HRNK's EXCLUSIVE First Interview with Ji Seong-ho after SOTU Appearance as Guest of FLOTUS Melania Trump

Interview by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor

Tell us about your escape from North Korea. We heard many details in President Trump's State of the Union speech, but tell us more. How long did it take you to escape? What was your path of escape?

It took me about three months to escape from North Korea to South Korea. The distance of the route that you must take is over 10,000 kilometers (about 6,214 miles). On the journey, I had to pass through a number of countries such as China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand to reach South Korea. Freedom is not so easy to reach. Since this journey is difficult, not many people attempt to escape from North Korea. If you get caught, you are tortured or sent to a political prison camp. Nevertheless, there are people with the courage to try to escape and I am one of them. I escaped from North Korea in 2006 with my younger brother by crossing the Tumen River. I almost drowned to death and after we reached China, we started to think about what we could do. Plainly speaking, we were skeptical about whether we would be able to reach South Korea or not. There was no hope that I would survive because I was not on a safe route and we had to move as quietly as possible without being detected by the Chinese police while at the same time crossing the border holding my crutches made in North Korea. At that time, I thought that I should part from my brother and go on separately. Due to my crutches, I was easily detectable. I thought it would be better if even just one of us could reach South Korea alive. Unfortunately, the journey was extremely harsh. Once, I was caught and threatened to be killed. Another time, I was dehydrated and fainted in a jungle. At that time, I cried and thought "Why was I born in North Korea, not in South Korea? Why did I have to go through this hardship? If I die here, then my body will be eaten by wild animals and none of my family would know that I am dead." I was very sad. I also felt sorrow for the fate of the North Korean people. I promised myself that I would contribute to the reunification of Korean peninsula so that in the future, no more disabled people like me will experience the hardships that I went through. I would like to wipe away the tears of the North Korean people. It is a blessing that I succeeded to escape and reach South Korea, a country of freedom.

Tell us about your life in South Korea. Where and what do you study?

When I first came to South Korea, although I had many things that I wanted to do, not knowing much, I could not do them. I was contemplating what I should do and decided that I should learn about computers. I enrolled in an academy specializing in computers. Thankfully, even though I was disabled, the academy accepted me and I was able to learn to type with only one hand.

Then, my next goal was to go to a university because I had the opportunity to do so. In North Korea, whether or not you can go to a university depends on your social classification [songbun]. In South Korea, you can attend university despite a disability, right? There are no laws that prohibit the enrollment of a disabled person nor are there any laws that prohibit North Korean escapees from attending school. South Korean society is committed to providing various opportunities like education for North Korean escapees to settle and develop themselves. For this reason, I decided to go to a university and I further realized the importance of education. My outlook on life changed and progressed. My experience at a university helped me to see beyond my own life to the broader community of “us.” I questioned myself about many things. Where was I born? How did I end up in South Korea? What was the environment that I was living in? What should I, who has settled down happily in South Korea, be doing for those who are having trouble settling and adapting in South Korean culture and society? Attending university gave me an opportunity to continuously ponder over many things in my life at that time. I understood that my disability was not a “wall” that blocked me from pursuing my life. I still worked very hard. I was admitted into Dongkuk University and majored in Criminal Law.

Today, I am at the same university and am working to obtain my Master’s degree in Law. If there is reunification of the two Koreas in the future, then new laws that are different from the ones administered currently in North Korea will be needed. We will also need temporary laws that can incorporate North Koreans into South Korean society. I want to prepare and research the development of such laws. Specifically, I want to study to help policymakers make better laws that can assist North Koreans in better adapting the democratic system of rule of law.

Tell us about your work for human rights in North Korea?

What I wanted to focus on was not the human rights issues in North Korea. At first, I thought that successfully settling down in South Korea was enough. The reason why I started to work for human rights was because I visited the U.S. When I visited Arizona, many people cried and applauded after listening to my story and they even started a campaign for me. If I did not take action, I heard that I would be no different from a Nazi. I felt burdened to do something. During the campaign, a child of about 6 or 7 years old told me that they were participating in the campaign because they watched a documentary about the suffering of the North Korean people. The child was especially touched by the "kotjebi," homeless children who rummage through the garbage in bare feet during the winter. After listening to this child, I blamed myself. I questioned whether I was the adult. I was surely no better than this child. I reflected deeply after this. I could not just live for myself any longer. There were still people suffering, including the disabled and the "kotjebi" children. It was not sufficient for me to just eat rice and wear warm clothes. It should be my role as a citizen in a democratic society to work for North Korean human rights.

With nothing to begin with, my friends and I became activists for human rights in North Korea by starting NAUH. We started with only $200 in the beginning. However, I thought that if we show candor and diligence then, slowly but surely, others would join us and the things that were needed would be fulfilled in the end. It has been 7 years since the organization began with $200 and now, we have rescued about 270 refugees from North Korea, which cost more than $500,000 dollars. We learned that if we, people who were victims, become advocates and appeal to the world with the truth, then they can help to move the hearts of South Koreans as well as the warm-hearted people around the world in order to make miracles happen. I learned that miracles happen to people who dream and take action. We are actively trying to rescue female refugees who suffer from sex trafficking in China. We also campaign about the human rights situation in North Korea, stating that human rights in North Korea is an urgent issue and needs more attention. People should be activists for these issues so that when the two Koreas do unify someday in the future, people will not be ashamed to face those who once suffered under the Kim regime. When the time comes, we should not look at these people as mere sources of labor, but share our love. We deliver our message through the campaigns, rescue work in China, and radio broadcasts to the young people in North Korea. We show our vision, what we want to do when unified by comparing North Korea, the first homeland, and South Korea, the second homeland. We produce programs that help the “jangmadang” (market) generation to think about what they could do in the future—what they can sell in the emerging and growing market and giving them tips to vitalize the economy. We exhibit the items sold in North Korea's markets so that South Korean people are able to broaden their understanding of the North Korean people. We show what they sell and introduce "kotjebi" by reenacting their lives through theatrical plays. These novel reenactments were performed in the U.S. and South Korea and are still in the works today. This is what we are doing.

