Never Give up on the Human Rights of North Koreans

By Abraham Cooper and Greg Scarlatoiu*


For almost three decades, US administrations have tiptoed around the egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Kim regimes in North Korea. But US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has already changed the equation, by succeeding in securing the release of American detainees Kim Dong-chul, Kim (Tony) Sang-duk, and Kim Hak-song. A reminder to us and the world that the US still has the clout to move the needle on human rights.

On the eve of the Singapore Summit we urge President Trump to put the release of Japanese, other foreign and South Korean abductees, the reunion of separated Korean families, and the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean political prison camps, as the bill the DPRK must foot to become a normal and responsible member of the international community.

Three generations of the Kim family regime have continued to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles at the expense of the human security of North Koreans, and to egregiously violate the human rights of their citizens. In order to tackle North Korean threats, the Trump Administration has applied three of the four fundamental elements of national power (diplomatic, information, military, economic power, DIME): economic power through the strengthening of the international sanctions regime; military power through the deployment of assets to the region and the reaffirming of US commitment to our Korean and Japanese allies; and diplomatic power, employing for the first time summit diplomacy, made possible by the maximum economic and military pressure and the resuscitation of inter-Korean dialogue, starting with the Pyongchang Winter Olympics.

Kim Jong-un wants security guarantees, but history has taught time and again liberal democracies shouldn’t try to guarantee the survival of a regime that runs political prison camps and commits crimes against humanity. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his key advisers represent a generation of progressive intellectuals who helped democratize their nation. Their lasting legacy however, will be ultimately defined by their stance on North Korean human rights. Will they appease tyranny and lead the ROK down the path of catastrophic compromise? Or will they become the heroes who brought freedom and human rights to both Koreas, thus decisively opening the path of unification under a truly democratic and prosperous Republic of Korea?

Time will tell. But early signs are not encouraging. The recent ban on leaflet balloon launches and loudspeaker broadcasting into North Korea is one reason for concern. North Korean escapees in South Korea give voice to silenced millions. At this critical crossroads in history, the South Korean administration must protect these heroes and ensure their voices are heard, not muffled.

All this puts the spotlight on the US’ summit diplomacy. Will it be a historic achievement for President or just another déjà vu North Korean scam?

Under any conceivable outcome, in order to achieve ultimate peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia--a fundamental U.S. security interestthe nature of the Kim regime and its horrific human rights abuses must remain in focus. 

Human rights cannot be treated as a sidebar issue, possibly sacrificed for a wink and a nod and photo-op with Kim. Human rights must not be abandoned to appease the Kim regime. Human rights cannot be postponed until an ever-elusive future scenario where the Kim regime miraculously agrees to protect the rights of its citizens. Despots do not give away human rights out of the goodness of their hearts. Human rights are always achieved and protected through struggle.

Can the US remove a nuclear threat and guarantee human rights and dignity simultaneously?

President Trump please take note, America already did it and with a much more dangerous foe. During the Cold War, President Reagan and then Secretary of State George Shultz used the issue of freedom for Soviet Jewry as the litmus test for Soviet intentions on Nuclear Disarmament. Eventually, human rights prevailed and the communist system dissolved without a shot being fired.

The US should counter Kim’s cycle of “charm offensives,” not through appeasement but through verifiable changes in North Korea. It is important to witness the blowing up of one nuclear test site. Of equal importance will be the dismantling of Kim’s Gulag. When that occurs and only then can the world be assured that the two estranged Koreas are on the path to a peaceful reunification and a hopeful future for all.

*Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and Director, Global Social Action Agenda
Simon Wiesenthal Center

Greg Scarlatoiu is Executive Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

Remember the “Jerusalem of the East”

By Greg Scarlatoiu
Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

This is a flash-lit photo taken at the regular weekly prayer meeting in Pyongyang, where the average attendance was about 500 persons in 1908/1922.

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2018 annual report, recommending that 16 countries, including North Korea, be designated "countries of particular concern" (CPC). In the press statement announcing the report release, USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark urged the Trump Administration to "build on stated commitments to elevate religious freedom as a priority in our foreign policy," to "prioritize seeking the release of religious prisoners of conscience abroad," and to work closely with international partners in efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief for all."

On April 27, 2018, the two Koreas will hold a historic summit meeting. In late May or June, we may witness the first meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader. North Korean nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and military provocations have often been addressed at the expense of human rights. But the plight of the North Korean people has been on the agenda of the Trump Administration. President Trump extensively addressed North Korean human rights in his November 2017 speech before the South Korean National Assembly. Disabled North Korean escapee activist Ji Seong-ho attended President Trump’s State of the Union address, as the US leader once again addressed the abysmal state of human rights in North Korea. Three days after the State of the Union, President Trump met with a group of eight North Korean escapees from all walks of life, including Mr. Ji. Vice President Pence met with North Korean escapees in South Korea, on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Both critics and supporters of the Trump Administration may agree that, of all human rights issues, religious freedom has ranked among its highest. On May 4, 2017, the Trump Administration issued a Presidential Executive Order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” From May 19 to May 27, 2017, President Trump embarked on his first international trip. The destinations included Saudi Arabia, Israel, Rome, and Vatican City, home to the Holy Sites of three major religions.

