On March 21, 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a commission to investigate what it called “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in North Korea.

For almost a year, investigators gathered evidence and testimony from victims and witnesses. They gathered testimony from more than 80 witnesses and experts in public hearings that took place in Seoul, Tokyo, London, and Washington, DC. They conducted private interviews with more than 240 people.

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The commission published its report this week, and what it found was shocking, even considering all we already know about North Korea. Investigators found: “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.”

All of these are crimes against humanity. Here’s what the report tells us about life and death in North Korea. 

(Illustrations by Mr Kim Kwang-il, a North Korean defector who spent three years in a prison camp and provided the UN Commission with these sketches of his time there.)


Freedom of expression doesn’t exist

Translation: "Crane, airplane and car interrogation positions." (Mr Kim Kwang-il/United Nations)

The commission found “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” State-run indoctrination begins at birth. Social activities are almost entirely coordinated by the Worker’s Party of Korea. Surveillance of private life is widespread. North Koreans have almost no access to independent information outside of state-controlled media.


- In schools, a large part of the curriculum focuses on the lives and teachings of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. A former North Korean teacher claimed that this focus “constitutes most of the education.”

- Students are discouraged from drawing unless their drawings depict members of the Kim family or the killing of Japanese and American soldiers.

- Children practice up to 12 hours a day while training for the Mass Games, an annual performance of mass, synchronized gymnastics. Training poses a real health risk. One mass games participant recalled that her teachers would motivate students by invoking the story of a young boy, 7- or 8-years old, who died after training while suffering acute appendicitis. He was considered a hero for making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the games and the Kim family.

- Children participate in weekly “confession and criticism” sessions in which groups of children gather to evaluate whether they lived up to the teachings of Kim Il-sung that week.

- Every citizen must become a member of the sub-associations of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Children between the age of 7 and 13 join the Children’s Union.

- North Koreans must display three framed pictures in their households: one of Kim Il-sung, one of Kim Jong-il, and one that shows the two leaders in conversation with each other.

- Homes are equipped with “fixed line” broadcast systems that allow the state to broadcast messages directly to citizens.

- When citizens purchase a television, they must register it with the Transmission Surveillance Bureau, which modifies the TV set so that it only receives official channels.

- Practicing Christianity is a political crime.


There’s widespread, systematic discrimination based on social class, gender, and disability

Translation: Detention cell where prisoners are locked up. (Mr Kim Kwang-il/United Nations)

North Korea claims to be a state where all citizens are equal. No. Class discrimination is based in something called songbun, a sort of caste system that has determined where citizens could live, what kind of work they could do, how much food they’d receive, and whom they could marry. Women are subject to an array of human rights violations, including sexual violence, lack of representation among political elites, vulnerability to trafficking, and more.

- The songbun system divides the population into three general categories and 51 subcategories.

- Only the highest-level songbun can reside in Pyongyang, which comes with access to decent housing, medicine, and food. For low-caste citizens, even visiting the capital can be difficult.

- History can determine your songbun. Guerrillas who fought with Kim Il-sung earned their families the highest status, while wealthy industrialists, collaborators and spies, South Korean prisoners of war, Catholics and Buddhists received the lowest.

- The state maintains extensive songbun records on every citizen, tracing genealogy and loyalty. The files are updated over time. Low scores can hinder admission to university and being hired. It’s nearly impossible for citizens to access their own files. They don’t know what’s in them and can’t contest false information. Many citizens know their songbun status, but some don’t find out until their status makes a difference in their lives.

- North Korea has passed several laws promoting gender equality as a way of encouraging women to serve the state. But patriarchal cultural attitudes remain entrenched. In combination, the responsibilities of North Korean women doubled. They had duties to the state, while remaining burdened by domestic responsibilities at home.

- Women are supposed to wear skirts and black shoes. No pants or sandals allowed. Dress rules are enforced by the Moral Discipline Corps: groups of citizens that monitor “morality violations.” Women are also forbidden from riding bicycles.

- Sexual abuse, in private and in public, is widespread. There is little state protection and social support networks.


Citizens have very little freedom of movement and defectors are punished harshly

Translation: Prisoners catching mice in 4x2 ft solitary refinement, (Mr Kim Kwang-il/United Nations)

The state controls where citizens live and work. It imposes a nearly absolute ban on foreign travel. Captured and repatriated North Koreans suffer abuses that include torture, prolonged detention, and more. Among its other tools of social control, North Korean limits interactions among citizens by isolating them from the outside world.

- The state assigns your residence and the Worker’s Party of Korea assigns your job, with songbun being a key factor. If you want to move, you need government permission.

- The state can move you at any time. Banishment from Pyongyang is a particular concern for citizens. If a resident is charged with a political crime, it can downgrade the entire family’s songbun. One day they’d be living in the relative comfort of Pyongyang, and the next, they’d be living in a remote area with jobs in mining or logging.

- According to some witnesses, families that include a member with disabilities are not allowed to live in Pyongyang.

- The only citizens permitted to leave North Korea - temporarily - are those with spotless ideological records and high songbun.

- Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have starved to death since famine began in the 1990s, but state authorities have never lifted the ban on foreign travel.

- Border guards are ordered to “shoot to kill” citizens seeking to escape the country.

- Repatriated defectors are treated horribly. One witness recalled a family that had been repatriated to his hometown. They were dragged through the town by rings pierced through their noses while townspeople pelted them with rocks. Defectors are routinely detained for long periods, starved, tortured, beaten, and interrogated.