Were you able to speak with President Trump prior to the State of the Union? What did you talk about?

The first time that I saw President Trump from afar was at the National Assembly of South Korea when he was giving a speech. I remember crying a lot at the time. He understood, in depth, the sentiments of the North Korean people. I cried because President Trump had compassion for the North Korean people.

It was an honor for me to meet him face to face this time. Obviously, you are only given a short amount of time to meet the President of the U.S. I greeted him and he recognized who I was right way. I was very much surprised. He even winked at me. We took photos together and I saw First Lady Melania Trump. I took photos with her as well. After President Trump’s speech, we took photos again. We did not have a long conversation, but I could sense that President Trump knew a lot about my life and the lives of the North Korean people. He welcomed me with such a warm reception. I was very grateful.

What was going through your head and what were you feeling when every single person at the State of the Union last night was applauding you and your incredible journey?

I first thought of my father. I thought that my father would be very happy in heaven to see that the greatest President of the world, the U.S. President, remembers and speaks about him, an escapee who was tortured to death. I am truly grateful. Not just my father, but many North Koreans go through a similar situation where they are arrested, tortured, and incarcerated in political prison camps. To watch President Trump talk about all these at the State of the Union, I could not help but to think about my father. It was a time to remember our past life. Tears came to my eyes as I thought about the people who are currently living in North Korea. President Trump has a will to improve the lives of North Korea and if people like us activists work hard enough, we can wipe away the tears of those North Koreans one day. There would be no more people like my father and myself, who were tortured. There would be no more starvation. There would be no more selling off North Korean people in China. It was not a long period of time, but I had many feelings and I was grateful. The officials of the U.S. executive and legislative branches at the State of the Union all applauded me, and it is a memory I will never forget for the rest of my life.

What does it mean for the North Korean escapee community that you were a guest of the FLOTUS Melania Trump and able to have the spotlight at the State of the Union?

Well, first, it was a great honor. The second that I stepped foot inside the White House, I thought to myself that this was my family’s greatest honor. However, remembering how many North Koreans would want to be there with me, rather than think that I was there alone, I believed that I was there with the hearts of the North Korean people—with all of their hopes, dreams, and wishes. For this reason, I felt that I was carrying a large weight on my shoulders regarding the work I will have to do from now on.

At the moment that I met President Trump, I could not think of anything. Like I said before, he winked at me. I was very comfortable after that. We had the photo session with the President and First Lady Melania Trump. I had many different feelings and thoughts going through my mind. This would have never happened if I was in North Korea. It was because I had escaped from North Korea. It was because the South Korean government granted me citizenship that I was allowed to travel anywhere I wanted freely—a fact that I am really thankful for. I was also bewildered and in awe of the fact that I was in the White House when I have not even been inside the South Korean Blue House yet. All in all, yesterday was a day filled with a rollercoaster of emotions.

For the North Korean escapee community, my visit to the White House and the spotlight at the State of the Union is of significant importance. This moment will be shown to North Koreans in North Korea through many news media outlets, like VOA. This is an extraordinary event. I’m sure many in North Korea have heard that some escapees go to Washington, DC, but that an escapee was invited to the White House and was welcomed by the President of the United States of America and the First Lady will come as a shock to all back home. People will be asking, “Who is that guy?” They’ll say, “He’s a handicapped kotjebi!” People will say, “Wow!” This will blow everyone away in North Korea. Of course, the North Korean government will not like my appearance at the State of the Union. However, I believe the North Korean people will be thankful for how aware and attentive the American people and their government are towards the issue of human rights in North Korea. They will know that many people in the U.S. are aware and care about their suffering in North Korea.

What do you think is going to be different now that you have been publicly recognized by the POTUS and FLOTUS?

From my point of view, this was not a small event. This was a very big event. Furthermore, at the State of the Union, the President directly spoke about the lives of escapees from North Korea and my personal story as well. I received applause from many there. They supported me. The North Korean government would not like this at all. There is no reason for them to like it. The things they wanted to hide are being disclosed to all of the outside world. Actually, that is why they tortured me and wanted me to die. Now, my story has been broadcasted to all the world. They were afraid of this reality coming out to the best known press in the world and the media in South Korea as well. I think Kim Jong-Un also watched the State of the Union yesterday. Wouldn’t he have? Wouldn’t the North Korean Bo-wi-bu (State Security Department) have watched it? I think they would really be fuming. However, at this moment, I think they should be honest about this problem. They should acknowledge their wrongdoing, admit that they have human rights issues, and provide for the disabled. Having a couple athletes in the Paralympics will not be representative of life for all of North Korea's disabled people. The government needs to feed them, provide clothes for them, and house them. This is what the country needs to do since the disabled and the non-disabled are not in the same condition. They need to help them so they do not suffer. I wish they would admit what they are not doing well and try to get better. I hope for that type of North Korea. Of course they would get angry, but what can we do?
I think this experience has become an opportunity to invoke the South Korean people to pay more attention to the North Korean human rights issue because the U.S. President directly presented the issue at the State of the Union. Most of the South Korean people already know about the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea. Even recently, North Korea threatened to launch nuclear missile tests and threatened South Korea as if a war would start. This is ridiculous. They are just like a bullying gangster neighbor. The South Korean people are angry about North Korea's provocations. Furthermore, after this spotlight, I think many South Koreans will become interested once again in the human rights issues in North Korea. After the seeing the work of activists, many people might think more about how terrible the regime has been and how they should not be that way. They could give donations to the NGOs working to improve the improve the human rights situation in North Korea. Wouldn’t this revitalize activists to be able to do more this way? If the heads of state are willing to save the 25 million oppressed North Korean people, I think many people, especially the citizens, youths, and students of the U.S. would follow suit and join the movement to help solve the issues with human rights in North Korea. Therefore, I hope this becomes a chance to disclose the difficult reality of what is happening in North Korea.