The United States continues to stand for both national security and values we share with trusted friends, partners, and allies such as South Korea. South Korea is home to Asia’s second largest Christian population. South Korea’s most prevalent religion is Christianity (19.7 percent Protestant, 7.9 percent Catholic). Respect for human rights, in particular respect for religious freedom, lies at the very heart of the fundamental values we share with our Korean friends. And faith can provide an avenue of communication with our Korean allies. After all, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a Catholic, one of many Catholic Koreans who cherish the miracle of the birth, survival, and growth of the Korean Catholic Church.

In North Korea, the Kim regime has continued to oppress human rights, in particular religious freedom, for seven decades. Nineteen years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Kim regime has not only managed to survive, but also to accomplish two hereditary transmissions of power, from grandfather Kim Il-sung to son Kim Jong-il in July 1994, and from son Kim Jong-il to grandson Kim Jong-un in December 2011. One possible explanation for the longevity of the Kim regime is that it is the result of the fusion of four totalitarian political systems. All North Koreans have known for the past six centuries has been totalitarianism: five hundred years of the feudal Chosun dynasty; forty years of Japanese imperial occupation from 1905 to 1945; Stalinist communism; and the Kim family regime’s kleptocratic tyranny.

As the tragedy of Korean separation continues after seven decades, one remembers that the northern half of the Korean peninsula was once the cradle of the Korean Presbyterian Church. Prior to the communist takeover, the capital city of Pyongyang used to be known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” In North Korea, Christianity was once a way of life. Two churches on the same street corner were a common sight. However, in 1946, the North Korean People’s Committee forced the closure of churches with congregations that did not meet a certain predetermined number of attendees. The Committee began to forbid Protestant and Catholic in-house assemblies, and made Sunday a workday and Monday a rest day. Under the pretext that the sound of religious songs disturbed public life, the same Committee asked churches to relocate. Communist party agitators were inserted into Christian communities and church assemblies. They began criticizing the sermons as being “unprogressive.”

In North Korea, religious freedom went from restriction to suppression to violent obliteration. In a 1962 speech before the People’s Safety Agency, the North Korean secret political police, Kim Il-sung said:
“We cannot move towards a communist society with religious people. That is why we had to put on trial and punish those who hold positions of deacons or higher in Protestant or Catholic churches. Other undesirables among the religious people were also put on trial. Believers were given the choice to give up religion so they can get away with labor work. Those who did not were sent to prison camps.”
Soon after the establishment of the DPRK in 1948, according to the 1950 North Korean statistical yearbook, 22.2 percent of North Koreans were religious. In the second national human rights report submitted by the North Korean delegation to the UN Human Rights Council for review in July 2001, the delegation said that there was a total of about 38,000 religious believers in North Korea, including 10,000 Protestants, 3,000 Catholics, 10,000 Buddhists, and 15,000 Chondoists, a total of 0.2 percent of the population. It is estimated that there are about five Russian Orthodox churches as well. The cataclysmic drop from 22.2 to 0.2 percent happened swiftly. Over just a few years, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, North Korean Christians were imprisoned, executed, driven into exile, and Christianity almost went extinct. Violent repression of suspected underground Christians continues today. Even 0.2 percent official Christians is likely doctored data. The North Korean regime claims that a small percentage of Christians officially exists just to pay lip service to freedom of religion, for the consumption of audiences outside the country. In truth, Christianity has only survived underground, despite mortal danger. The Kim regime tries to appear before the international community as tolerating religion and guaranteeing religious freedom, while in reality it suppresses religion internally. Through this duplicitous policy, the Kim regime aims to deflect international criticism and seek economic aid. Such aid comes in particular from well-meaning Christian groups that often fail to understand the true nature of the Kim regime and its policy of human rights denial.

In truth, freedom of religion does not exist in North Korea, although Article 68 of the DPRK Constitution, revised on April 9, 2012, allows it on paper. The people of North Korea are not allowed the opportunity to read their own constitution. They do not have access to international human rights treaties that protect freedom of religion, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which North Korea acceded to in 1981.

According to the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), 99.6 percent of the North Korean escapees it interviewed responded that there was no religious freedom in North Korea. Fifty-five percent suffered detention in political prison camps as punishment for religious activities and responded that many of those detained were reportedly executed publicly.

Like other communist leaders before him, Kim Il-sung rejected religion as “the opium of the people.” Religious persecution was a common thread in the atheist ideology of Feuerbach, Marx, Engels, and in the policies of Lenin and Mao. But it is the Kim family regime that has taken religious persecution, in particular the persecution of Christians, to a level perhaps on a par with Nero’s Rome as well as the Assyrian, Greek, and Armenian genocide perpetrated during World War I.

In deceitful displays of “Potemkinism,” foreign visitors and residents of North Korea will be taken to so-called “Protestant” churches whose doors are chained on Easter Sunday and so-called “Catholic” Mass devoid of Holy Communion, holy water, or Catholic prayer. Dutiful soldiers of the regime will masquerade as ministers, priests, and parishioners, saying so-called “prayers” for Kim Jong-un and his regime and blasting American “imperialism.”

