food rations, denial of medical assistance, and torture serve as extermination tools in the camps. North Korea also maintains a vast system of short-term detention centers and long-term prisons with forced labor, as wellas underground prisons, military prisons, police holding centers, among others. Mortality rates are high in them. To date, the entire prison system has taken the lives of at least one million victims.

Starvation

Widespread famine claimed the lives of 1 to 2 million North Korean citizens in the 1990s. Although several factors contributed to the steep death rate, North Korea's caste or songbun system was the most significant. When the food supply began decreasing, the regime sacrificed citizens classified as "hostile" under the songbun system—cutting them off from the food distribution system and international humanitarian assistance. The authorities then punished citizens who attempted to survive through other means such as escaping to China in search of food or engaging in private trade. Today, this situation continues, contributing to the constant flow of citizens leaving the country, even at great risk of severe punishment.

Refugees

To escape starvation and persecution, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans began crossing the Tumen River or Yalu River between North Korea and China during the North Korean famine in the 1990s. North Koreans continue to escape today, though their journey is marked by immense challenges. Escaping the country is a crime in North Korea, punishable by torture, hard labor, and detention. North Korean refugees who reach China are denied access to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other international organizations. Instead, China arrests and deports them back to North Korea to face severe punishment, forced abortions, and persecution. Without assistance from international organizations, North Korean women and female children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and rape in China. They are frequently sold as brides in forced marriages. Children born to these women are denied legal status in China.

Abductions

North Korea has systematically abducted thousands of South Korean nationals. About 100,000 skilled civilians were abducted during the Korean War and never returned. After the War, 3,835 South Korean nationals were abducted after the War, 516 of which remain forcibly detained in North Korea. Hundreds of abductions reportedly occurred in Europe, Middle East, and elsewhere in Asia as well. North Korea continues to abduct foreign nationals today, mostly by operating in China.

Freedom of belief, opinion, and expression

North Korean citizens are indoctrinated by the regime from a very young age. Access to external information—media, books, the internet, science, literature, music, films—is severely restricted. Instead, North Koreans must adhere to the Ten Principles of Juche Ideology, which idolize the Kimleadership and prohibit any independent thought outside of doctrines espoused by the Workers' Party of Korea and the leader. The practice of any religion, especially Christianity, is severely persecuted. If discovered, believers are subject to torture and imprisonment in the political prison camps.

Torture

Torture is rampant throughout North Korea's vast system of detention facilities. Citizens endure physical beatings, food deprivation, forced labor,and the denial of medical assistance and hygienic facilities during all stages of an investigation—the arrest, interrogation, and detention. Prisoners,especially political prisoners, are kept incommunicado from their families. Public executions are used to compel obedience—local residents, including young children, are forced to witness executions as warnings against misconduct.

Artist: Chunhyok Kang
After attending NKHR’s International Conference for North Korean Human Rights in Prague in 2003, Chunhyok Kang began visually documenting his experiences in North Korea through drawing. In 1998, Chunhyok and his family escaped North Korea for China, and in 2001, they successfully reached South Korea. Chunhyok is a graduate of one of South Korea’s most well-known art colleges, Hongik University. He is also a hip hop artist. His debut album is heavily influenced by his experiences in North Korea.