Holding up your crutches as you did at the end of the State of the Union last night was a symbol of hope for many, especially for the disabled community in North Korea. Do you have anything else you would like to share in our remaining time?

First, in North Korea, a disabled person is called a “byungshin” [“retard”]. This is what the North Korean government officially labels their own citizens who are disabled. The government tortures the disabled, telling them that they “might as well just die.” That was the life that I lived in North Korea. However, when I escaped to South Korea, never once did I think that I was a disabled person. I was able to live happily and more diligently. [Showing his crutches] These are the crutches that I brought with me from North Korea. The reason why I am actively fighting for the human rights in North Korea is because I want to be an example of hope for disabled North Koreans. I want to stop the North Korean government from torturing and persecuting the disabled in its country. There is also the role of closely monitoring these atrocities towards the disabled. But I can’t do this alone. So, I need the international community, the North Korean people, and the people that care for the North Korean people to all participate in working for the human rights of North Koreans. In this way, I believe there will be an end to the suffering of the North Korean people. I did not know that I would be showing my crutches this often, but it does symbolize my difficult journey.

My only request is that people don’t think about just one person, Ji Seong-ho, but rather, think about the many North Korean people who are still suffering in North Korea right now.

Translated by Grace Soomin Kan, Dohyun Kim, and Hyungjun Yu, HRNK Research Interns

Interview was filmed on Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Please stay tuned for the interview video on our YouTube page:

Protecting North Korean Refugees: Statement by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

House Foreign Affairs Committee
Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations

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 

Good afternoon Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Bass, and members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the invitation to testify before you today. It is a true honor and a privilege.

My name is Greg Scarlatoiu. I am the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). We are a nonpartisan research organization headquartered in Washington, DC that conducts original research on North Korean human rights issues. Over the last 16 years, we have published over 30 reports available at HRNK.ORG, documenting for the world the horrifying truth about the extent of human rights abuses in North Korea. Our work has played a central role in assisting and informing the efforts of the US State Department, the UN Commission of Inquiry, and numerous other stakeholders who care passionately about the rights of people in North Korea. Most recently, the report submitted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to the UN General Assembly on August 28th quoted one of HRNK’s publications.

On behalf of HRNK, thank you for your time and interest in the plight of North Korean refugees, an ongoing human rights issue and crisis perpetuated by both North Korea and China today. The protection of North Korean refugees relates to fundamental human rights, human dignity, and state obligations under international law.

On the current situation of North Korean refugees in China

In July 2017, a North Korean refugee family of five, on their way to the Republic of Korea, committed suicide while in Chinese custody awaiting forcible repatriation to North Korea. More recently in November, reports by BBC Korea stated that China forcibly returned a group of ten refugees to North Korea, including a mother and her four-year-old son. This information comes from a Mr. Lee, the husband and father of these two victims, currently hiding in China.

For the past few years, among the interns trained at HRNK we have also worked with former North Korean refugees, currently holding South Korean citizenship. Some of these young bright escapees explained their experiences living on the run in China. One intern, when asked how she had learned Chinese, clarified that prior to her escape to South Korea, she had grown up in secret, hidden behind closed doors in China. As she was undocumented and feared the Chinese government would arrest her and forcibly return her to North Korea, her Chinese protectors brought her books to help her learn and pass the time.

China does not uphold its obligations under international law because it very rarely allows North Korean refugees access to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), instead only permitting the UNHCR an office in Beijing, far from the border. As evidenced by their forcible repatriation, China denies many North Koreans the ability to apply for asylum or have safe passage to the Republic of Korea or other countries. China claims that North Koreans in need of protection are illegal economic migrants. But in reality they are victims fleeing persecution or those who face a well-founded fear of persecution if forcibly returned to North Korea.

Time after time, we hear from North Korean refugees that when they were repatriated by China they faced imprisonment, torture, and various forms of sexual violence. Especially if the interrogators suspect that the repatriated refugees came across South Korean nationals or Christian missionaries while in China, the punishment is sure to be harsh. Determined to escape the oppression and chronic human insecurity of North Korea, some attempt to escape again, even after detention and imprisonment. Some are successful and manage to tell the stories of their harrowing escape to the outside world. Through the voices of escapees who find their way to freedom in South Korea and other countries, and based on the gender ratio of former North Koreans resettled in South Korea, we know that up to eighty percent of North Korean refugees in China are women. In the absence of any semblance of protection, they fall victim to human traffickers and other criminals. Many of those forced into sexual bondage, under the guise of “marriage” with Chinese men in run-down rural areas, are often abused by the would-be “spouse” and the entire family. Their children’s human security is beyond precarious. China denies North Korean children the right to education, health, and personal security, as well as liberty, when they are detained awaiting forcible repatriation.

On the UN Commission of Inquiry

In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (UN COI) found that 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 had 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.

The UN COI also found that North Koreans who try to flee their country and those in detention are among the primary targets of a systematic and widespread attack by North Korea, making them the most vulnerable and in need of protection. Not only are North Koreans targeted for escaping their totalitarian state, but then they are targeted by the Chinese government, and ultimately victimized again once repatriated to North Korea and imprisoned. It truly is a vicious cycle of political oppression and violence perpetrated against countless innocents.