In North Korea, anyone suspected of being a Christian, of having a Christian family member, of associating with Christians, or even just of being exposed to the Christian faith is harshly punished. When North Korean escapees are arrested in China and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, in direct violation of China’s obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, they are aggressively interrogated, beaten, and tortured. North Korea’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Ministry of Public Security (MPS) ask them two questions, over and over and over again: “Did you come across any Christian missionaries while outside the country? Did you come across any South Koreans along the road of defection?”

Why does the Kim regime fear and resent Christianity so much? The answer lies in the nature of the regime. Kim Jong-un sits at the top of a post-communist, kleptocratic dynasty. The Kim family regime is a criminal organization masquerading as a sovereign state. This is not a criminal cartel. This is a regime that holds absolute crmonopoly on political power through oppression unparalleled in the contemporary world: indoctrination, information control, a policy of human rights denial, and prioritizing its apocalyptic weapons programs over the welfare and human security of its citizens. There are no challengers at home. The regime Kim Il-sung established in the late 1940s is a dark tyrannical apostate that discriminates against its own people based on their perceived degree of loyalty to the supreme leader.

There is a father, Kim Il-sung, a son, Kim Jong-il, and an unholy ghost, Kim Jong-un. There are even ten unholy commandments. The lives of North Koreans are guided by the“Ten Great Principles of the Monolithic Ideology System.” Once a week, every North Korean must participate in a “saeng-hwal-chong-hwa” mandatory self-criticism session. This dreadful practice involves confessing one’s perceived “sins” to others, denouncing others for their faults, and pledging unwavering loyalty to the regime of Kim Jong-un. The most loyal, the core class, are allowed to live in the capital city of Pyongyang, which looks like paradise when compared to the rest of the country. Suspected wrong-doers, wrong-thinkers, those who are suspected of having engaged in wrong associations or possessing wrong knowledge, especially those suspected of being Christian or having Christian leanings, are sent to the Kim regime’s inferno, its “kwan-li-so” political prison camps, where 120,000 men, women, and children, often times members of three generations of the same family, are imprisoned together, pursuant to “yeon-jwa-jae,” a system of guilt-by-association of feudal extraction. The remaining North Koreans remain trapped in the country’s “purgatory,” overwhelmed by chronic food, health, economic, environmental, personal, political, and community insecurity.

Christianity and free, democratic, prosperous South Korea constitute the only challenges to the Kim regime’s absolute monopoly on power. Christianity offers an alternative way of life that delegitimizes tyranny and transcends oppression. Despite mortal danger and overwhelming coercion, control, surveillance, and punishment, underground churches have been growing in North Korea, with the help of outside missionaries and churches. The underground church provides a venue for the free exchange of ideas. Its members desperately endeavor to escape the overwhelming control of North Korea’s three internal security agencies, their 270,000 agents, and their omnipresent informer networks. Underground North Korean Christians are now in the range of tens, if not hundreds of thousands. This is a small number for a population of 25 million, but Christianity is still surviving tyranny.

Public discourse and advocacy on North Korea have been focusing on markets and information. And those are true agents of transformation, slowly but surely eroding the regime’s grip on power. Yet, there is one more agent of change, and that is the growing underground church of North Korea. Brought to Korea by Catholic missionaries, kept alive by Korean Catholic laity, and dramatically expanded by American missionaries beginning in the 19th century, Christianity defined the identity of Korean people living in the north prior to the Soviet takeover in 1945. Ahead of their summit meetings with the North, Presidents Moon and Trump must remember that the oppressed people of North Korea deserve an opportunity to retrieve the identity taken from them seven decades ago. Just like the Colosseum, where Roman Christians were martyred, one day, the political prison camps of North Korea, where Christians have been starved, tortured, and slaughtered, must become holy sites after their liberation and dismantlement. Ahead of their summit meetings, the presidents of the United States and South Korea must remember that Pyongyang was once the “Jerusalem of the East.”

Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping: “As Close as Lips and Teeth” on Human Rights Denial

By Amanda Mortwedt Oh



A commemorative stamp of Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping 
appeared in the Rodong Sinmunon April 20, 2018.[1]

"If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” This Chinese proverb is frequently invoked to explain the interdependence of North Korea and China’s relationship with one another. Put another way, the two countries are “as close as lips and teeth,” which became more readily apparent when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and China’s Xi Jinping met in person last month. Nowhere is their interdependent bond more apparent than the countries’ policies of human rights denial,[2]seen most strikingly in their collusion to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees back to Kim’s gulags.[3]And this is precisely why human rights issues must be part of the discussion in the upcoming two summits between Kim Jong-un and Presidents Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump, respectively. The North Korean people deserve to have leaders face the reality of the North Korean regime. Now is an opportunity for Presidents Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump to urge Kim Jong-un to improve the human rights of North Koreans.

Importantly, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK (UN COI) noted North Korea and China’s close relationship in 2014 after it concluded an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in North Korea. In addition to finding evidence to support the tragedy that is the North Korean people’s pervasive victimization by the Kim family regime, amounting to crimes against humanity in many instances, the UN COI warned China on supporting North Korea’s atrocities. It urged China to caution relevant officials that their conduct could amount to the aiding and abetting of crimes against humanity where repatriations and information exchanges are specifically directed toward or have the purpose of facilitating the commission of crimes against humanity in North Korea.[4]

As a result of the diligence of civil society organizations, governments, and the United Nations, we know the North Korean regime systematically oppresses its people in ways that violate international law and customs, are universally immoral, and have the potential to pose a security threat to South Korea, the United States, and the Asia Pacific region. Kim’s regime is unquestionably criminal and the United Nations Security Council should refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.[5]Furthermore, North Korea’s collusion with other tyrants of the world, specifically its weapons (both chemical and conventional) support to Bashir Al-Assad in Syria,[6]demands discussion at these summits at a minimum.

