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Human Rights in Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Amnesty International Report 2007

Head of state: Kim Jong-il
Head of government: Pak Pong-ju
Death penalty: retentionist
International Criminal Court: not ratified

Systemic violations of human rights, including the rights to life and to food, continued. The rights to freedom of movement, expression and association were severely curtailed. Access by independent monitors continued to be restricted. There were many reports of enforced disappearances among families of North Koreans who left the country or were forcibly returned. Despite some changes in the criminal law, the political and sometimes arbitrary use of imprisonment, torture and capital punishment continued.


In July the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) conducted missile tests followed by an unprecedented nuclear test in October.

Following the missile tests, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1695 voicing disapproval. After the nuclear test, in October, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1718 demanding that North Korea eliminate all its nuclear weapons and imposing weapons and financial sanctions. Both resolutions called on North Korea to return unconditionally to the stalled six-party talks on its nuclear programme. Resolution 1718 invoked Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which sets out the Security Council's powers to maintain peace, but stopped short of the threat of force if North Korea did not comply. In December, six-nation talks (involving North Korea, South Korea, Japan, the USA, Russia and China) on resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis resumed in Beijing after 13 months, but ended in stalemate.

In November, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted its second resolution condemning North Korea's record on human rights.

Severe floods left several thousand people killed or missing in July and October.

Worsening food crisis

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food announced in October that 12 per cent of the population suffered from severe hunger. Agricultural output was expected to be substantially lower than the previous year following the floods.

In May, the World Food Programme (WFP) was reported to be implementing a two-year plan requiring 150,000 metric tons of grain for 1.9 million North Koreans "most in need especially women and children". As of October, the WFP had reportedly received only 8 per cent of the US$102 million required.

North Koreans in Asia

Approximately 100,000 North Koreans were reportedly hiding in China, living in constant fear of deportation. An estimated 150-300 North Koreans were forcibly repatriated from China every week. Most North Korean women in China reportedly faced abuses, including systematic rape and prostitution.

There were mass arrests of 175 North Koreans in Bangkok, Thailand, in August, followed by the arrests of 86 in October and a further 50 in November. Over 500 North Koreans were reportedly detained by Thai authorities. Nearly 10,000 North Koreans were reportedly settled in South Korea.

Enforced disappearances

Hundreds of North Koreans forcibly returned from China were unaccounted for. Several families of North Koreans who left the country without permission disappeared. They were believed to be victims of enforced disappearance, as the North Korean authorities punished whole families for being associated with someone deemed hostile to the regime ("guilt-by-association").

Lee Kwang-soo arrived in South Korea by boat in March with his wife, two children and a friend. In August he discovered that 19 members of his and his friend's families in North Korea had gone missing between March and early August 2006.

North Koreans settled in South Korea have been abducted from the China border by North Korean security forces. The North Korean authorities have also abducted nationals of other countries, including South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Lebanon.

Denial of access

Despite repeated requests, the government continued to deny access to independent human rights monitors, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

The UN relief agencies were reportedly permitted to visit only 29 of the 213 regions. Following government demands to reduce its staff, the WFP cut its international staff from 46 to 10 and reduced the number of monitoring visits. Five of the WFP's regional offices, from which its inspectors monitored distribution of food aid, were closed. These reductions increased concerns about lack of transparency in food aid distribution.

Freedom of expression

Opposition of any kind was not tolerated. Any person who expressed an opinion contrary to the position of the ruling Korean Workers' Party reportedly faced severe punishment and so did their families in many cases. The domestic news media continued to be strictly censored and access to international media broadcasts remained severely restricted. In October, the NGO Reporters Sans Frontieres listed North Korea as the worst violator of press freedom.

Any unauthorized assembly or association was regarded as a "collective disturbance", liable to punishment. Religious freedom, although guaranteed by the Constitution, was in practice sharply curtailed. People involved in public and private religious activities faced imprisonment, torture and execution.

Death penalty

Executions were by hanging or firing-squad. There were reports of executions of political opponents in political prisons and of people charged with economic crimes, such as stealing food.

Son Jong-nam was reportedly sentenced to be executed on charges of betraying his country, sharing information with South Korea and receiving financial assistance from his brother, a North Korean settled in South Korea since 2002. In April 2006, according to UN sources, he was imprisoned in the basement of the National Security Agency in Pyongyang and was "practically dead" as a result of torture. Son Jong-nam had left North Korea in 1997 with his wife, son and brother and had become a Christian deemed to be a serious crime in North Korea. He was forcibly returned by Chinese authorities to North Korea in 2001 and imprisoned for three years in the Hamgyung-buk do prison camp. He was released in May 2004 and met his brother in China before returning to North Korea. The North Korean authorities learned that he had met his brother and arrested him in January 2006. He was believed to be alive at the end of 2006.

Prison conditions

Prisoners, particularly political prisoners, reportedly suffered appalling conditions, in a wide range of detention centres and prisons.

North Koreans forcibly returned from China faced torture or ill-treatment and up to three years' imprisonment. Their punishments depended on their age, gender and experiences. Women and children were generally sentenced to two weeks in a detention centre, although longer sentences of several months in labour camps were also common. The consequences of repatriation were reportedly most severe for pregnant women, who suffered forced abortions in poor medical conditions. People who confessed to meeting South Koreans or missionaries were punished particularly harshly. Summary executions and long sentences of hard labour were still enforced, although the authorities often released prisoners close to death, who died shortly after their release.

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