Despite the UN COI’s findings and despite the fact that North Koreans are entitled to international protection as refugees fleeing persecution or refugees sur place, “China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating citizens of [North Korea] who cross the border illegally” with the view that these persons are “illegal economic migrants.”

Furthermore, 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.

Without question, China has been put on notice that its policies, practices, and support for North Korea are unacceptable—yet, at the fourth annual UN Security Council meeting on human rights abuses in North Korea held yesterday, China called for a procedural vote to stop the public meeting. This effort failed, but China persists in its efforts to support the Kim regime, as evidenced by its forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees.

On human trafficking

Up to ninety percent of North Korean women and girls in China fall prey to traffickers in China who sell them into sexual slavery, either in forced marriages or prostitution, to their shock and horror. Countless North Korean women are victimized in this manner because they are vulnerable as they try to escape the brutal conditions of their home country. In China, the women and girls are fodder for often-rural men looking for wives. They may have arrived in China with young children too, only to be cruelly separated by human traffickers. The cycle of violence and oppression once again continues as these women and girls are held against their will or are coerced into submission out of fear that the Chinese family will report them to authorities. Additionally, women and girls impregnated by Chinese men are further victimized when the Chinese government does not recognize the children they bear as legal residents otherwise entitled to basic rights to education and other public services.

On prison camps

A core HRNK objective is to completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle North Korea’s vast system of unlawful imprisonment, where up to 120,000 men, women, and children are detained under abysmal circumstances, forced to work and die in prison camps because of their perceived lack of loyalty to the Kim family. As such, HRNK is aware of six operational political prison camps and the existence of over twenty potential labor camps inside North Korea, recently documented in our October 2017 report The Parallel Gulag.

Our 2015 report, The Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression and Prison Disappearances, documents the particular vulnerabilities of North Korean women jailed in a network of “political prison camps” (kwan-li-so) and “labor camps” (kyo-hwa-so). Increasingly, these facilities house women who have attempted to flee the country, and here, rates of mortality, malnutrition, forced labor, and exploitation are high. As our Co-Chair Emeritus Roberta Cohen, a distinguished human rights and displaced persons expert noted, “Women in particular are fleeing North Korea in ever greater numbers. When they are apprehended, they are subjected to deliberate starvation, persecution, and punishment. Their situation cries out for international attention.”

In this report, we also found evidence that an additional section of Camp 12 at Jongo-ri, North Hamgyong Province, was built to imprison the influx of women arrested and forcibly repatriated by China. Our interviews with former prisoners at this camp indicate that upwards of one thousand women are enslaved here. Eighty percent, eight hundred of them, are forcibly repatriated refugees. According to our witnesses, former Camp 12 prisoners themselves, so many women prisoners were brought to the camp that a new building annex was constructed to house them. We were able to confirm the presence of the new construction through satellite imagery acquisition and analysis. In the aftermath of Typhoon Lionrock in August-September 2016, Camp 12 was flooded, as confirmed by satellite imagery we acquired and analyzed. The humanitarian impact of that natural catastrophe on the human security of Camp 12 inmates was likely very dire, as prisoners represent one of the most vulnerable segments of North Korea’s population.

In her written testimony submitted after this hearing, HRNK Co-chair Emeritus Roberta Cohen will raise, among other points, the treatment of forcibly repatriated North Koreans and the development of a potential UN role for protecting them. This is the topic of an ongoing project run by HRNK in collaboration with our partner organization The Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (HRNK).

On China’s non-compliance with international conventions

North Koreans fleeing political persecution–based on North Korea’s discriminatory social class system known as songbun–are refugees as defined in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. North Koreans with a well-founded fear of persecution upon their forcible return to North Korea by China are refugees sur place and must be given protection under China’s international obligations, including the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

China’s forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees violates its obligation to uphold the principle of non-refoulement under the Refugee Convention. Furthermore, China violates article 3 of the Torture Convention, which states, “No State Party shall expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

On US and global efforts to protect refugees and surge information

Notwithstanding high-level advocacy, China has forcibly repatriated tens of thousands of North Koreans. However, over 30,000 North Korean refugees now reside in over 20 nations, with the vast majority of them, 31,000 currently living in the Republic of Korea. While the United States Refugee Admissions Program remains the largest in the world, fewer than 220 refugees from North Korea have resettled since the enactment of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004.

As part of efforts to provide information on North Korea’s human rights abuses, HRNK wrote and published a series of Wikipedia contributions on human rights in North Korea, including in Chinese. China is perhaps the only country in the world with substantial leverage on the Kim regime, accounting for over 80% of North Korea’s foreign trade. As a result, the awareness and support of the Chinese people is now more imperative than ever, although the degree to which the public can actually influence foreign policy in China is highly debatable, to say the least. The Wikipedia pages created by HRNK are available in English, Korean, and Chinese.