Yet, Xi Jinping, now “leader eternal,”[7]took the opportunity, or perhaps succumbed to pressure,[8]to hold the first summit with Kim Jong-un ahead of the summits with Moon and Trump. This spells the worst for serious discussion of human rights with Kim going forward because of China’s terrible human rights record as well as China’s practice of repatriating North Korean escapees back to the North.[9]Nevertheless, perhaps there has never been a more important time and topic to discuss in the Moon-Kim and Trump-Kim summits. In a visit that took the international community by surprise, Kim traveled to China by armored train to meet Xi for the first time on March 25, 2018. Kim’s next summit is now set for April 27, 2018 with President Moon, giving China and North Korea about a month to continue to collude on negotiation strategy and cooperative practices.[10]

The Xi-Kim Summit confirms that people’s basic and fundamental human rights are in even more peril. Both regimes mercilessly repress human rights, and it doesn’t take much more than an internet search–not to be taken for granted in China–to read news about China’s “re-education” camps for Uyghurs, for example.[11]These camps are aimed at squashing political dissent for a leader who has, in effect, already removed voting rights from the people of China. The fact that Xi has clear influence over Kim, who traveled outside of his comfort zone of North Korea, means that human rights considerations are nonexistent, except for a policy of human rights denial, coined by North Korean leadership expert Robert Collins for HRNK.[12]

As a result, Presidents Moon and Trump should push back during the upcoming summits against this collusion to deny human rights. With that in mind, these are the top five human rights considerations for Presidents Moon and Trump to discuss with Kim Jong-un, all of which North Korea violates in contravention of its five international human rights treaty obligations:[13]
  1. North Korea’s system of political imprisonment, manifested in modern-day gulags, where crimes against humanity are occurring. At a minimum, families of prisoners must be notified of their loved ones’ whereabouts and when they are killed or die in detention.[14]Kim Jong-un must also be pressed to release the three Americans and six South Koreans in detention. While the regime acknowledges its long-term labor facilities (kyo-hwa-so) it still denies the existence of its political prison camps (kwan-li-so) despite continually mounting evidence.[15]
  2. North Korea’s and China’s practice of detaining North Korean escapees and forcibly repatriating them to North Korea, where they face torture and, at times, death in detention. Kim must not order the execution of those fleeing North Korea, as has been reported as the current practice and witnessed via video.[16]
  3. Separated families deserve to be reunited with their loved ones, intentionally separated by North Korea for sixty-five years. So many of these family members have died or are elderly now, and soon this basic human right to family will be denied forever with their passing.[17]
  4. The full return and accounting of prisoners of war and those abducted by the North Korean regime.[18]As an ally against the Kim regime, Japan has specifically requested this issue be a part of the summits as well.
  5. An assurance against the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of war, especially against innocent civilians. In line with this, Kim must end the reported practice of testing these weapons against prisoners.[19]
Ultimately, the Xi-Kim summit is an indicator that the near future of human rights progress in North Korea remains bleak. Despite and because of this, now is the time to be even more hardened in the commitment by the Republic of Korea and the United States to push for human rights reform in North Korea, as people’s lives depend on it.