- Women are subject to particular degradation upon repatriation. Forced abortion and infanticide is common. The North Korean state espouses an ideology of racial purity and, when female defectors are repatriated from China while pregnant, authorities forcibly terminate the pregnancy under that assumption that the women are carrying mixed-race babies. Newborns are sometimes seized and murdered. Victims also describe sexual abuse in repatriation camps, as well as humiliating, violent, and unsanitary vaginal searches.


Arbitrary detention, torture, executions, enforced disappearance, political prison camps: rampant.

Translation: "Pump punishment" where prisoners are ordered to sit and stand up hundreds of times. (Mr Kim Kwang-il/United Nations)

The State Security Department, the Ministry of People’s Security, and the Korean People’s Army Military Security Command coordinate arrests and detentions. Prisoners accused of political crimes disappear without trial, sent to political prison camps where they are denied contact with the outside world. Authorities do not inform prisoners’ families of their loved ones’ detention statuses. They sometimes do not inform prisoners of the crimes they’ve been charged with. In prison, men and women are subjected to forced labor, torture, rape, deliberate starvation, and other abuses.

- “Guest houses” are what the State Security Department (SSD) calls its secret interrogation detention facilities.

- There are three levels of interrogation detention in which prisoners find themselves: The county-level SSD detention centers, the provincial SSD interrogation centrer, and the SSD national headquarters in Pyongyang. Political prisoners might be successively interrogated at each, even if he or she has confessed.

- Witnesses and victims describe underground detention facilities where cell doors are less than three feet in height, so prisoners enter and exit by crawling. One former prisoner testified that he was told by a guard, “when you get to this prison you are not human, you are just like animals, and as soon as you get to this prison, you have to crawl just like animals.”

- Torture is a routine feature of interrogation. A former SSD official described a torture chamber with wall shackles designed to suspend prisoners upside down and a water tank to simulate drowning. Interrogators would sometimes drive needles underneath a prisoner’s fingernails or pour hot chili pepper sauce down his or her nose. Interrogators at Ministry of People’s Security interrogation center in Pyongyang have kept prisoners in a small metal cages for hours.

- Security and detention authorities withhold food as punishment and use the threat of starvation to coerce confessions and compliance. One prisoner, who was detained for 10 months after trading goods with citizens of South Korea, dropped from 165 pounds to 79 pounds while imprisoned.

- Political prisoners who are not executed will spend the rest of their lives in secret prison camps. North Korean authorities continue to deny that the camps exist, disguising them as military or farming facilities. Officials call them “controlled areas” and refer to the prisoners as “moved people.” The SSD bureau that manages the camps is called the “Farming Bureau.”

- Guards at the secret prison camps are under orders, in the event of war, to exterminate the prisoners and destroy all evidence of the camps.

- Most estimates put the number of prisoners in secret camps at more than 100,000.

- Women who become pregnant at the secret camps undergo forcible abortions.

- Starvation has been routinely used to keep prisoners weak and pliable in the camps. Even at times when food security has been relatively stable in the rest of North Korea, in the camps, prisoners have received starvation rations.

- Forced labor is a way of life inside. Children begin working at the age of five.

- Prisoners are forced to bury the dead in mass graves.

- Life is similar in so-called “ordinary prison camps,” which are not secret and hold men and women imprisoned for non-political crimes.


Food access is limited and political

Prisoners catch and eat snakes and mice out of starvation. (Mr Kim Kwang-il/United Nations)

North Korea distributes food unequally, uses starvation as a form of political coercion, and has refused international food aid that might have saved some of the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have died since widespread famine broke out in the 1990s. Starvation and malnutrition have improved since then, but remain a widespread problem, especially in poorer, more remote regions.

- Witnesses testified that people ate grass, roots, dirt and bark during the 1990s famine.

- When the state slashed public food rationing, hungry citizens created local black-market economies to trade goods for food. These private markets drastically changed the North Korean economy. Authorities have sought to shut down these markets, but have not effectively replaced them with public food distribution.

- Between 2011 and 2013, 30.9 percent of the North Korean population was suffering from malnourishment.

- The state distributes more grams of food per person to citizens with high sonbung than to other citizens.

- Discriminatory food access is both class-based and geographical, since class determines residence. That means the North Korean state can limit humanitarian access to the most severely at-risk populations by limiting geographical access.


The state abducts foreign nationals

Translation: A dead bodies storage where corpses are often eyeless because rats eat the eyeballs first. (Mr Kim Kwang-il/United Nations)

Since the Korean War, North Korean authorities have abducted over 200,000 citizens of foreign nations. Most of these abductions took place during and immediately after the war.

More recently, North Korean authorities have kidnapped Japanese nationals — the UN Commission estimates the number to be about 100 — and used them to teach Japanese at spy and military training schools. Japanese nationals are segregated in order to avoid mixing with ethnic Koreans and in hopes of developing a population that might launch revolution in Japan.

In 2002, Kim Jong-il admitted to Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi that North Korea had abducted 13 Japanese nationals. He permitted five of them to visit Japan. None of them chose to return to North Korea. As for the other eight, North Korean officials claim they died. According to the Commission, “no plausible evidence was provided in support of their assertion.”

North Korea has made great effort, employing the full force of its land, naval, and intelligence capabilities, to abduct North Korean defectors, even in cases where defectors have received residency status or citizenship elsewhere.


The UN's conclusion

Translation: Prisoners move dead bodies to a creamatorium. (Mr Kim Kwang-il/United Nations)

The U.N. Commission concluded:

“Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the Commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the state. They are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world. Political scientists of the 20th century characterized this type of political organization as a totalitarian state: A 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.”

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