On United States policy

Painfully aware of ongoing concerns and echoing HRNK’s previous recommendations submitted together with then HRNK Board Co-Chair Roberta Cohen before a March 5, 2012 hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, I respectfully recommend the following:
First, the United States should urge China to immediately halt its forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees, and thus fulfill its obligations pursuant to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, the Torture Convention, and the 1995 Agreement on the Upgrading of the UNHCR Mission in the People’s Republic of China.
Second, the United States should call upon China to allow the UNHCR unimpeded access to North Koreans inside China to determine whether they are refugees and whether they require assistance.
Third, the United States should call upon China to adopt legislation incorporating its obligations under the Refugee Convention, the Convention against Torture, and other international human rights agreements and to bring its existing laws into line with internationally agreed upon principles. It should be expected to declare and uphold a moratorium on deportations of North Koreans until its laws and practices are brought into line with international standards.
Fourth, the United States should call upon China to recognize the legal status of North Korean women who marry or have children with Chinese citizens, and ensure that all such children are granted resident status and access to education and other public services in accordance with both Chinese law and international standards.
Fifth, in the absence of a Chinese response, the issue should be brought before international refugee and human rights fora. UNHCR’s Executive Committee as well as the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly of the United Nations should all be expected to call on China by name to carry out its obligations under refugee and human rights law and enact legislation to codify these obligations so that North Koreans will not be forcibly repatriated while facing a credible fear of persecution.
Sixth, the United States should promote a multilateral approach to the problem of North Koreans leaving their country. Their exodus affects more than China. This critical issue concerns our South Korean allies most notably, as South Korea already houses 31,000 North Korean escapees, and its Constitution offers citizenship to North Koreans. Together with UNHCR, a multilateral approach should be designed that finds solutions for North Koreans based on principles of non-refoulement and human rights and humanitarian protection. Building on the precedent of other refugee populations, international burden sharing should be developed to protect North Koreans seeking to escape the tyranny of the Kim regime.
Seventh, following the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017, which mandates the position of the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, I respectfully urge the US Congress to encourage the prompt appointment of a qualified candidate. I share in the belief that the large number of special envoys in the State Department should be greatly reduced. I strongly believe, however, that this particular issue merits the full-time, high profile focus across various agencies that the Special Envoy has so effectively brought, and would continue to bring.

Eighth, additional funds should be appropriated for clandestine information flow into North Korea, for non-governmental organizations working to improve human rights in North Korea, and for the resettlement of North Korean refugees in the United States.

The most critical challenge our country faces today is the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by the regime of Kim Jong-un. Grateful for the Subcommittee’s unabated determination to protect North Korean refugees in China, I respectfully urge you to continue to consider the vital importance of formulating and adopting a robust human rights policy, including a North Korean refugee protection policy, that can be integrated into US security policy toward both China and North Korea’s Kim regime.

HRNK resources

Four HRNK publications address the precarious plight of North Koreans in China and the cruel and inhumane practice of forcibly sending them back to one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
·      The first, The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Response (2006), edited by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, establishes that most if not all North Koreans in China merit a prima facie claim to refugee or refugee sur place status. This report is available at:
·      The second, Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China (2010), calls upon China to set up a screening process with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to determine the status of North Koreans and ensure they are not forcibly returned. This report is available at:
·      The third, Hidden Gulag Second Edition by David Hawk (2012), presents the harrowing testimony of scores of North Koreans severely punished after being returned to North Korea. This report is available at:
·      The fourth, Gender Repression and Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression and Prisoner Disappearances by David Hawk (2015) finds that North Korean women, desperate to ensure their families’ survival after catastrophic famine in the 1990s—are excessively victimized and detention facilities for women have notably expanded. This report, as well as satellite imagery that verifies the additional structure, are available here: and 

In October 2017, HRNK published The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s “An-jeon-bu” Prisons by David Hawk with Amanda Mortwedt Oh. The Honorable Michael Kirby, former Chair of the UN COI, states that Parallel Gulag “updates the record contained in the COI report” and “shows that North Korea’s system of political oppression remains in place as an affront to the conscience of humanity.” The report is available at: with picture files available at

Prior Congressional testimony to the CECC on North Korean refugees by Roberta Cohen and Greg Scarlatoiu is available at: and

Thank you for your kind consideration.

Greg Scarlatoiu
Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea 

Protecting North Korean Refugees: Written Statement by Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair Emeritus


House Foreign Affairs Committee

Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations


My appreciation to Congressman Christopher Smith and Ranking Member Karen Bass for holding this hearing to maintain a spotlight on North Korean refugees and their need for international protection. The world community’s preoccupation with massive movements of people fleeing war-torn countries has often overlooked the plight of smaller groups of refugees in desperate straits. The North Korean case is one such situation that should warrant international attention because of the extraordinary cruelty to which the asylum seekers and refugees are subjected. Unlike most governments, North Korea has made it a criminal offense to leave its country without permission, thereby preventing its citizens from exercising their internationally recognized right to seek asylum and become a refugee. Second, those who do try to escape face increasing obstacles -- electrified fences, enhanced border patrols, exorbitant bribes, and traffickers. Only 1,418 managed to reach South Korea in 2016. Third, if caught and returned, North Korean refugees are subject to systematic and brutal punishment, which the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) has found to constitute crimes against humanity.[1]  Fourth, neighboring China collaborates with the DPRK in arresting and turning back North Koreans despite the abusive treatment they routinely suffer at the hands of North Korea’s security forces.[2]

In his 2017 report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, drew attention to the “deplorable conditions” in the holding centers near the border with China where repatriated North Koreans are confined before being sent off to reeducation or other camps for extended punishment. Women constitute the majority of those who flee and of those returned and are “the target of violent practices.”[3] During interrogation and detention, they are subject to beatings, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence. Those found to be pregnant are reported to have their pregnancy terminated by force, but “the shame and secrecy attached to this practice make precise statistics on cases of forced abortion difficult to collect.”[4] When placed in reeducation through labor camps and other prison facilities, forcibly repatriated North Koreans are deliberately denied adequate food and medical attention, and are subject to forced labor and sexually abusive treatment.

To North Korea, those who leave without permission are criminal offenders, even traitors to the Kim regime. To United Nations human rights bodies, North Koreans who leave illegally are potential refugees. They flee persecution as well as the socioeconomic deprivation emanating from the songbun system of social and political classification to which the government subjects them. But even if they were not refugees when they left North Korea, they become so (that is, refugees sur place) because of the well-founded fear of persecution and punishment they face upon return. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2017 called on North Korea to decriminalize illegal border crossing, and because of the high number of women forcibly repatriated, to  ensure that the women “are not subjected to invasive body searches, sexual violence and forced abortions, and that their rights to life and to a fair trial are respected.”[5] It further called upon North Korea to allow international organizations “access to all women’s detention facilities.”[6]

UN bodies have also sent warnings to China, which the UN COI found to be enabling North Korea’s crimes. A letter signed by COI Chair, Justice Michael Kirby, and appended to its 400-page report, warned Chinese officials that they could be found to be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by sharing information with North Korea’s security bodies and turning back North Koreans to conditions of danger.[7] It challenged China’s claims that North Koreans entering China illegally are economic migrants who must be deported, and that those returned are not subject to punishment.