[1]On April 20, 2018, Christopher Green (@Dest_Pyongyang) tweeted, “Nothing says lips n teeth’ like #NorthKorea issuing a commemorative stamp. From today’s Rodong Sinmun. pic.twitter.com/dKXMw3bVhW.” The picture shows the stamp above in the Rodong Sinmun
[2]In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK found that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” perpetrated against the people of North Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the state, amount to crimes against humanity in many instances. Crimes include murder, enslavement, deliberate starvation, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, torture, and enforced disappearances, among other hardships.
[3]North Koreans forcibly repatriated by China systematically endure persecution, torture while being interrogated about their activities abroad, sexual violence, and imprisonment in North Korea’s inhuman detention system. Persons found to have contact with the Republic of Korea or Christian churches may be forcibly disappeared into political prison camps, imprisoned in forced labor camps, or summarily executed.
[4]UN Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/25/63, February 7, 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquiryDPRK.aspx.
[5]See the International Bar Association and the War Crimes Committee’s report, “Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Political Prisons,” (December 2017) requesting “that the UN provide the ICC or a special tribunal with jurisdiction to appropriately investigate, punish and remedy the crimes against humanity” committed by the Kim regime. 
[6]See Robert Collins, “North Korea: Committing Crimes Against Humanity in Two Regions of the World,” HRNK Insider, April 19, 2018,http://www.hrnkinsider.org/2018/04/north-korea-committing-crimes-against.html?m=1.
[7]Tom Rogan, “Democracy Dies in Communism: Washington Post runs Chinese propaganda op-ed,” Washington Examiner, April 3, 2018, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/democracy-dies-in-communism-washington-post-runs-chinese-propaganda-op-ed.
[8]Yun Sun, “Kim Jong Un Goes to China: Mending A Weathered Alliance,” 38 North, April 3, 2018, https://www.38north.org/2018/04/ysun040318/.
[9]See HRNK’s Co-Chair Emeritus Roberta Cohen’s and Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu’s December 12, 2017 Congressional testimonies on China’s treatment of North Korean refugees: https://www.hrnk.org/events/congressional-hearings.php.
[10]“China received a warning by the UN COI in 2014 that its policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees could potentially amount to aiding and abetting North Korean perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The UN COI urged China to caution relevant officials that conduct could amount to the aiding and abetting of crimes against humanity where repatriations and information exchanges are specifically directed toward or have the purpose of facilitating the commission of crimes against humanity in North Korea.” Statement of Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), on “Protecting North Korean Refugees” at the Hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, December 12, 2017, https://www.hrnk.org/events/congressional-hearings-view.php?id=12.
[11]HRNK’s Board Member Jerome Cohen, a pre-eminent scholar on China, has written about this issue in detail. See Jerome Cohen, “China sends Uyghurs to re-education camps as a “preventive measure,” Jerry’s Blog, March 27, 2018, https://www.jeromecohen.net/jerrys-blog/china-sends-uyghurs-to-re-education-camps.
[12]See Robert Collins, “Pyongyang Republic: North Korea's Capital of Human Rights Denial,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Collins_PyongyangRepublic_FINAL_WEB.pdf.
[13]Of the ten “core international human rights treaties,” North Korea has signed, acceded to, or ratified five: the ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, CRC, and most recently the CRPD. SeeOHCHR, The Core International Human Rights Instruments and Their Monitoring Bodies, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CoreInstruments.aspx.
[14]See Robert Collins and Amanda Mortwedt Oh, “From Cradle to Grave: The Path of North Korean Innocents,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017), 47-50, https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Collins_Cradle_to_Grave_WEB_FINALFINAL.pdf.
[15]HRNK reports on North Korea’s prisons are available at https://www.hrnk.org/publications/hrnk-publications.php. Its most recent, “The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s ‘An-jeon-bu’ Prison Camps,” provides satellite imagery of over 20 suspected kyo-hwa-sofacilities inside North Korea. See David Hawk with Amanda Mortwedt Oh, “The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s ‘An-jeon-bu’ Prison Camps,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2017), https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Hawk_The_Parallel_Gulag_Web.pdf.
[16]Tweet by Jihyun Park (@JihyunPark7) showing “A #video shot by a #NorthKorean security guard #shot by two women trying to escape. Two women are #mum and #daughter. #YaluRivel [sic],” https://twitter.com/jihyunpark7/status/977827453954555904?s=21.
[17]See OHCHR, “Torn Apart: The Human Rights Dimension of the Involuntary Separation of Korean Families,” 2016,   https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/Report_TORN_APART.pdf.
[18]See Yoshi Yamamoto, “Taken! North Korea’s Criminal Abduction of Citizens of Other Countries,” (Washington, DC: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2011), https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Taken_LQ.pdf.
[19]Dr. Anthony Cordesman's testimony: 
There are indicators that North Korea has a biological weapons program well underway. Several North Korean defectors have claimed that the North tested biological and/or chemical weapons on mentally or physically deficient children and concentration camp prisoners.
Mr. John Parachini's testimony:
The evidence to date of a North Korean biological program is thus far not comparable to the evidence for NK’s nuclear, missile, chemical, and conventional weapons capabilities. Defector reporting presents the most worrisome picture of the North Korean biological weapons program, but most of these reports cannot be corroborated or have been proven false. During 2003–2004 and 2009, several defectors claimed that NK tested biological agents on political prisoners, but these reports are difficult to verify. Recent defectors have been reported to have been vaccinated for anthrax, which has led some to assert that the regime has anthrax in its arsenal and is prepared to use it.
See Joint Subcommittee Hearing: More Than a Nuclear Threat: North Korea’s Chemical, Biological, and Conventional Weapons | House Committee on Foreign Affairs: Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade and Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, March 23, 2018, https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing/joint-subcommittee-hearing-nuclear-threat-north-koreas-chemical-biological-conventional-weapons/.

North Korea: Committing Crimes Against Humanity in Two Regions of the World

By Robert Collins


Image source: AFP

A number of regimes across the world are guilty of crimes against humanity, but very few may be found guilty of such crimes simultaneously in different parts of the world. The Kim family is one of those regimes, however—crimes against humanity in the treatment of its own people as identified in the United Nations’ "Report of the Detailed Findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (COI),” as well as crimes against humanity in the Kim regime’s longtime support of Syria’s Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population.

Arguably, individuals of the Kim regime are aiding and abetting the Syrian regime's commission of crimes against humanity when they knowingly provide chemical weapons support–through illicit supplies and North Korean trainers, for example–that are used to murder innocent civilians in Syria. As the recent attacks on Douma show us, unfortunately, Assad is attacking his own people with chemical weapons, and he is receiving outside support in the commission of these atrocities. This support comes from the Kim regime, in part.

