A Challenge for Humanitarian Action in North Korea

By Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus, HRNK, and member, Administrative Council, The Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI)

The UN’s new Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the DPRK, Argentine jurist Tomas Ojea Quintana, has issued a challenge to the UN’s humanitarian and development agencies in North Korea: he has called on them to ensure that their humanitarian programs benefit “vulnerable groups, including those who are in detention facilities, prison camps and political prison camps.” [1]

That this is a population in severe need was made clear in the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report which found that political prisoners in North Korea suffer from deliberate starvation, an absence of medical attention as well as cruel and inhuman treatment.[2] The COI estimated that hundreds of thousands perished in the kwan-li-so, North Korea’s secret political prison camps, over the past five decades, and that some 80,000 to 120,000 remain incarcerated today, many of them family members of prisoners.[3] It described their plight as evidence of “extermination,” the crime of “imprisoning a large number of people and withholding the necessities of life so that mass deaths ensue.”[4] In the reeducation through labor camps (kyo-hwa-so) and other detention facilities where thousands more political prisoners are held, death rates are also reported to be high because of malnutrition and diseases related to the lack of food and ill treatment.[5] The COI found violations committed against prisoners in the kwan-li-so, kyo-hwa-so and other facilities to constitute “crimes against humanity.”[6]

In response to the COI’s findings, the UN General Assembly began in 2015 to list “political prisoners” as one of “the most vulnerable groups” in North Korea, along with the more traditionally acknowledged pregnant and lactating women, children, persons with disabilities, and the elderlyin the paragraphs of its resolution on “chronic and acute malnutrition” in North Korea.[7] In 2016, the Assembly went further and called upon North Korea to allow humanitarian agencies access to “all” parts of the country, “including detention facilities.”[8] This resolution was adopted by consensus and also pointed to the “vulnerable” situation of children who had been incarcerated with their families and were “living in detention” in prison camps.[9] The plight of detained children was also highlighted by former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in one of his last reports to the General Assembly on North Korea.[10] And Jan Eliasson, the former Deputy Secretary-General (DSG), speaking before the Security Council in December 2016, affirmed that “the most vulnerable” group in the DPRK is North Korea’s prison population.[11]

A few months prior to the publication of the COI report, Eliasson announced a new UN initiative of the Secretary-Generalthe Human Rights up Front (HRuF) approachintended to “ensure that the UN Secretariat, Programmes and Funds meet the responsibilities given to them by the Charter and Member States” and “respond more effectively when there is a risk that serious violations of international human rights or of humanitarian law could turn into mass atrocities.”[12]

But, despite the COI findings and the commitment of UN leaders to have aid workers react to serious human rights violations, it is not always evident that the aid community on the ground in the DPRK accepts that the most vulnerable are political prisoners whom their humanitarian programs should try to reach. The UN agencies, funds and programmes working in the DPRKcalled the UN Country Teaminclude the World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and the UN Development Program (UNDP). Their activities are coordinated by a UN Resident Coordinator who reports both to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNDP. 

On their websites, the agencies emphasize that they reach the most vulnerable in the DPRK. The WFP website, for example, assures that the organization is “assisting the most vulnerable” in the DPRK, [13] and UNICEF’s website likewise speaks of giving “the world’s most vulnerable children the nutrition, water, and medical supplies they desperately need.”[14] The Country Team’s just concluded 2017 Needs and Priorities document for the DPRK also emphasizes how the agencies will improve the health, nutrition and resilience of “the most vulnerable people” in North Korea.[15]

Many political prisoners are reported to be housed in provinces where agencies conduct operations, and information in recent UN reports and resolutions suggests the need for a broader more inclusive framework in the DPRK than the one driving programs thus far. The UN’s new Strategic Framework (2017-2021), which governs its relations with the DPRK, has as one of its main principles, applying a “human rights-based approach” throughout UN programs. Ably negotiated by the Resident Coordinator on behalf of the Country Team and Headquarters, the Framework offers to support North Korea in carrying out its commitments under UN human rights treaties and under the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record.[16] One of these commitments is “free and unimpeded access to all populations in need.” [17] Another is non-discrimination in the distribution of food and health care, and a third, gender equality. All three are a basis for raising with DPRK officials access and provision of aid to political prisoners. The former Secretary-General called these and other UPR commitments “important entry points for dialogue and cooperation on human rights” with the government.[18]

The difficulty of putting such principles into practice was illustrated in 2016 when a typhoon struck North Korea. This article reviews what occurred then and proposes steps to bring humanitarian action more in line with the human rights commitments reflected in General Assembly resolutions, reports of the Secretary-General, appeals of the Special Rapporteur and the guidelines and frameworks of the agencies themselves.

Typhoon Lionrock

In 2016, the typhoon that struck North Hamgyong province in the northeast of the country flooded not only farmlands, homes and buildings (e.g. health clinics, schools), affecting some 600,000 people, but also a reeducation through labor camp, Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, in Jongo-ri, Hoeryong City.

The flooding of the camp was visible on satellite imagery, and HRNK forwarded the images and an analysis to the UN with the request that access be sought to the affected persons.[19] Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana responded quickly by publicly calling upon the DPRK to allow humanitarian workers access to “persons in detention facilities and prisons” in the flooded areas.[20] DSG Eliasson expressed support for this call, while OCHA officials acknowledged and agreed to take the information under consideration.