On occasion China has allowed North Koreans to proceed to South Korea, but these cases are few and far between.[8] Over the years China has tolerated thousands of North Koreans residing illegally in its country, some ‘married’ to Chinese men, but the North Koreans have no rights, are vulnerable to exploitation and bribes, constantly fear deportation and may be expelled. The UN Committee against Torture (CAT) in 2016 described China as practicing a “rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating all nationals of the DPRK” on the grounds that they cross the border illegally for economic reasons.[9] It called on China to set up a refugee determination process for North Koreans and allow UNHCR access to border areas. The CAT noted that it had 100 testimonies showing that North Koreans forcibly returned were “systematically” subjected to torture and ill-treatment and recommended UNHCR monitoring of North Koreans forcibly returned to assure that they are not subject to torture.

When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited China in 2006 as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he told Chinese officials that forcibly repatriating North Koreans without any determination process and where they could be persecuted on return stands in violation of the Refugee Convention. UNHCR also proposed a special humanitarian status for North Koreans to enable them to obtain temporary documentation, access to services and protection from forced return. To the refugee agency, North Koreans are deemed “persons of concern,” meriting humanitarian protection.  

To date, there has been little progress in persuading North Korea or China to cooperate with the international community. Nonetheless, China’s more critical stance toward North Korea of late as well as reports of its making refugee contingency plans in the event of a crisis in North Korea,[10] might lead to more open discussions, the relaxing of some of its policies and the possible modification of others.

The following recommendations are offered with a view to promoting protection for North Korean refugees.


First, an overall international strategy is needed for dealing with the refugee issue. To this end, the United States should propose a multilateral approach to the North Korean refugee situation. Just as international burden sharing has been introduced for other refugee populations, so should it be developed here. The North Korean refugee situation is not an economic migrant question for China and North Korea to decide alone according to their own agreements. Other countries are profoundly affected, in particular South Korea whose Constitution offers citizenship to North Koreans and already houses more than 31,000 North Koreans who have fled over the past two decades. Countries in East, Southeast and Central Asia, East and West Europe, and North America have admitted thousands upon thousands, of North Korean refugees. Working together with UNHCR, a multilateral approach could be designed based on principles of non-refoulement and human rights protection. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has extensive experience with this and other refugee situations, should be asked to initiate the process.

Second, the United States, South Korea and allied governments should make China’s treatment of North Korean refugees a high priority in their bilateral dialogues with China. They should make known their willingness to admit North Koreans who cross the border without permission and should call on China to allow UNHCR to begin a determination process so that North Koreans could apply for refugee status and remain temporarily in China while their requests are being processed. The United States and its allies should remind China that more than 150 governments in the General Assembly have called upon China as a country neighboring North Korea to cease the deportation of North Koreans because of the terrible mistreatment they endure upon return. Chinese officials should be encouraged to build on the instances where China has allowed North Koreans to leave for the South, increase such cases and introduce a moratorium on forced repatriations on humanitarian grounds to remain in effect until such time as North Korea ceases its persecution and punishment of those repatriated. A new approach would enhance China’s international standing, encourage other states in Asia to uphold international norms, and exert influence on North Korea to modify its practices. China for its part will need to be assured that the United States and other countries are not seeking to forcibly reunify Korea, destabilize the North and expand United States influence. Certainly, the most effective way to reduce the number of North Koreans going into China is not for the Chinese and North Koreans to push back North Koreans but for the DPRK to begin to provide for the well-being and security of its population.

Third, the United States should expand its practice of identifying and sanctioning North Korean as well as Chinese officials and offices involved in forced repatriations and make them aware that they could be held accountable in future trials. [11] Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana recently observed that “The more the international community has insisted on the necessity to seek justice…, the more the [North Korean] authorities have seemingly opened to a conversation with human rights mechanisms on ways to fulfil their obligations...”[12] In response to North Koreans’ fear of accountability, he described reports, albeit unconfirmed, of improved practices in detention facilities, including toward pregnant women.[13] North Korea also responded for the first time to a United Nations human rights inquiry about returned refugees by providing some statistics. It claimed that only 33 North Korean women out of 6,452 returned from 2005 to 2016 had been punished.[14] This small number of course contradicted the findings of many UN-commissioned reports that spoke of the routine punishment of tens of thousands returned. But North Korea’s engagement in the conversation shows that international demarches have had some effect. It is important therefore for the United States to strongly support the collection of evidence about forcibly returned North Koreans and make sure that the Seoul office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which is tasked with documenting information with a view to accountability, has sufficient resources and staff to perform its functions effectively. In particular, the United States should contribute to the hiring of international criminal justice experts to review existing evidence, including on forced repatriations, and to promote the effective working of a central information and evidence repository to be set up in 2018 to facilitate future prosecutions. It should contribute the names and information it has collected to the central repository.