The lethal nature of the chemical weapons that Syria’s President Assad is employing against his own people is far beyond shocking, as evidenced by the media visuals of the effect of these weapons against children of a political opposition group. This recent chemical attack at Douma by the Assad regime is a crime against humanity by almost anybody’s definition of the term and it demonstrates just how far the Assad regime will go to retain power. However, at the lowest tier of discussion on these crimes against humanity is the collusion between the Assad regime and North Korea’s Kim regime relative to chemical weapons sales, development, training, and targeting from North Korea to Syria. The chemical weapons used in Syria by the Assad regime are North Korean. As a result, the Kim regime’s aiding and abetting liability in the commission of crimes against humanity in Syria must be carefully considered.

The lessons of World War I led the West to refrain from further use of these terrible weapons, but not necessarily development. Most nation-states have acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but not all. Of those handful of states that have not acceded to the CWC, the most threatening is North Korea.[1] Not only does North Korea maintain a large stockpile of chemical weapons, enough to kill every South Korean several times over,[2] but the North’s Kim regime has been proliferating these weapons for decades. The regime continues to do so to nation-states whose values do not limit the use of such weapons in the offense.

How big is North Korea’s chemical weapons commitment to Syria and the rest of the Middle East? According to Rami Abd-al-Rahman, Director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Arabic-speaking North Korean officers “are taking part alongside the regular forces.” Al-Rahman estimated that there are between 11 and 15 officers in such service. He added that the North Korean officers speak Arabic and are spread out on many fronts, including the Syrian Defense Ministry factories southeast of Aleppo and with the regime's forces. Al-Rahman said they do not take part in actual fighting, but provide the Assad army with logistic support and construct operational plans. "They also supervise the regime's artillery in the region," he said.[3] North Korean military officers can be seen visiting Syrian military casualties at the Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus in pictures online.[4]

North Korea began its chemical weapons program almost five decades ago. In a speech to the KPA Party Committee on December 25, 1961, Kim Il-sung issued instructions for the North Korean military to “chemicalize” (prepare for chemical warfare), citing the importance of such capabilities.[5] On October 8, 2011, two months before his death, Kim Jong-il stated in his last will and testament that North Korea needed sufficient nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as long-range missiles, to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula.[6]

Now, the Kim regime has committed as many as 6,000 North Korean personnel to serve North Korean interests in the Middle East and has maintained a military liaison in Syria since the 1960s that includes scientists, military personnel, and construction workers.[7] Those involved in proliferation support do so under the supervision of North Korea’s Office 99, a Korean Workers’ Party sub-organization assigned to the Party’s Munitions Industry Department. An escapee who escorted proliferated weapons from North Korea to intended destinations says the Korean Workers’ Party’s Office 99 leads all weapons export operations.[8] The North Korean scientists that are deployed to Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, rotate in and out every 3 to 6 months and they are supervised by Office 99.[9]

The Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) is the Kim regime’s front company for shipping the chemicals overseas. KOMID has worked with Syrian front companies to cooperate with Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which has led Syria’s chemical weapons program since 1970.[10][11]

In early September 2013, then South Korean Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin told then U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel that Syrians had visited the North’s notorious 105th Research Institute (cover name “Cancer Research Institute")[12] in Kanggye City, Jagang Province (Kanggye is center mass for North Korea’s defense industries).[13] However, North Korea has a vast research and development complex in the chemical field that goes far beyond the 105th Research Institute in Kanggye.

According to the 2012 South Korean Ministry of Defense White Paper, North Korea maintains a very significant chemical weapons R&D capability that has resulted in a stockpile of 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical weapons.[14] This is enough to make 625,000-1,250,000 chemical rounds for air, special operations, or artillery (primary means) use. With its current stock, North Korea can cover the Seoul city limits area of 605 square kilometers four times over. Just 1,000 tons of the North’s chemical weapons have the capacity to kill up to 40 million South Koreans across the DMZ.[15] North Korea is capable of producing 5,000 tons of chemical weapons during peacetime and 12,000 tons during a crisis.[16]

The Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology in South Korea has reported to the South Korean National Assembly that North Korea has four military bases equipped with chemical weapons, 11 facilities where chemical weapons are produced and stored, and 13 locations where research and development is carried out related to chemical weapons.[17] These facilities are, for the most part, underground, giving U.S. intelligence limited opportunity to observe North Korean operations of chemical weapons units. Chemical weapons research facilities are concentrated in Hamhung, Kanggye, and North Pyongan Province. In a country where electricity is sparse for everyone but the highest of the elite, electrical power is prioritized to these facilities.[18] North Korea’s chemical research staff numbers at almost 600 personnel, and they are all subordinate not to the government, but to the Korean Workers’ Party.[19]

There has been significant writing on Syria’s chemical weapons program, its North Korea connection, and what can be done about it. Within that scope, there have been two significant efforts to this argument offered here. North Korea’s support for the Syrian chemical weapons program has been well laid out by Dr. Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University. His book entitled The Last Days of Kim Jong-il goes into this issue in depth and includes North Korea’s links to Hezbollah (a true threat that cannot even be imagined yet), and is a must read for those who would like to understand the Syria-North Korea connection.[20] From the opposite angle, distinguished journalist Claudia Rosett has expertly laid out how difficult it will be to enforce the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.[21] There are numerous other reports of the Syria-North Korea links in the chemical industry of varying detail. The point is that the evidence has been there for some time for Syria’s use of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (just view the pictures of the child victims available online), and there is no warning of consequences for North Korea.

