A new report from Human Rights Watch has revealed that North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system has uncovered grave human rights abuses, including forced labor.
The report is based on interviews with eight exiled former government officials and 22 former detainees, all of whom were held in detention since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.
According to the government officials interviewed, North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party views detainees as inferior human beings and are referred to using numbers, rather than names.
Torture and sexual assault are among the systematic abuses that detainees reported facing in the country’s detention and interrogation facilities.
Living conditions were also reported to be dire, including overcrowded cells, low hygiene, and lack of food; detainees said that when given a bribe, guards would often allow family members and friends to visit with food and other essentials.
Almost all detainees under investigation are also subjected to forced labor.
Human Rights Watch recounts one former detainee’s story:
They put me in a waiting cell. It was small and I was alone. They searched my body. Afterwards, the head of the city’s secret police department, the party’s political affairs head, and the investigator came in. It was very serious, but I didn’t know why. They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fist, everywhere on my body.…
The next day they moved me to the next room, which was a detention and interrogation facility cell, and my preliminary examination started. But the questioning didn’t really have any protocols or procedures. They just beat me…. The preliminary examiner hit me violently first…. I asked, “Why? Why? Why?” but I didn’t get an answer…. As the questioning went on, I found out that I had been reported as a spy. Violent beatings and hitting were constant in the beginning of [the preliminary examination] questioning for one month. They kicked me with their boots, punched me with their fist or hit me with a thick stick, all over my body. After [when they had most of my confession ready], they were gentler.
It was winter, but there was no heating. There was only one small wood heater right in front of us, next to the guard. It was so cold … and nobody knew where we were, so we couldn’t get anything from outside. It was really cold, but it was worse because there were so many bedbugs and other bugs that bit you.
The report is a bleak window into North Korea’s nearly non-existent judicial and institutional framework, an arbitrary system which gives detainees no access to an independent lawyer and no ability to appeal their detention.
Its findings align with a 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights report, which accused the North Korean government of abuses constituting crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch urged the North Korean government to end the systematic human rights abuses and forced labor in its detention system and ensure basic living conditions are met.
Read the full report here.