Fourth, the United States should call on the international humanitarian organizations it funds to request, when appropriate, international access to detention facilities and reeducation camps that house political prisoners, among these, significant numbers of forcibly repatriated women. Such an opportunity arose in September 2016 when a typhoon struck the northeast and flooded not only schools, clinics, roads and agricultural lands, but also a reeducation through labor camp, Kyo-hwa-so Number 12, housing some 5,000 prisoners, including up to 1,000 forcibly repatriated women.[15] HRNK provided the UN with satellite imagery of the flooded camp, which the Secretary-General included in his report to the General Assembly,[16]  but the humanitarian agencies did not try to help the persons inside. It appeared they were reluctant to antagonize North Korean officials and possibly undermine humanitarian operations for other flood victims, despite the fact that information was available to them showing that the women and other prisoners in the camp were given starvation rations, lacked medical care and were subject to exploitation and forced labor.[17] The humanitarian organizations, it should be noted, had some leverage in this case because North Korea had requested the aid and had to listen to their views. While North Korea could have turned down the request, at least the question of entering a flooded camp and reaching its vulnerable people would have been on the table as a legitimate ‘ask’ to be revisited in future.

It is important that the United States make known to the World Food Program, UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies that they must stand up for all people at risk, not just those North Korea might choose to assist, and use the leverage they have to generate meaningful dialogue on the human rights principles central to humanitarian work. Failure to do so will condone the Kim regime’s persecution and marginalization of the people it considers disloyal, contrary to the principles upon which humanitarian organizations are founded. Building upon General Assembly resolutions that call on North Korea to grant unimpeded humanitarian access to all affected persons, including those in detention facilities and prisons,[18] the United States should reinforce the recent call made by the UN Special Rapporteur to humanitarian agencies: he said they should “ensure” that their programs benefit “vulnerable groups, including those who are in detention facilities, prison camps and political prison camps.”[19] It is also time for the United States to urge Secretary-General Guterres to apply to North Korea the UN policy of 2013 which he endorsed – namely the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) approach, which calls upon the entire UN system to come together in the face of serious human rights violations and take steps on behalf of the victims.

Fifth, the United States should develop contingency plans with China for addressing a crisis in the north that also encompasses protection and assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Significant numbers of North Koreans can be expected to flee to China and South Korea in the event of an emergency, and even more become internally displaced, making it desirable for the United States and South Korea to develop plans with China for managing migration.[20] China is already reported to be constructing refugee camps along its border areas with North Korea.[21] An agreement among the three under United Nations auspices should aim at stabilization of the peninsula, provision of material aid, protection of displaced persons, and incentives and opportunities to build and transform the country in accordance with international human rights, humanitarian and refugee standards and humane treatment of displaced persons.

Finally, the United States should revisit any restrictions now placed on the admission of North Korean refugees that could conflict with the spirit and intent of the North Korean Human Rights Act (2004). Our government should make known its readiness, given the persecution and punishment to which North Koreans are subject, to increase the number of North Korean refugees admitted to this country. In FY 2017, only 12 were reported to be admitted, contributing to a total of 212 since 2006. While the vast majority of North Koreans will choose to seek refuge in South Korea, some have reasons for seeking to resettle in the United States, and should not be discouraged. As Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci have recommended the United States should “seek public and private sector funding” for “educational scholarships and vocational training,” [22] in particular from the Korean American community, to empower the North Koreans already admitted to this country and help them overcome the traumas they experienced in fleeing one of the most tyrannical governments on the planet.

[1] UN General Assembly, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/63, 7 February 2014, paras. 42,76, 89(m) [henceforth COI report].
[2] COI report, ibid., para. 43.
[3] UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, A/72/394, 19 September 2017, para. 25 [henceforth SR Report].
[4] SR Report, ibid.
[5] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations, CEDAW/C/PRK/CO/2-4, 17 November 2017, para. 45 (c).
[6] Ibid., para. 45 (d).
[7] UN General Assembly, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/CRP.1, 7 February 2014, para. 1197 [henceforth COI report 2].
[8] See Roberta Cohen, “China’s Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees Incurs United Nations Censure,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Spring/Summer 2014, pp. 72-3.
[9] UN Committee against Torture, CAT/C/CHN/CO/5, 3 February 2016, paras. 46-48.
[10] See Jane Perlez, “China Girds for North Korean Refugees,” New York Times, December 12, 2017; and David E. Sanger, “Tillerson Speaks on a Largely Secret North Korea Contingency Plan,” New York Times, December 18, 2017.
[11] In October 2017, the Department of the Treasury announced sanctions on seven North Korean individuals and three entities for hunting down of asylum seekers abroad and other abuses. See “U.S. Sanctions North Koreans for ‘Flagrant’ Rights Abuse, Reuters, October 26, 2017.
[12] SR Report, para. 3.
[13] SR Report, ibid., para. 26; see also Cohen, “China’s Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees,” pp. 74-75.
[14] North Korea told this to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2017. See Elizabeth Shim, “North Korea: Repatriated women defectors are not punished,” UPI, August 4, 2017.
[15] Roberta Cohen, “UN Humanitarian Actors and North Korea’s Prison Camps,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Spring/Summer 2017, pp. 1-24.
[16] UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/72/279, 3 August 2017, para. 37.
[17] COI report 2, para. 804.
[18] UN General Assembly, Resolution on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/C.3/72/L.40, 31 October 2017, paras. 2(vi), 5, and 15(m).
[19] SR Report, para. 48.
[20] See Roberta Cohen, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Planning for Crisis in North Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 11-16.
[21] See Jane Perlez, “China Girds for North Korean Refugees,” New York Times, December 12, 2017; and “Report: China’s Military Prepared for Collapse Scenario,” Daily NK, May 5, 2014.
[22]  See Victor Cha and Robert L. Gallucci, Toward a New Policy and Strategy for North Korea, George W. Bush Institute, 2016, p. 8; and Education and Employment Among U.S.-Based North Koreans: Challenges and Opportunities, George W. Bush Institute, 2016.