We should realize that North Korean efforts to move its technology via undetectable routes are nothing new. They do the same for its illicit drugs, arms sales, and technology acquisition. Pyongyang has one of the world’s most sophisticated global procurement networks.[22] As a United Nations Panel of Experts Report on Security Council Resolution 1874 pointed out, “a culture of fraud and corruption is both rampant and institutionalized through a wide network of North Korean trade offices that work in with overseas diplomatic missions and criminal networks overseas in illicit trade and covert acquisitions.”[23] The United Nations lists three ports in the UAE, Malaysia, Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Lichtenstein, Greece, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Turkey, Mauritania, Thailand, and Singapore as being related to North Korean proliferation efforts.[24]

North Korea will find more buyers for its chemical weapons due to the proven effectiveness, as demonstrated recently in Douma. Pyongyang stands to make more cash to support its own WMD programs by resupplying Syria and additional sales to other states as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Should buyers come calling, North Korea’s Kim regime has demonstrated that it is ready, willing, and able to sell whatever the customer needs, ultimately profiting from the proliferation and bolstering of its own capabilities.

It should be noted that the U.S. tried to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons before. In September 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed an agreement on the “expeditious destruction of the Syria chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof,” leaving the world in anticipation as to whether implementation of that agreement would actually take place. Well, obviously, it did not. At the time, Secretary Kerry specifically mentioned in Congressional testimony that North Korea and Hezbollah, a state actor and non-state actor with a healthy weapons trade relationship, were targets of influence in the conduct of U.S. action.[25] Then, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel rightly pointed out that Hezbollah’s access to chemical weapons must be prevented.[26]

To stop Syria’s use of chemical weapons, it is important to go beyond signed agreements. The Syria-North Korea connection must be cut off to prevent further crimes against humanity. Any future summit between North Korea and the United States should address this issue directly.



[1]North Korea is not a signatory to the United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention.
[2]Only in terms of dosage per person, not in realistic dispersal capability.

[3]Roi Kais,North Korean officers join Assad's forces,” Ynetnews.com, June 3, 2013. URL: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4387732,00.html.

[4]Flickr.com, “North Korean officers visit a Tishreen military hospital in Damascus, Syria,” March 15, 2012. URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/syriafreedom2/6984576857/meta/.
[5]Kim Il-sung, “우리나라의정세와몇가지군사과업에대하여(On A Few Tasks For Our Country’s Situation),” vol. 15 of Kim Il-sung’s Works(Pyongyang: Korean Workers’ Party Publishing Company, 1981).
[6]Kwon Yang-joo, 북한의대량살상무기(WMD) 개발관려– 관계조명(Focusing on Party-Military Relations Related to North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD] Development ),” Korea Institute of Defense Analysis Weekly National Defense Forum, No.1460, April 29, 2013, pp.1-11.  
[7]Kim Pil-jae, “중국이북한-이란의핵개발돕고있다(China is Helping North Korean-Iran Nuclear Development),” NewDailyNewsFebruary 17, 2013. URL: http://www.newdaily.co.kr/news/article.html?no=142889.
[8]Mok Yong-jae, “Puk, Hanulkil Mukisuchul, Nodongdang 99 Hosil Chudo (North Korea Exports Weapons by Air, Korean Workers’ Party’s Office 99 Leads),” Daily NK, December 17, 2009. URL: http://www.dailynk.com/korean/read.php?cataId=nk00100&num=79465.

[9]Korea Times, “Source: Hundreds of NK nuclear and missile experts working in Iran,” November 13, 2011. URL: 

http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/11/113_98613.html.See also Kyunghyang Shinmun, “언론, “시리아핵시설참여북한군10사망(Japan Sources, Ten North Korean Soldiers Participating at the Syrian Nuclear Facility Die),” April 28, 2008. URL: http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=200804280930092&code=910303.
[10]Michelle NicholsNorth Korea shipments to Syria chemical arms agency intercepted: U.N. report,” Yahoo.comAugust22, 2017. URL:https://www.yahoo.com/news/north-korea-shipments-syria-chemical-arms-agency-intercepted-222725768.html.
[11]On January 2, 2015, KOMID was designated by the U.S. Treasury as an agent of the “North Korean government” pursuant to Executive Order 13687. Treasury also designated ten individuals, eight of whom were said to be representatives of KOMID. Two individuals, Ryu Jin and Kang Ryong, were listed as “KOMID officials operating in Syria.” U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Center, “Treasury Imposes Sanctions Against the Government of The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea,” January 2, 2015, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl9733.aspx
[12]Chogabje.com, “, ‘105 연구소화학무기연구(North Korea, 105thResearch Institute Conducts Chemical Weapons Research) ,” September 9, 2013. URL: http://chogabje.com/board/view.asp?C_IDX=52726&C_CC=AB.
[13]MK News, “화학무기비밀리연구개발하는따로있어…(Where Chemical Weapons Are Secretly Developed in North Korea…), September 5, 2013. URL: http://news.mk.co.kr/newsRead.php?year=2013&no=809872.
[14]Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense, “Defense White Paper 2012,” http//www.mnd.go.kr/; p.35; see also Lee Min-yong, Understanding the North Korean Military(Seoul: Hwanggumal Publishing, 2004), pp.139-140 (in Korean).
[15]Kwon Yang-joo, The Comprehension of North Korean Military (Seoul: Korea Institute of Defense Analysis Press, 2010); p.244.
[16]Lee Min-ryong, 김정일체제의북한군대해부(Understanding The Kim Jong-il Regime’s North Korean Military) (Seoul: Golden Egg Publishing, 2004); p.139.
[17]Nocut News, 북한화학무기5천톤보유군사기지관련시설도28(North Korea has 5,000 Tons of Chemical Weapons and 28 Support Facilities)," October 17, 2006. URL:  http://www.nocutnews.co.kr/show.asp?idx=341123.
[18]Mok Yong-jae, "화학무기공장은평안남도·자강도에밀집(North Korea Chemical Weapons Factories Are Concentrated in Pyongan South Province and Jagang Province)," Dalian News, September 6, 2013.  URL: http://www.dailian.co.kr/news/view/384143/?sc=naver.
[19]Lee Chun-kun and Kim Chong-son, 북한의과학기술수준및관심분야분석(Analysis of North Korea’s Science and Technology Standards and Related Areas) (Seo ul: Ministry of Unification, 2009).
[20]Bruce Bechtol, The Last Days of Kim Jong-il(Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2013).