The COI report had described Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, as “one of the biggest and perhaps the best-documented ordinary prison camp.” [21] “Many of its inmates” had been “forcibly repatriated from nearby China or had contact with the Christian churches operating in the border region.”[22] Most were reported to suffer from malnutrition and starvation:

… the average prisoner only receive[s] about 300 grams of rough corn porridge or cooked rice with beans per day. This amount of food provides only a fraction of the minimum dietary energy requirement for adults in the DPRK, as calculated by the United Nations.[23]

One female inmatereleased in 2011told the COI that “The small rations left her so hungry that she ate different types of grass, wild mushrooms and tree bark to survive.” She also was witness to “other inmates being beaten for stealing food.”[24] Other sources have also confirmed the “below subsistence level” food rations at the camp, “forcing inmates to eat whatever insects and rodents they are able to trap for themselves.”[25] The COI observed that “Those who do not find additional sources of food are effectively condemned to starving to death.”[26]

The flooding undoubtedly made the food situation far worse in the camp. Experts reported that due to the flooding, the “crop loss” in nearby agricultural fields “may have exacerbated the already severe food shortage for prisoners in the camp.” Furthermore, “the water level in the waste pond from the nearby copper mine has risen.”[27]

At the time of the floods, Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 had an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 inmates, including some 800 to 1,000 women, mostly detained after having been forcibly repatriated from China where they had sought work or to defect to South Korea.[28] Indeed, a separate section for women had been constructed in 2009 to accommodate the increasing number of women being returned and punished.

The decision not to seek access

When humanitarian agency staff at UN headquarters deliberated over whether or not the Country Team should try to reach disaster victims in Kyo-hwa-so No. 12never before had they entered a camp or requested accessthey ultimately decided not to do so. Although their reasons and deliberations were not made public, the arguments against their doing so are well known:
  • Requesting access would rankle North Korean officials and possibly undermine humanitarian operations on behalf of other flood victims and upset non-flood programs as well. 
  • Seeking access to a prison camp is a human rights, not a humanitarian, responsibility. 
  • Going beyond accepted practice was inadvisable, especially since cooperation was going well with North Korean authorities enabling agencies to help many flood victims. 
  • The numbers in the camp were small compared with the needs of non-prisoners affected by the floods.
  • Information provided by satellite imagery could be uncertain. 

Validity of the arguments

Getting along with the government. It is understandable that humanitarian agencies would want to work effectively with the host government and to this end not introduce requests that might rankle the authorities or in some way undermine their programs. But cooperation at the expense of setting aside the important humanitarian goal of reaching all affected populations must be questioned. The DPRK agreed to the principle of “free and unimpeded access to all populations in need” at the Human Rights Council’s review off its human rights record in 2014.[29] Reminding its officials of this pledge and of the humanitarian imperative of reaching the most vulnerable in emergencies would have been in order. In fact, the Country Team reported that the provincial and local authorities who organized the needs assessment and review missions of flooded areas showed “flexibility in accommodating changes to the programme,” and the review mission itself was “based on the requests by mission members.”[30] Humanitarian agencies were close by to Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 since they were given access to Hoeryong City in the broader heavily affected area where the camp is located. And in this particular case, they actually had some leverage because North Korea had requested the assistance and had to listen to the views expressed. While a request for entry to the camp could have been turned down, at least the issue of entering a flooded camp and reaching its vulnerable people would have been on the table as a legitimate ‘ask’ and could be revisited in future.

Governments and insurgent groups around the world are known to obstruct aid to vulnerable populations on ethnic, racial or political grounds, but humanitarian actors pay a heavy price to their profession and its standards if they acquiesce in a government’s neglect of a vulnerable group, especially one to which UN resolutions and reports pay special attention. Making the request for entry would have accorded with the Country Team’s 2017 Needs and Priorities document that speaks of reaching the most vulnerable. It also would have been in line with the UN’s Strategic Framework which supports North Korea’s carrying out of its commitments under the UPR and “connecting” the DPRK to “shared international values.”[31] For the agency staff who fear reprisals and reduction of humanitarian aid programs for making such a request, it is worth noting that North Korea does not deny the existence of reeducation through labor camps, [32] as it does the secret kwan-li-so camps. And the one or two senior UN officials who have raised the kwan-li-so camps in conversations with North Korean officials have faced no retaliation. [33]

Not a humanitarian issue. That access to the camps should be considered solely a human rights and not a humanitarian issue overlooks that the most acute cases of hunger and disease in North Korea can be found in the camps. A recent report by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul—based on interviews with former inmates at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 who observed some 276 prisoners—estimated that the fatality rate at North Korea’s labor camps was close to 25 percent, with most of the deaths caused by undernourishment and disease. It considered “notable that 8 in 10 North Korean prisoners suffered from malnutrition before death.”[34] In failing to request access to such camps and include prisoners in the vulnerable groups, humanitarian actors risk becoming complicit in the government’s deliberate marginalization and de-humanizing of these people on political grounds. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Operational Guidelines on the Protection of Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters, [35] which humanitarian agencies have adopted, specifically call on humanitarian actors in disaster situations to:

Accept that human rights underpin humanitarian action. In situations of natural disasters they [humanitarian actors] should therefore respect the human rights of persons affected by disasters at all times and advocate for their promotion and protection to the fullest extent [emphasis added]. Such organizations should not promote, actively participate in, or in any other manner endorse policies or activities leading or likely to lead to human rights violations or abuses.[36]

In many countries, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the organization that enters prison camps. But in North Korea, the ICRC has not been given such access; nor has the UN Special Rapporteur. The humanitarian agencies operating on the ground have the responsibility to represent the UN system’s “three pillars”human rights, development and peace and security. According to the UNDG Guidance Note on Human Rights for Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams, the Resident Coordinator and the Country Team are expected “to promote” these pillars.[37]

The HRuF approach, introduced into the UN in 2013 called upon the entire UN system to develop “a system wide strategy” when countries face serious violations of human rights. Its application to North Korea should mean that all the operational agencies on the ground place the protection of human rights in a central place, provide and share candid information about people at risk, develop a common information system, and raise issues with the government in the face of serious violations.[38] The UN’s new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed support for this policy.[39]

