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Annual Report North Korea

Amnesty International - May 24, 2012

Head of state: Kim Jong-un (replaced Kim Jong-il in December)
Head of government: Choe Yong-rim
Death penalty: retentionist
Population: 24.5 million
Life expectancy: 68.8 years
Under 5-mortality: 33.3 per 1,000

The year ended with Kim Jong-un succeeding his father as absolute ruler of the country on 17 December, but there were no indications of an improvement in the country's dismal human rights record. North Koreans continued to suffer violations of nearly the entire spectrum of their human rights. Six million North Koreans urgently needed food aid and a UN report found that the country could not feed its people in the immediate future. There were reports of the existence of numerous prison camps where arbitrary detention, forced labour, and torture and other ill-treatment were rife. Executions, including public executions, persisted. Collective punishment was common. Violations of freedom of expression and assembly were widespread.


Kim Jong-il died, reportedly of a heart attack, in December, ending his 17-year tenure as state leader, a position he inherited from his father, Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il's son, was appointed his successor.

In June, the UN Security Council extended for a third term the mandate of the expert body dealing with UN sanctions imposed on North Korea for nuclear arms testing.

Flooding caused by heavy rains beginning in June was compounded by a typhoon in August, causing widespread damage, especially in north and south Hwanghae provinces. A total of 68 people were reportedly killed or missing and more than 25,000 left homeless as a consequence.

Food crisis

Deaths from starvation were reported in South Pyongan province in January, and in North and South Hamkyung provinces since April 2010. In April, the World Food Programme, Food and Agricultural Organization and UNICEF launched an emergency operation to reach 3.5 million of the most vulnerable children, women and elderly.

A report, released in November by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Programme, found that much of the population suffered prolonged food deprivation from May to September as the Public Distribution System ration of cereals was reduced to 200g or less per person per day. This amounted to just one third of a person's minimum daily energy requirements. The report indicated that malnutrition affected one in four women aged 15 to 49, while just over a third of all infants suffered from stunting and nearly a fifth were underweight. The report further cited a 50 to 100 per cent increase in the admissions of malnourished children into paediatric wards compared with the previous year.

Despite the crisis, international food aid remained dependent on geopolitics. Reports in February suggested that the government had ordered its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid. Following an aid-monitoring visit, the European Commission decided in June to provide €10 million in emergency food aid. The USA did not send food aid to North Korea, reflecting concerns over the monitoring of its distribution.

Arbitrary arrests and detention

In apparent preparation for a succession of power, unconfirmed reports suggested that, in January, the State Security Agency detained over 200 officials, some of whom were feared executed, while others were sent to political prison camps. Credible reports estimated that up to 200,000 prisoners were held in horrific conditions in six sprawling political prison camps, including the notorious Yodok facility. Thousands were imprisoned in at least 180 other detention facilities. Most were imprisoned without trial or following grossly unfair trials and on the basis of forced confessions.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Men, women and children in the camps were tortured and ill-treated, including by being forced to work in dangerous conditions. The combination of hazardous forced labour, inadequate food, beatings, totally inadequate medical care and unhygienic living conditions, resulted in prisoners falling ill, and a large number died in custody or soon after release. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

Death penalty

In July, there were unconfirmed reports that the authorities had either executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents 30 officials who had participated in inter-Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogue. On 10 March, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions wrote to the government regarding 37 reported cases of executions between 2007 and 2010 for "financial crimes".

Freedom of expression

In June, the authorities allowed the Associated Press to establish a news bureau in Pyongyang. Reuters news agency announced that it had received permission to operate a satellite dish in Pyongyang. Nevertheless, there were no independent domestic media, no known independent opposition political parties and no independent civil society. Criticism of the government and its leaders was strictly curtailed, and punishable by arrest and incarceration in a prison camp. Only a select few people had internet access, mostly through a closely monitored intranet network. Officials clamped down on users of Chinese mobile phones, and phone connections were blocked in Sinuiju, the border city near Dandong in China.

Freedom of movement

North Korean citizens faced severe restrictions on travel both within the country and abroad. Thousands of North Koreans who fled to China in search of food and employment were often forcibly repatriated to North Korea by the Chinese authorities. They were routinely beaten and detained upon return. Those suspected of being in touch with South Korean NGOs or attempting to escape to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) were more severely punished. Reports in July suggested that North Korean authorities ordered a crackdown on people leaving the country without permission. In October, unconfirmed reports indicated that the National Security Agency had arrested at least 20 North Koreans in September in Shenyang, China. The 20 were forcibly returned to North Korea and detained at a National Security Agency facility in North Hamkyung province.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

More than 23,500 North Koreans were granted nationality in South Korea; hundreds were in Japan. According to figures released in 2011 by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, there were 917 North Korean asylum-seekers in "refugee-like situations" in 2010 in countries including Australia, Germany, Netherlands, UK and USA.

  • In March, 27 North Koreans were handed over to the North Korean navy. They were part of a 31-member group (20 women, 11 men) whose fishing boat had drifted into South Korean waters in thick fog in February. Four of this group decided to remain in South Korea and were given nationality.
  • In June, nine North Koreans reached South Korea by boat. Following this, the North Korean authorities reportedly restricted travel of its citizens to border areas and banned small boats along its west coast.
  • In September, nine North Koreans, including three children, were discovered off the coast of Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture aboard a small wooden fishing boat. They were initially detained in Nagasaki and were later allowed to leave for South Korea.
  • International scrutiny

    The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea was denied permission to visit the country. In September, 40 NGOs, including Amnesty International, inaugurated an international coalition in Tokyo, calling for a Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government. In May, Robert King, the US Ambassador for North Korean human rights and humanitarian affairs, made an unprecedented visit to the country, leading a delegation to gauge the seriousness of the food crisis. On his departure, he was accompanied by newly released Korean-American missionary Jun Eddie Yong-su, who had been detained for six months for "inappropriate or illegal religious activity".

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  • North Korea: Political prison camps
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