Otto Warmbier versus the Republic of Torture

By Robert Collins

As he announced the re-listing of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism on November 20, President Trump referred to the death of Otto Warmbier while in North Korean custody. The young Ohio native’s death was a tragedy, and just the latest occurrence of the unbelievable cruelty that human beings suffer at the hands of the Kim family regime. The parents of Otto were interviewed on national television about the arrival of their son from North Korea and the terrible condition he was in. Mr. Warmbier expressed how it was obvious to him that his son had been tortured due to the condition of his teeth and a severe cut on his foot.

When Otto arrived back home, doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center could not determine the exact nature of the injuries that left Otto with “an extensive loss of brain tissue.” Following that, local coroners stated that they could not see decisive evidence or proof of torture. However, the human rights community is well informed on North Korea’s use of torture against those imprisoned by the regime’s party-state. Historically, tens of thousands of North Koreans have suffered the same fate as Otto–death at the hands of the regime’s security apparatus–as have other foreigners in decades past.

North Korea’s criminal justice system is guided by the Kim regime’s political ideology far more than criminal law. Regime founder Kim Il-sung and his son-successor Kim Jong-il publicly stated that the law exists to serve political purposes and those purposes are designed to serve the North’s supreme leader. Consequently, those who are accused of a political crime are automatically treated as an enemy of the state. The worst “enemies” are those that slander the personage or name of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un. Otto allegedly tore down a propaganda poster praising Kim Jong-il. Under the Kim regime, such an act is regarded as a direct threat to the security of the supreme leader. In notorious North Korean practice, such a crime is punishable by the most draconian of methods, as evidenced by the regime’s slaughter for the past five and a half years of hundreds of ranking military, government, and Party cadre perceived as opposing or disrespecting Kim Jong-un. Hundreds of testimonies from North Korean defectors confirmed torture while imprisoned or being investigated.

For those arrested by the Kim regime’s security apparatus, torture begins immediately after arrest. The Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) is North Korea’s national police, and MPS officers are stationed at every level of North Korean society down to the village level. Unlike countries where the police conduct their mission according to law, MPS officers, as well as their counterparts in the Ministry of State Security (MSS), employ the Korean Workers’ Party’s (KWP) doctrinal “ten principles of monolithic ideology” (TPMI) as their base justification for arrest. Though North Korea has a criminal code delineating what constitutes a crime, the TPMI is used to judge the type, severity, and nature of the crime. Every North Korean is responsible for memorizing these principles in school, the workplace, and at home. Police officers, members of the other security services, and legal officials are evaluated weekly in a KWP format on their performance of duty in relation to the TPMI. Individual careers are forged through showing the chain of command thoroughness in vetting alleged, potential, and actual “criminals” through the prism of the TPMI.

After Otto was arrested, standard North Korean police practice would have handed him over from the Pyongyang Police Bureau to the MPS Pretrial Examination Bureau (PEB). MPS PEB officers are responsible for criminal investigations and for reporting the results of the investigations not only to the local prosecutor’s office, but also to their KWP representatives. The latter are those within the Party that judge the MPS PEB officers and their counterparts in the MSS PEB on their efficiency in protecting the supreme leader and the regime. PEB officers are notorious in North Korea for their ruthless investigative methods based on extracting confessions from the accused. As attested by numerous North Korean escapees, confessions are the “queen of evidence” and torture is employed systematically and ruthlessly to obtain such confessions. To succeed in their specific profession, each PEB officer must develop competency in torture to extract the confessions that prosecutors employ in criminal trials. Depending on the nature of the case, this torture continues during and even after the trial if the prisoner does not comply with instructions on behavior and obedience to directives. In the case of many arrested for political crimes, trials are bypassed and torture becomes part of the retribution and sentencing as the arrested are sent directly to political prison camps. PEB officers are professionally rewarded for their efficiency.

The type of torture Otto must have experienced is quite telling in terms of his likely resistance. The vast majority of foreigners succumb to the pressures and threats of torture early and comply with directives while in custody. However, resistance to the demands of the PEB officers and prosecutors–whether those demands be for propaganda purposes (which is the case most of the time) or actions in support of regime intent in foreign policy–will result in further and more specific torture.

This torture does not apply to all. Many foreigners who are arrested are handled for eventual release to suit a diplomatic purpose—but not all. Even as far back as the 1960s, Venezuelan Ali Lameda and Frenchman Jacques Sedillot served as translators in North Korea but were subsequently accused of being spies and imprisoned. They were tortured regularly and the latter died in Pyongyang. In 1982, Joseph White deserted from the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division and crossed the DMZ. He suspiciously ended up drowning in a North Korean river two years later.

Otto’s condition upon arrival in Cincinnati indicates that Otto resisted PEB officer demands. For the time period Otto was tortured, it is apparent that he bravely resisted the torturers face-to-face, thus the torture. The intensity of the torture should not be underestimated. The PEB officers likely miscalculated the intensity and impact of their torture on Otto in terms of what they thought they could get away with. Several forms of torture would not have left visible external trauma, including water-boarding, electrical shock, and physical confinement in small boxes.

Those who understand the functioning of the North Korean internal security system in detail will be able to tell that Otto likely displayed courage in the face of torture by the most brutal of modern regimes.

North Korea’s practice of torture of individuals in detention violates Articles 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which North Korea acceded to in 1981. Article 7 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” while Article 10(1) states, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” As part of two Universal Periodic Review cycles for North Korea to date, 19 recommendations by UN Member States to North Korea have explicitly addressed torture. These recommendations call for North Korea to accede to or ratify the Convention against Torture, take immediate steps to stop the use of torture and ill-treatment in all instances of deprivation of freedom, and grant the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Violence against Women access to its detention facilities.

Should change come to the Korean peninsula, MPS and MSS PEB officers who conduct this torture in North Korea must be held accountable under future transitional justice mechanisms.