Too small numbers. Ignoring thousands of flood victims in detention facilities because of their relatively small numbers is not a persuasive argument. Both the gravity of their situation and the special concern expressed by the United Nations for the plight of political prisoners should be of far greater weight. General Assembly resolutions adopted by consensus have called for the release of North Korea’s political prisoners because of the horrific conditions to which they are subjected and the absence of due process in the country. UN reports and resolutions have also given special attention to those forcibly repatriated because of the inhumane treatment meted out to them, as in Kyo-hwa-so No. 12.[40]

Reliability of satellite imagery. Humanitarian and development agencies have long recognized satellite imagery as a legitimate and credible source of information. In recent years, such imagery has become a common tool for mapping resources in support of the UN’s sustainable development goals worldwide. Since 2003, HRNK has used satellite imagery to confirm the existence of detention facilities in the DPRK.[41] Together with satellite imagery experts at AllSource Analysis, it prepared a ‘baseline’ report on Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 weeks before the flooding, based on archived imagery of the facility and testimony by former prisoners, guards, officials in charge and other sources.[42] When Typhoon Lionrock struck, the experts were easily able to see the changes that had taken place at the facility, in particular the flooding, from the newly acquired satellite imagery.

The UN Commission of Inquiry, chaired by a former justice of the high court of Australia, Michael Kirby, found satellite imagery of campsprovided by professional analysts and supplemented by testimonies of former guards and inmatesconclusive for their findings: 

These images not only prove to the Commission’s satisfaction the continued existence and ongoing operation of large-scale detention facilities. They also provide a clear picture of the evolution of the prison camp structure and corroborate the first-hand accounts received from former prisoners and guards.[43]

Moving Forward

There are a number of steps that could be taken by the UN to deal more effectively with human rights in North Korea and improve the prospects for humanitarian access to prisoners in kyo-hwa-so camps (housing both political and other prisoners) and the kwan-li-so (housing political prisoners).

Training of humanitarian staff

While the Country Team staff received training in the HRuF approach and also in international human rights standards,[44] it received no training about the camps, the needs of people inside them, their location, or their proximity to UN operations. In the case of Typhoon Lionrock, it was NGOs and the Special Rapporteur who alerted the UN to the fact Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 was flooded and that other camps and detention facilities (such as Kwan-li-so Camp No. 25) might also be affected.[45] Because North Korea treats incarcerated men, women and children as non-persons or disposable people, it is essential that humanitarian actors be informed about their plight and vulnerability. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should hold briefings for humanitarian staff on the relationship between issues such as discrimination in the provision of food and health care and the effectiveness of humanitarian operations on the ground.

The impact of disasters on vulnerable groups also needs to be examined. When drought or other disasters exacerbate food shortages in North Korea, prisoners are reported among the first to die.[46] Their vulnerability becomes clear when one considers that about 70 percent of the population (some 18 million people), according to the Country Team, suffers “food insecurity and undernutrition;” some 15 million need access to basic health services, and 3.5 million, clean water and proper sanitation.[47] Compared to disadvantaged North Koreans, prisoners fare far worse.

The meaning of vulnerability must convey a fuller understanding than what is included in the Country Team’s Needs and Priorities report. Regional bodies like the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have produced case law pertinent to the particular vulnerability of persons deprived of their liberty and the extreme vulnerability of children when confined.[48]

The IASC Operational Guidelines on the Protection of Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters should also be studied as part of the training, as should the UNDG Guidance Note on Human Rights for Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams. The IASC Guidelines speak of “persons with special needs” and suggest:

Identifying as soon as possible persons and groups with a history of being discriminated against prior to the disaster, or with special needs, and monitoring ongoing humanitarian action to avoid that they are discriminated against and intervene if this happens.[49]

The training could be provided by OHCHR, OCHA or outside specialists.

Closer collaboration with the Special Rapporteur and OHCHR

The Resident Coordinator and Country Team should cooperate more closely with the Special Rapporteur and OHCHR. Such cooperation would help fill an important gap since there are no human rights specialists on the Country Team. In his latest report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur offered to “work closely” with the Country Team and OHCHR “to follow up on the implementation of the recommendations” that North Korea accepted during the UPR and under its human rights treaty obligations.[50]

The Special Rapporteur and OHCHR could assist the Country Team in developing a strategy for reaching the most vulnerable in the country, promoting non-discrimination in the distribution of food and medical care, and focusing greater attention on gender equality. The Resident Coordinator and the North Korean authorities have “agreed to hold periodic meetings” regarding implementation of the UPR recommendations.[51]

The signing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the head of UNDP of the Guidance Note on Human Rights for Resident Coordinators and the UN Country Team should open the door to enhanced cooperation and concrete human rights steps on the ground. The Special Rapporteur noted that the Country Team made “significant efforts” to respond to Typhoon Lionrock by bringing in relief assistance to address the widespread damage that affected large numbers of people’s lives and their human rights.[52] However, he also noted that the response overlooked an important human rights concern, namely the “situation of detention centers and correction facilities,”[53] to which access was not requested. Others have pointed to additional problems not acknowledged in the team report[54]that North Korea was said to be using flood aid to repair military roads; [55] or was introducing discriminatory housing policies in rebuilding after the floods in line with its songbun policy;[56] or did not move to reconstruct flood-ravaged areas near the Chinese border (in order to make it more difficult for North Koreans to hide while seeking to defect).[57] These allegations may or may not be true but ignoring them when international aid is involved is not an acceptable solution and one to which the Special Rapporteur and OHCHR could have provided guidance. 