[21]Claudia Rosett, “Syria’s Pals at the Chemical Weapons Convention,” National Review Online, September 13, 2013. URL:  http://www.nationalreview.com/article/358475/syrias-pals-chemical-weapons-convention-claudia-rosett; see also Claudia Rosett,The UN’s colossal failure to stop Syria’s chemical weapons,” thehill.com, April 11, 2018. URL: 
http://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/382723-the-uns-colossal-failure-to-stop-syrias-chemical-weapons.

[22]Mark Hibbs, How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program,”AtlanticApril 10, 2013. URL:http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/how-north-korea-built-its-nuclear-program/274830/.

[23]David J. Birch and others, Final Report to the United Nations Security Councl by Panel of Experets Pursuant to Resolution 1874 (2009),United Nations, 2010.

[24]Mark Hibbs, How North Korea Built Its Nuclear Program,”AtlanticApril 10, 2013. URL:http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/how-north-korea-built-its-nuclear-program/274830/.

[25]David Martosko, “Kerry And Hagel Refuse To Rule Out Sending Troops In To Syria As They Tell The Senate That The World's Dictators Are 'Listening For Our Silence’,”DailyMailOnline, September 3, 2013. URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2410394/Kerry-Hagel-warn-worlds-dictators-listening-silence--REFUSE-rule-sending-troops-in.html.

[26]Josh Rogin, “Hagel: America Can’t Let Hezbollah Get Chemical Weapons,” Daily Beast, September 3, 2013. URL: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/03/hagel-america-can-t-let-hezbollah-get-chemical-weapons.html.

Kim Family Regime Portraits

By Hye-soo Kim*
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
Translated by Grace Kan, HRNK Research Intern


This year in 2018, Kim Il-sung’s birthday falls on Sunday, April 15th. His birthday is called the “Tae-yang-jeol” (태양절), which translates as “The Day of the Sun.” He was born in 1912 in Pyongyang at Mangyeongdae, where tourists are forced to visit and bow. This Sunday will be the most important holiday of the year in North Korea. All North Koreans will bow down to the portrait of Kim Il-sung, or face grave consequences.

When you go to Beijing, the capital of China, you can see a huge portrait of Mao Zedong in the middle of the city. You see such portraits commonly in communist countries. However, no other country except North Korea has statues of the totalitarian leaders in every city. Besides statues, in every North Korean city, portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are hung in every single factory, business, military branch, school, and home.

The homes in other countries differ dramatically from those in North Korea. What truly stands out the most is how in every home, without exception, there hang the portraits of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un, and Kim Jung-Suk. Every family in North Korea must display the portraits in their homes; no one can refuse this. It is forbidden to have even just one speck of dust on the portraits because inspectors, who are the head of the in-min-ban (neighborhood watch units), come to inspect the status of the portraits in each and every home two to three times a month. In addition, monthly and quarterly, people called the “geu-roo-ppa” (그루빠) also do a surprise visit and check the status of the portraits. They go to each home randomly, without any prior notice. As a result, North Koreans need to always make sure that these portraits are kept clean. If the portraits are not clean, as in there is any speck of dust found on them, then the families are punished and are chastised in front of everyone in the town or village to be criticized during an event called “sa-sang-tu-jaeng” (사상투쟁). I am still in disbelief that this is common practice in North Korea. It is unacceptable.

In kindergarten, little children have to bow to the portraits. For example, the birthdays of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are the most important holidays in North Korea. For these days, North Korean authorities provide candies and snacks for children, from toddlers to kindergarteners. These snacks and candies are usually of poor quality and aren’t even tasty, but nonetheless, the children have to thank the dictator by bowing down to the portraits. The children do so without question because they consider it to be normal and also because the adults tell them to do so. These snacks are provided for North Korean children up until they are in elementary school. When elementary students are given these snacks and candies, they must make sure that their school uniforms are even neater than usual, gather around in the school field, and sing idolizing songs about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.



To view HRNK's first episode of With Love, Your North Korean Neighbor, please click here.

*Pseudonym for the safety of the author and the author’s family.