In July 2020, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report on the plethora of human rights abuses faced by women repatriated to North Korea and imprisoned in detention centers, holding centers, labor camps, and prisons across the peninsula’s north. Overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, malnutrition and forced starvation, compulsory labor, physical and sexual violence, rape, torture, forced abortion and sterilization, and more make up the endless list of daily realities that female inmates suffer. OHCHR reveals that, despite the North Korean government’s minuscule steps to revise domestic legislation and engage minimally with some Untied Nations reporting mechanisms, much more concrete and observable changes need to be made to ensure that North Korean citizens’ fundamental rights, dignities, and liberties are met and exceeded.
OHCHR interviewed over 100 women who (1) had escaped North Korea to seek refuge, (2) were forcefully repatriated in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, and (3) were detained in North Korea as a result of their actions. Below are some of the testimonies of survivors of the DPRK’s brutal regime and detention center conditions:
“We were barely fed. I witnessed a 47-year old woman who had lived in China for a long time die of malnutrition…[she] looked much older due to the starvation and suffering she had experienced.”
“When I had to sit tight in the same position, I was not supposed to make eye contact with officers outside the cell. However, I was not really aware of the rules, so I happened to make eye contact with an officer without knowing the rule. Because of my mistake, all of the detainees in my cell were punished. We had to hold our hands behind our back and stand up and down repeatedly. I passed out because of this and the officer told the other detainees to drag me to his side close to him where he beat me on my head again. I lost consciousness due to the beating. The day after, I woke up in the morning with bloody ears. I still suffer from headaches to this day, which I presume came from the beatings I suffered there.”
“A woman…in her mid-forties lost consciousness while doing the weeding work. She died. When she lost consciousness, officers at the holding centre, instead of treating her, poured cold water over her. They even put he into a big water bucket.”
“I witnessed one officer who called out a woman in her 20s one night while the rest of the detainees were told to go to sleep. He was drunk. She was told to remove her clothes and was sexually abused. Detainees reported the case to the officer in charge of preliminary investigation, but the detainees who reported this were later punished and beaten up.”
“I suffered no violence but the other woman had become pregnant in China so the guards knew that her baby had Chinese blood. This was an issue as the local laws prevented any North Korean woman from giving birth to a mixed race baby. The doctor in the MPS centre told her to get an abortion despite the fact that she wanted to keep the baby. She was eventually forced to have an abortion and sent to a kyohwaso….”
To make matters exponentially worse, these women are repeatedly revoked their right to a fair and unbiased trial, and therefore are prevented from accessing justice, freedom, and accountability for the perpetrators of human rights violations against them. Despite that North Korean domestic law prohibits arbitrary detention and requires that citizens are given a fair trial and legal counsel, many of these women have reported that they had never met with a lawyer during their time in detention, there were no “preliminary investigations,’ and rarely were there trials. One woman says:
“I was assigned a lawyer during this process but the lawyer never spoke to me. At the beginning, I had the impression that to get him to actually work for me I would have had to bribe him. In any event, in North Korea, defence lawyers just represent the interests of the State and of the Party, not of their clients.”
The situation of women who escape North Korea, forcibly return to North Korea, and end up languishing in detention centers, is fraught with multiple levels of human rights violations. From illegal and unjust refoulement to the impossibly egregious conditions they face upon return to North Korea that led them to seek refuge elsewhere in the first place, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for these innocent and marginalized women.
We must continue to condemn and place pressure on North Korea to extend all rights, privileges, liberties, and freedoms- the most basic forms of human dignity- to its citizens, and we must hold North Korea accountable to all possible international human rights obligations, lest we see a forever continuation of a corrupt and destructive regime.
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