Applying the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) approach

The system wide strategy known as HRuF should be applied as fully as possible in North Korea. General Assembly resolutions have encouraged the UN system “as a whole,” including the “specialized agencies” to address the grave human rights situation in the country.[58] The UN’s Strategic Framework reflects this thinking and should become the foundation for developing a dialogue with North Korean authorities that lead to concrete steps to promote human rights and expand access to vulnerable people.

Reaching the most vulnerable in the country should be one of the principal objectives of this approach. During the floods, humanitarian organizations gained access to three affected counties (Yonsa, Musan and Hoeyryong), but were apparently prevented from visiting three others (Onsong, Kyongwon and Kyonghung) and failed to request access to flooded detention facilities in areas where they were allowed.

Increased access would strengthen humanitarian work and should be promoted under HRuF. WFP’s website currently states: “whatever the weather,” WFP “continues to reach the most vulnerable people.”[59] Making that into a reality not only for WFP but the other agencies as well would accord with the purposes of HRuF. Agencies should know where camps are located and develop a strategic plan to encompass all people reported to be at risk of starvation and ill health. The Country Team’s 2017 Needs and Priorities affirms that,

Humanitarian partners apply a rights-based approach in the formulation and implementation of projects, especially in the targeting of beneficiaries, to address inequalities and reach the most vulnerable people.[60]

In the case of children, the General Assembly has called attention to the vulnerability of “returned or repatriated children, street children, children with disabilities, children whose parents are detained, children living in detention or in institutions and children in conflict with the law.”[61] Even though such children go beyond those to whom the DPRK generally allows access, they should become part of HRuF objectives for UNICEF and the Country Team.

For WHO, requesting access to prison and detention facilities would be broadly beneficial. Tuberculosis is on the rise in the DPRK and is known to be rife in prison camps. WHO has found in other countries that controlling TB in prison protects the population at large, and has introduced Health in Prison Programs.[62] Replicating those programs in North Korea through access to the facilities to which North Korea admitsthe kyo-hwa-sowould be a way to begin.

In supporting the 2018 DPRK census, UNFPA should consider raising questions about the location, number and characteristics of all vulnerable populations, including prisoners, so as to encourage a truly effective humanitarian response.

Backup from UN leadership

For HRuF to be applied effectively, the Secretary-General’s leadership will be needed. Secretary-General Guterres must make clear that not only does he and the heads of agencies stand behind the human rights goals in the UN’s Strategic Framework but that the Resident Coordinator can expect the backup of Headquarters and the agencies when he or other staff seek to apply this approach to the DPRK. In his “Vision Statement,” the Secretary-General expressed his support for “the mainstreaming of human rights across the whole UN system, notably through the Human Rights Up Front initiative,”[63] which he linked to the maintenance of peace and sustainable development in countries.[64]


Over the next five years, the UN’s aid priorities for the DPRK will target nutrition, basic health services, assistance to the victims of natural disasters and more. In pursuit of these objectives, UN agencies should seek to ensure that the humanitarian response they design does in fact reach “the most vulnerable” and that it reflects the values and standards of the organization. Typhoon Lionrock presented an opportunity to raise the subject of access to the camps with the North Korean authorities so that all affected populations could be assisted. It also presented an opportunity to look into other human rights concerns that could affect humanitarian work. Advocating for human rights principles will be a challenge in an environment as difficult as North Korea’s, but the government has accepted some of these principles in theory and the Human Rights Up Front Approach should prove a useful umbrella for linking human rights and humanitarian action and promoting both in practice.

It can be expected that natural disasters will occur again, owing to environmental factors, poor infrastructure and a lack of governmental investment in disaster risk reduction. Expenditures on military and nuclear development, moreover, are likely to exacerbate overall poverty, prompting more sanctions by the world community and aid requests by the DPRK. In responding, humanitarian actors must address the vulnerability of all people in need and integrate this more expansive vision into their planning and programs. No longer should any part of the UN be able to exempt itself from protecting desperately hungry and sick people because of host government objections based on political persecution.


[1] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/34/66, 13 February 2017, para. 48.
[2] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/63, 7 February 2014 [henceforth COI report]; and Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/CRP.1, 7 February 2014 [henceforth COI report 2].
[3] COI report 2, para. 1155. See also David Hawk, CNN, 12 December 2012, http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1212/12/acd.02.html        
[4] COI report 2, para. 1041.
[5] See COI report 2, paras. 788-802; 804-5, 811-12; and David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag: Second Edition, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, pp. 82-84; and David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression and Prisoner Disappearances, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2015, pp. 18-22.    
[6] COI report 2, para. 1161.
[7] UN General Assembly, Resolution on situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/C.3/70/L.35, 30 October 2015, para. 4.
[8] UN General Assembly, Resolution on situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/71/484/Add.3, 19 December 2016, para. 14 (k).
[9] Ibid., para. 2a (viii).
[10] UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/71/439, 7 October 2016, paras. 41-2.
[11] UN Security Council, Statement of Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, UN Doc. S/PV.7830, 9 December 2016.
[12] See https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/dsg/statement/2013-12-17/deputy-secretary-generals-remarks-briefing-general-assembly-rights
[14] See https://www.unicefusa.org/donate/help-save-childrens-lives/29091?utm_campaign=EOY_2016&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=20160210_google&utm_content=brand&ms=cpc_dig_2016_misc_20160210_google_brand&initialms=cpc_dig_2016_misc_20160210_google_brand
[15] UN Country Team, DPRKorea Needs and Priorities, March 2017, at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/hadin%40un.org/15af7c1917ddb4c8?projector=1
[16] UN Strategic Framework for Cooperation between the United Nations and the Government of the DPRK, 2017-2021, pp. 8, 14, 21-2, at http://kp.one.un.org/content/dam/unct/dprk/docs/DPRK%20UN%20Strategic%20Framework%202017-2021%20-%20FINAL.pdf
[17] UN General Assembly, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: DPRK, A/HRC/27/10, 2 July 2014; and Add. 1, 12 September 2014.
[18] UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/70/393, 25 September 2015, paras. 61-62.
[19] HRNK, “The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and AllSource Analysis Produce Rapid Assessment of Flooding at Re-Education Prison Labor Camp (Kyo-hwa-so) No. 12,” 16 September 2016, http://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Kyo-hwa-so%20No_%2012%20Flooding.pdf
[20] UN OHCHR, “North Korea: UN rights expert calls for increased support for the victims of Typhoon Lionrock,” 21 September 2016, at www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20543&LangID=E; see also UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/34/66, 13 February 2017, para. 10.
[21] See COI report 2, para. 790. 
[22] Ibid.
[23] COI report 2, para. 804.
[24] COI report 2, para. 803.
[25] Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, North Korea Confidential, Tuttle Publishing, 2014, p. 117, as cited in David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression, pp. 14-15.
[26] COI report 2, para. 804; see also David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression, pp. 14-16.
[27] Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. and Greg Scarlatoiu, North Korea: Flooding at Kyo-hwa-so No. 12 Jongo-ri, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and AllSource Analysis, 16 September 2016, p. 4.
[28] Hawk, The Hidden Gulag IV: Gender Repression, pp. 4, 16-27.
[29] UN General Assembly, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: DPRK, A/HRC/27/10, 2 July 2014; and Add. 1, 12 September 2014.
[30] UN Office of the Resident Coordinator in the DPRK, Joint Review Mission to Flood-Affected Areas in North Hamgyong, Pyongyang, 23 November 2016, p. 4.
[31] UN Strategic Framework, Declaration of Collective Commitment, p. 4.
[32] Associated Press, 7 October 2014.
[33] Conversations with UN humanitarian staff, 2015-2016.
[34] “Fatality rate at N. Korean prisons estimated at 25 pct: report,” Yonhap, 7 March 2017.
[35] UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee, IASC Operational Guidelines on the Protection of Persons in Situations of Natural Disasters, published by Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, January 2011.
[36] Ibid., p. 13.
[37] UN Development Group, UNDG Guidance Note on Human Rights for Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams, signed by Helen Clark, Chair, UNDGroup and Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at https://undg.org/human-rights/undg-guidance-note-on-human-rights
[38] Human Rights Up Front Initiative, UNDG.org, 2013.
[39] Antonio Guterres, Vision Statement, April 4, 2016, at http://www.un.org/pga/70/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2016/01/4-April_Secretary-General-Election-Vision-Statement_Portugal-4-April-20161.pdf; and Remarks of the Secretary-General to the Security Council Open Debate on “Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Conflict Prevention and Sustaining Peace,” 10 January 2017.
[40] UN General Assembly, Resolution on situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/71/484/Add.3, 19 December 2016, paras. 14 (b) and (e).
[41] David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps, pp. 88-120. 
[42] Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Mike Eley, “North Korea: Kyo-hwa-so No 12, Jongo-ri,” Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and AllSource Analysis, August 30, 2016.
[43] COI report 2, para. 734.
[44] The human rights training was provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
[45] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/34/66, 13 February 2017, para. 15.
[46] David Hawk, North Korea’s Hidden Gulag: Interpreting Reports of Changes in the Prison Camps, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), 27 August 2013, pp. 20-1.
[47] UN Country Team, DPRKorea Needs and Priorities.
[48] See, for example, European Court of Human Rights, Bouyid v. Belgium, 2016, paras. 107 and 110; Popov v. France, 2012, paras. 91 and 102, and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Michael Gayle v. Jamaica, 2005, para. 73.
[49] IASC Operational Guidelines, p. 30.
[50] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/34/66, 13 February 2017, para. 19.
[51] UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/71/439, 7 October 2016, para. 67. See also UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/70/393, 25 September 2015, paras. 61-62.
[52] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/34/66, 13 February 2017, paras. 12 and 14.
[53] Ibid., para. 15.
[54] UN Office of the Resident Coordinator in the DPRK, Joint Review Mission to Flood-Affected Areas in North Hamgyong.
[55] Elizabeth Shim, “North Korea using flood aid to repair military roads, report says,” UPI, 16 December 2016.
[56] “Discriminatory housing policies upheld by the regime,” Daily NK, 11 November 2016.
[57] “N. Korea not rebuilding flood-ravaged areas near border to stem defectors,” Yonhap, 15 January 2017.
[58] UN General Assembly, Resolution on situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/71/484/Add.3, 19 December 2016, para. Paras.17 and 18.
[60] UN Country Team, DPRKorea Needs and Priorities.
[61] UN General Assembly, Resolution on situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/71/484/Add.3, 19 December 2016, para. 2a (viii).
[62] World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/tb/challenges/prisons/en/;  http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-determinants/prisons-and-health/who-health-in-prisons-programme-hipp; and World Health Organization, Prisons and Health, The Health in Prisons Programme,  HIPP, Regional Office for Europe, 2010.
[63] Antonio Guterres, Vision Statement.
[64] Remarks of the Secretary-General to the Security-Council.

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

By George Hutchinson and Robert Collins

Mr. President,

April 25th was “Military Foundation Day” in North Korea. Experts from the U.S. to China believe there is a strong likelihood we’ll see another nuclear or ballistic missile test, or possibly both, soon. Bad news for all, since the North Korean threat no longer only pertains to South Korea, but now includes neighboring countries where U.S. forces are stationed. Soon, even the U.S. mainland will be threatened due to the regime’s ICBM development.

On May 9th, the Republic of Korea (ROK) will hold a snap presidential election to fill the void left by the impeached Park Geun-hye. Simply put, the next two weeks are not only critical for achieving a successful deal regarding North Korea, but decisions made and policies formulated during this window will dramatically impact the fate of the Korean Peninsula.

Over the past 20-plus years, previous administrations have tried just about every possible tactic, short of war, to coerce North Korea to cease its illegal nuclear and missile programs—none have worked. The only constant among these failed policies is North Korea’s commitment to not give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

To be sure, the national security of the American people and that of our allies is incredibly important and certainly your number one responsibility. However, human rights for the North Korean people are important as well.

In the Art of the Deal, your closing words include, “In my life, there are two things I’ve found I’m very good at: overcoming obstacles and motivating good people to do their best work.” You have also demonstrated a mastery of highly effective and spontaneous communications. Your unconventional communication and problem-solving talents are sorely needed, now.

Much like you have reduced the influence of the conventional news media by communicating with the American people directly through your Twitter account, an approach to North Korea’s problem sets is needed to blast through the traditional conventions that have not worked.

So beyond thumbing through the playbook of failed engagement and negotiation strategies, or placing over-reliance on an unreliable China, do what you do best—communicate directly to the people through Twitter. Use this venue to talk directly to the 25 million North Koreans who suffer under a brutal, multi-layered system of repression. Yes, North Koreans do not have access to your Tweets, but nearly everybody else does and numerous human rights groups have ways of sending those tweets into North Korea through surreptitious means.

Through your Twitter account, lead the world in a campaign that tells the North Korean people, “We have no beef with you, the people of North Korea—it’s the repressive system that imprisons you that we despise.” Call out those who disingenuously ignore the repressive Kim family regime’s abhorrent crimes against humanity (China). Call out North Korea for what it is—a human rights disaster...an uncaring, despotic regime set up entirely for the benefit of its elites who ruthlessly prevent the North Korean people from realizing any potential.

You face numerous challenges as you approach completion of your first 100 days in office this week. The North Korea problem may be chief among them. No administration has succeeded yet. But you’ve spent a life successfully overcoming obstacles and motivating people. You’re up to the task.


George Hutchinson and Robert Collins

George Hutchinson is a board member of the International Council of Korean Studies (ICKS). A U.S. Air Force veteran and former advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Hutchinson served as the Joint Duty Officer for the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission. Hutchinson is a Korean linguist trained at Yonsei University and the Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California.

Robert Collins is the author of HRNK’s reports “Songbun” and “Pyongyang Republic” and numerous articles in publications including the International Journal of Korean Studies and HRNK Insider. A 37-year veteran of the U.S. Department of the Army, he completed his career as Chief of Strategy, ROK-US Combined Forces Command.

ISC Trilateral Conference Panel #1

Editor: Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
Original Transcription: Hanmin Sohn, HRNK Legal Research Intern

ISC Trilateral Conference Panel #1 with HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu (center).


In today’s day and age, there are surely very few countries that have a perfect human rights record. That said, in 2017, there is only one country on the face of the planet that’s running a system of political prison camps: five detention facilities where 120,000 men, women, and children are being held. In today’s day and age, there is only one country on the face of the planet that has a system of social discrimination based on its citizens’ perceived degree of loyalty to the regime, and degree of loyalty to the regime of their parents and grandparents. And we surely know, based on the findings of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights, that this is a regime that’s committing crimes against humanity against its own people. This is also a regime that is threatening its neighbors, regional and international peace and security with long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

What North Korea is not though is irrational. This regime is actually very rational. This regime, as terrible as it is, very rationally executes its strategic objectives. Those fundamental strategic objectives are its survival and the establishment of hegemony over the entire Korean peninsula. Because, from the regime’s viewpoint, only unification of the entire Korean peninsula under its hegemony ensures its long-term survival. So, while we have a whole toolkit available to address North Korea, one very important aspect one has to keep in mind is that this is not a status-quo regime. This is a revisionist regime and I think that we have to keep that in mind as we come up with possible solutions.

Where do we stand in terms of human rights under the Kim Jong-un regime? Our organization is tasked to investigate the North Korean human rights situation through witness testimony coming from North Korean defectors, and through some testimony coming from inside North Korea; now it is possible to have some sources inside the country contacted through a combination of Chinese cell phone and official North Korean cell phone. This information also comes from satellite imagery analysis that enables us to monitor North Korea’s detention facilities and compare these findings with testimony coming from witnesses.

As many of you know, I’m sure, ever since Kim Jong-un took power, there has been an aggressive crackdown on attempted defections. The number of defectors arriving in South Korea declined by about 50% from 2011 to 2012, from 2,800 to about 1,500. We have stayed at the same lower levels. We have seen an aggressive purging of senior officials. In December 2016, the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul published a report stating that 340 senior North Korean officials had been purged or executed since Kim Jong-un assumed power. The preferred method of execution is execution by ZPU-4 anti-aircraft machine gun. You’re talking about a 50 caliber machine gun, four barrels, automatic fire, 14.5 mm for those accustomed to the metric system. Our organization actually managed to secure a satellite image acquired just minutes prior to such an execution by ZPU-4 anti-aircraft machine gun. Remember, it’s not only those officials who go away. The country applies a system of guilt-by-association called yeon-jwa-je. This is a system of feudal extraction. Up to three generations of the same family are punished. Men, women, and children, the young and the old are held in North Korea’s political prison camps. When one official is purged, it’s also all of the associates, their family and friends that are threatened and punished. These purges are massive. They have surely been happening ever since the early days of the Kim Il-Sung regime, but nevertheless, on Kim Jong-un’s watch, they’ve been extraordinarily intense because, of course, he only had 3 years to prepare for hereditary transmission of power while his father had 20. He was only 28 years old when he took over. His father was 53. Thus, the intensity of the purges. Of course, there are other trends. Political prison camps near the border with China have been shut down. It was bad PR and of course the last thing that the North Korean regime wanted was for more former prisoners to escape across the border into China and subsequently into the free world to tell their stories. Prisoners have been located to other detention facilities that have expanded in the meantime. Camp 14 and Camp 25 expanded by above 100%. Thousands of prisoners disappeared in the process.

We have also documented excessive repression of women. Remember, there has been a marketization process, an informal marketization process building in North Korea since the days of Great Famine. The ones who are most active at the markets are women, in particular, married women. Thus, those who are most often arrested for perceived misconduct at these markets are women. Also, women are those who attempt to illegally cross the border into China without the Kim regime’s approval. They’re the ones who get arrested and forcibly repatriated by China to conditions of danger. Actually, contrary to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which China is a party, at one re-education forced labor camp, Camp No. 12 in Jongo-ri, 80% of the 1,000 women prisoners are women who are forcible repatriated from China. We were able to document this through both satellite imagery and defector testimony. Actually, a new annex has been built at this detention facility to house those women. Of course, North Korea today is different from North Korea 20 or 10 years ago and we are all aware of factors that are slowly, but surely, eroding the regime’s grip on power. More information is entering the country although this continues to be the world’s most reclusive regime. There has been this process of informal marketization and, of course, information also travels along the informal supply lines established from China all the way to the capital city of Pyongyang. And, of course, this regime has been very resilient. This regime has been in power for almost 69 years. The Soviet Union lasted for 74 years. How has this regime managed to survive its Soviet and Eastern European peers by over a quarter century? Through relentless coercion, control, surveillance, and punishment of its people. For a population of 25 million people, North Korea has 270,000 agents: 50,000 of the State Security Department, the North Korean “Gestapo.”

Add to that 210,000 agents of the Ministry of Public Security, and 10,000 agents of the Military Security Command. The regime has also stayed in power through indoctrination of its people. Indoctrination begins at a very early stage. While babies are still in the cradle, they are taught to point fingers to the pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il on the wall. This indoctrination continues throughout one’s lifetime. People participate in weekly ideological training sessions, where they have to confess to the others, talk about their trespasses, and about how they would strengthen their ideological awareness. They’re subjected to this type of indoctrination day in and day out. And then there is the old pervasive fear of repression, fear of secret agents of the regime, fear of the informers. Each and every person has to be an informant by participating in a neighborhood watch system called in-min-ban, where everybody watches everybody else: family members, friends, and neighbors.

So, where do we stand right now? What are some of the options that we have? Now surely we have a tool kit. And there’s no one single, excuse the cliché, silver bullet. Sanctions have been mentioned today. It is way too soon to assess the effectiveness of sanctions. It is very important that we include human rights in the type of behavior that is subjected to sanctions. This is not done so far in sanctions pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions. It’s all about nukes and missiles. However, human rights has finally been included in the type of the behavior subjected to sanctions in our own U.S. North Korea Policy and Sanctions Enforcement Act. Moreover, in order to address North Korea’s illicit activities, one doesn’t even need sanctions. All that’s needed is the application of domestic and international law, in the countries where the Kim regime is running such activities. All that’s needed is information exchange with the U.S. intelligence community, with the U.S. law enforcement community, that might have knowledge of such operations and those running them.

There is pressure at the UN—pressure based on the human rights campaign that has been ongoing for almost two decades now. Why is it important that we have three strong General Assembly resolutions, three strong Human Rights Council resolutions, that three times the UN Security Council placed North Korean human rights on its agenda? It’s very important because first of all, it is the right thing to do, legally, morally, ethically, and politically. These are universal values. And secondly, because this undermines and erodes the very legitimacy of the North Korean regime. They care about their pocket book, the sanctions. They care about legitimacy, of course, the human rights campaign has a lot to do with eroding whatever semblance of legitimacy they might have left.

Of course, this regime has stayed in power through international deception, as mentioned earlier in relation to its nuclear and missile program. The Kim regime executes a policy of human rights denial established at the highest levels of state, resulting in those crimes against humanity that happen in particular at North Korea’s political prison camps.

A solution that is often mentioned is information. In a worldview centered on liberal IR theory, the solution would be changing the social order. And that makes perfect sense. Presumably, the best tool available is information because after all, the only ones who can affect change are the very people of North Korea. It’s very important to tell them three basic stories: the story of the corruption of their leadership , especially the corruption of the inner core of the Kim family; the story of their own human rights situation, which they do not understand living under such an oppressive regime; and of course, the story of the outside world, especially the story of successful South Korea, not only a prosperous country, but a successful democracy. And what we have been witnessing South Korea over the past few months, surely, clearly proves that South Korea is a very healthy and sound democracy.

Of course, there is the question about diplomacy. Diplomacy of course must never stop. Track 1.5 or track 2, whatever that is. One can never speak against diplomacy. But of course, diplomacy that’s grounded in a very firm understanding of the Kim regime, of how the Kim regime operates, of what the fundamental strategic objectives of the Kim regime are because those are not going to change for as long as the status-quo is maintained in North Korea. Thank you very much.

Control of the Kim Regime’s Political Prison Camps

By Robert Collins 

Following the July 6, 2016 release of the U.S. State Department’s “Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea,”[1] the U.S. Department of Treasury commendably followed up on July 7, 2016 by naming several North Korean organizations and individuals to the Specially Designated Nationals List, which correlates to sanctions on those entities.[2]

Most of the North Korean organizations and individuals named[3] have a direct impact on the Kim Regime’s political prison camps, which incarcerate up to 120,000 individuals and their families. Control of these camps is frequently presumed to be a function of the North Korean state—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—but that would be a narrow understanding of how and why the camps operate the way they do, and more pointedly, why they exist in the first place.

These political prison camps started with the early Kim Il-sung regime’s concept of banishment of those deemed enemies of the party and state—religious persons, landowners, businessmen, those that cooperated with the Japanese colonial government in Korea, and even those deemed too popular locally—to North Korea’s mountainous northeast. These banishments developed into the current form of actual political prisons[4] concurrently with the development of the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology (TPMI).[5]

Loyalty to the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, is the supreme principle of the TPMI. Developed in the late 1960s and promulgated for instruction to all in the early 1970s, every North Korean must demonstrate his or her loyalty based on TPMI principles. Violation of these principles is the number one justification for the regime to incarcerate individuals in these camps. Not only does the TPMI serve as the guidebook for all party members, security services, government leaders, and action personnel with regards to violations of loyalty and political ideology, it is also used as a standard to which every leader, manager, and department director is held in the performance of their respective duties. This applies as well to those who run the political prison camps and who provide administrative and/or logistical support to those camps.

Within the Kim Regime, chains of political control are far more important than chains of command, regardless of organization type, and the internal security services are no different. The following line and block chart lays out how North Korea’s supreme leader of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) politically controls the political prison camps (and all other prisons) through the party apparatus.

Chart 1: Political Control of the Kim Regime’s Political Prison Camps[6]

At the center of the control process is the organization that is responsible for ensuring the TPMI is followed statewide to the proverbial letter—the party’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). The OGD is the “party within the party.”[7] Its mission is to guarantee the continuity of the supreme leader and the KWP. The OGD Party Life Guidance Section evaluates every leader of every organization, regardless of societal role, as to their performance on loyalty to the supreme leader and obeisance of the TPMI. The OGD Cadre Section employs these evaluations to manage leadership careers.[8]

As in every other organization within North Korea, each political prison camp has its own party committee embedded into the camp structure and this committee takes its orders from the KWP OGD. It is the prison’s embedded KWP committee from which the prison takes its overall direction. The orders and direction provided by the camp KWP committee that direct the treatment of prisoners and these orders and directives must ultimately conform to the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee. The most critical position in this camp KWP Committee is the Organizational Secretary. He or she oversees the efficacy of camp management in accordance with OGD orders and directives, as well as its continuity with the TPMI. The orders and directives of the KWP Central Committee are the responsibility of the KWP OGD.

Thus, the actions and tasks of every leadership position within the political prison camp structure are sanctioned politically by the KWP OGD, which reports directly to the supreme leader. Each of those camp leaders, whether shift supervisors, section chiefs, or camp managers, must comply with the spirit of the TPMI and is responsible for the treatment they deliver to punish the camp residents. Sympathy and latitude toward the political prisoners is counter to the TPMI and punishable under the same standards that lead to the imprisonment of the camp prisoners. It is imperative for these personnel to punish political prisoners in accordance with the intent of the TPMI. Not do to so would result in the denial of food security, adequate housing, opportunity for professional advancement and, most importantly, family survival.

Understanding political prison camp leadership behavior is embedded in understanding the TPMI and the control of the KWP OGD over the internal security services. Administrative analysis is totally inadequate in understanding a regime that derives its power from enforcement of a political ideology that controls the regime’s agencies of political power enforcement.

[1] See U.S. Department of State, “Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea,” July 6, 2016. URL: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/259366.htm.
[2] See U.S. Department of Treasury Resource Center, Office of Foreign Assets Control, “North Korea Designations,” July 6, 2016. URL: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20160706.aspx.
[3] Not named are numerous North Korean elites who are responsible for supporting the operation of these camps politically, administratively and logistically.
[4] For an understanding of political prison camp development, see Robert Collins, Marked For Life: Songbun – North Korea’s Social Classification System, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012, pp.22-24; for details on the camps themselves see several related reports at hrnk.org/publications; also see several prison camp publications published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea at hrnk.org/publications.
[5] For a detailed translation of the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology, see Joanna Hosaniak, Prisoners of Their Own Country: North Korea in the Eyes of Witnesses (Seoul: Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, 2004), 39-44.
[6] Authors rendition.Derived from numerous sources.
[7] National Intelligence Service “Bukhan Nodongdangui haeksim Buseo (North Korea’s Korean Workers’ Party Core Department),”2006. URL: http:// www.nis.go.kr/app/board/view?sc_param=,M03180 000&midArr=M03180000&fieldArr=&keyWord=&page =1&startDate=&endDate=&dataNo=23452&hcode= 39077402012879299424981&viewNo=201.
[8] Michael Madden, “Basic Party Organizations,” North Korea Leadership Watch, May 10, 2016. URL:
https://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/the-party/basic-party-organizations/; see also Michael Madden, “’City and County Party Committees,” North Korea Leadership Watch, May 10, 2016. URL:
https://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/the-party/city-municipal-and-county-party-committees/; see also Micheal Madden, “KWP Central Committee Organization and Guidance Department,” NKLeadershipWatch, October 2009.   URL: http://nkleadershipwatch.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/kwpcentralcommitteeorganizationandguidancedepartment.pdf; see also Ri Myong-hun, “노동당 내부사업 실상과 조직지도부 65 (Status of Korean Workers’ Party Internal Affairs and the Organization and Guidance Department’s Section 65),” Pukhan, August 2014, pp.85-91; see also “Pukhan Chongchiron: Choson Nodongdang Chungangwiwonhoi Chojik Chidobu (North Korean Political Theory: Korea Workers’ Party’s Central Committee’s Organization and Guidance Department),” Report Shop, Augugst 7, 2010. URL: http://www.reportshop.co.kr/dview/455102/9062471347817998.